Irony Patch

It’s not a coincidence

It’s “ironic” that many journalists don’t understand when to correctly use “irony.”

Here’s an example of how “irony” frequently appears in news articles:

Neil Witt’s World War II service included participation in the Normandy invasion. So it’s ironic that the longtime North County produce vendor died on the 67th anniversary of D-Day.

Gee, what an unusual coincidence! But “coincidence” and “irony” are not related. (And note the “indirection” here, too.)

Here are Webster’s New World College Dictionary definitions of “irony:”

1: a method of humorous or subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words is the direct opposite of their usual sense: the irony of calling a stupid plan “clever”

2: the contrast, as in a play, between what a character thinks the truth is, as revealed in a speech or action, and what an audience or reader knows the truth to be; often dramatic irony

3: a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what is or might be expected or considered appropriate: an irony that the firehouse burned

4: a cool, detached attitude of mind, characterized by recognition of the incongruities and complexities of experience

It’s no “coincidence” that “coincidence” isn’t mentioned.

Briefly, then, “irony” has to do with sarcasm or the opposite of what would be expected. It’s often expressed with wryness, the way calling a stupid plan “clever” is done. “Coincidence,” however, is mere happenstance. A firehouse that burns is a coincidence, but also the last thing one would expect, making it “ironic”; a veteran dying on the anniversary of D-Day, even if it is unlikely, is not the opposite of what one would expect, and so is not “ironic.”

Here’s what the usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary, rejecting the “coincidental” use of “irony”:

The words ironic, irony, and ironically are sometimes used of events and circumstances that might better be described as simply “coincidental” or “improbable,” in that they suggest no particular lessons about human vanity or folly.

It’s sometimes hard to tell when something is truly “ironic.” Here are some recent uses:

• “Something seems ironic about kicking off Sweet Dreams Day with a 5K race. It doesn’t fit that a healthy activity starts off the celebration inspired, in part, by a chocolate manufacture and a snack cake maker.”

• “He testified that he ‘just thought it was kind of ironic that an individual who was investigating a poor investigation by Longmire did even a more poor investigation himself.’”

• “Jackson said he aggravated the wrist on a swing Wednesday. That’s an irony, because in that game in Anaheim he excelled by not swinging—he walked a career-high four times.

We repeat; you decide. Let us know what you think.

While we’re at it, let’s kill all uses of “ironical.” “Ironic” already is the adjectival sense of “irony”; “ironical” is what Garner’s Modern American Usage calls a “needless variant,” though it shows up in many dictionaries. But, she said with a touch of a wry smile, “ironically” is the correct adverb.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,