Thursday, July 06, 2006

Irony, Shmirony

We need a word to mean what most people mean when they use "ironic" in conversation.

A little learning is a dangerous thing. It's also a pain in the ass. We talk about the thing that's always underfoot except the one time you need it and then it's never there, and we want to call it "ironic," but we shiver, know pedants lurk and listen and will pounce and pronounce every use of "ironic" wrong if the situation lacks a double audience and the literal meaning is not the opposite of the actual meaning.

Yet we need a word for that other thing. Dictionaries tend to suggest coincidental or improbable, but those words are too broad to capture the gloomy Murphy's Law subtlety of the nutrition nut who dies of stomach disease. Really, a good word would be perverse, but it's too tainted by the modern sexual use of the noun pervert.

My son, when such ideas come up in his talking, has hit upon "what most people mean when they say 'ironic' " for these cases. That's not bad.

But it turns out there's less pedantic concensus on ironic than some people suspect. According to American Heritage Dictionary:

Thus 78 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the use of ironically in the sentence In 1969 Susie moved from Ithaca to California where she met her husband-to-be, who, ironically, also came from upstate New York. Some Panelists noted that this particular usage might be acceptable if Susie had in fact moved to California in order to find a husband, in which case the story could be taken as exemplifying the folly of supposing that we can know what fate has in store for us. By contrast, 73 percent accepted the sentence Ironically, even as the government was fulminating against American policy, American jeans and videocassettes were the hottest items in the stalls of the market, where the incongruity can be seen as an example of human inconsistency.

Still, more than a quarter of them accepted it.

Part of the confusion is that the strictest definitions are those for rhetorical irony, whereas the situational or dramatic varieties of irony are the ones we tend to talk about.

Wikipedia's helpful entry describes these and notes some gray areas of disagreement over what is, and isn't, ironic, as in these examples:

Ironically, Sir Arthur Sullivan is remembered for the comic operas he found embarrassing, rather than the serious works he hoped would be his legacy.

Adolph Coors III was the former heir to the Coors beer empire. Ironically, Coors was allergic to beer.

So if people were stepping out of their way to avoid "ironic" because they had a vague sense that they'd probably be misusing it, when in fact it would be just the right word for the sentence they were forming, wouldn't that be ... dare I say it?