Isn’t it ironic? (Or isn’t it?)

Let me start with a boring cliche—a dictionary definition:


1) the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.

2) a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.

3) (esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.

4) an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected

etc. etc.

Through the years I’ve had several conversations with myself about whether the occurrences that Alanis Morrisette mentions in her song “Isn’t it Ironic” are ironic, or just bad luck. Here’s a snapshot of the lyrix:

Traffic jam when you’re already late/A “no smoking” sign on your cigarette break/It’s like ten thousands spoons when all you need is a knife/It’s like meeting the man my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife


It’s like rain on your wedding day/It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid/It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take . . . .

These lyrics really do not express the meaning of their opposites.

They do not indicate an attitude opposite to that which is actually stated.

They do not “give full expression to complementary impulses” (whatever that means).

They do, somewhat, indicate an outcome contrary to that which was expected, such as a sunny wedding day, or paying for a ride and getting your money’s worth. You’d think, too, that if you decided not to take some good advice, you’d have thought you knew what you were doing.

But really, these occurrences constitute bad decision-making or bad planning more than anything else. You had no right to expect a sunny wedding day! There’s no logical reason not to expect traffic when you’re running late, just because you’re running late. (You should have known there’s almost always a traffic jam at 7:30 AM.)  

Getting a free ride when you’ve already paid just makes you a good, honest person for paying anyway. Your free ride may have been unexpected, or unnecessary, but it’s not necessarily ironic.

A “no smoking” sign on your cigarette break is a sign of the times. Come on, did you really think you’d be able to smoke here? Why don’t you just quit? Everyone hates smelly smokers and it would be better for your health anyway.

If you meet the man of your dreams and then find out he’s married, I’m sorry about that, but maybe you should have inquired into his marital status before you fell for him.

For me, the unforgettable image in this song is this guy:

Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly/He packed his suitcase, and kissed his kids goodbye/He waited his whole damn life, just to take that flight/And as the plane crashed down, he thought, well isn’t this nice.

Alanis, I’ll give you this one. This is irony. He finally musters up his courage to fly, and his plane crashes. And his comment – “isn’t this nice”  — that’s definitely ironic. I’m not sure I’d be calm enough to be ironic if I knew I was about to die in a plane crash.

Finally, aren’t “ten thousand spoons, when all you need is a knife” just plain old bad luck?

Now that I have gotten this off my chest, maybe I can get the song out of my mind. It’s wearing me down.

For our mutual entertainment, here are a few fun examples of irony:

Finally, I ran across this sign when googling “irony,” but it actually reminds me of my fortune cookie fortune that I posted yesterday. It’s too good not to include:

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5 Responses to Isn’t it ironic? (Or isn’t it?)

  1. David Danzig says:

    To Morisette’s credit, the fact that most of the examples of irony that she gives are not proper examples of irony is, itself, quite ironic.

    Also, to be fair, she’s only just asking, “isn’t it ironic?” I consider myself fairly intelligent and well-educated, but I find myself endlessly asking the same question. A fly in your chardonnay? Isn’t that ironic? Or isn’t it? It’s not exactly an unanswerable question, but I do think it’s a fair one (even though the answer is that that particular example is not an example of irony).

    The real problem is that we have this word “irony” that English teachers want to reserve for their concept of “literary irony” that isn’t a particularly useful concept, particularly as distinct from the relatively well-understood (over-understood?) concept of sarcasm. What we really need is a word that means “Twilight-Zone/M-Night-Shyamalan-movie/O-Henry-story twist” that has less to do with irony and more to do with something like poetic justice. But we don’t have a word for that idea, and so we draft the word irony to do the job we need. That’s how words acquire new meanings, and those who fight the phenomenon are invariably on the wrong side of history.

    • clockwatcher23 says:

      David — blah, blah, blah back to you, too. Seriously, I get what you’re saying. It’s been a year and half since I wrote that post and haven’t given it much thought since then . . . but you’re right, some of us are slower to change than others. Thanks for your contribution. It is never bad for me to be reminded that I need to move forward. It’s the same argument I make regularly to a couple of my own friends, so it’s very funny that I am being given the same lecture that I usually give them. Along the same lines, wouldn’t it be great to come up with a word that conveys the RIGHT idea?! English is such a beautifully flexible language, and then sometimes it just ISN’T. That’s how I explain the use of the word “irony” in that song. (And by the way, it’s a classic 90s album that still gets air time.) Take care!

  2. David Danzig says:

    I find myself over-relying on the phrase “Twilight Zone-style twist” I’d be very much in favor of something a little less unwieldy and a little less legally trademarked.

    I think perhaps that the phrase “poetic twist” (which gives a nod to both the terms “dramatic irony” and “poetic justice”) might be an accessible term, even to the uninitiated? If you don’t have a better suggestion, that’s my nomination.

    poetic twist. — n , pl -twists

    A Twilight-Zone/M-Night-Shyamalan-movie/O-Henry-story twist, typical of the lyrics of Alanis Morissette’s popular song “Ironic” from her 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill.”

    Example sentence:

    “The fact that most of the lyrics of Alanis Morissette’s hit song are not true examples of irony is, itself, a notable poetic twist.”

    – David

    • clockwatcher23 says:

      You are super funny! What the heck do you do for a living?! “Poetic twist” it is! (Since we’re on the topic of evolving grammar, don’t you think it would be great to have a piece of punctuation that would embody both the “?” and the “!” at the same time? Try your hand at that one. (Or maybe there is one that I don’t know about. I haven’t missed it yet, have I? The language is evolving before my eyes, especially the punctuation.)

  3. David Danzig says:

    Actually, you are correct that this is already a thing. It’s called an “interrobang.” It’s part of the standard Unicode character set, and, if your computer can handle it, then It looks like this: “‽”

    It was invented by American Martin K. Speckter in 1962, was a bit of a fad in the 1960s, and survives today as the logo of the State Library of New South Wales, all according to Wikipedia. See .

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