Irony: The Word That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

When Alanis Morissette released the single “Ironic”, her biggest hit, I groaned aloud.  I continued groaning each year when I started teaching my poetry unit.  Why?  While the song is certainly catchy, it does not contain a single example of irony.  What it does contain is a number of examples of people having Very Bad Days, which is not the same thing.

So what is irony? It’s when the opposite of what is intented occurs, or the intended meaning is the opposite of what is assumed.  Just because someone is sarcastic does not mean they are speaking ironically, or that there is any irony in what they say. Just because you are surprised about something does not make it ironic.  Just because a bad thing happens, you have not experienced irony, and you can sing about it anyway, but you’re just helping to instill misinformation in the thirsty minds of thousands of people.  What else is new?

“Well,” one might argue, “there’s the example of the guy afraid to fly who finally does, and the plane crashes.”  Wrong.  This isn’t ironic.  It’s perhaps tragic, but not ironic.  What would be ironic is if just as he is about to get on the airplane, they cancel the flight and the man holding a ticket finds himself frustrated that he can’t get on the plane.

She sang, “It’s like rain on your wedding day.”  This isn’t ironic.  This is an argument for indoor venues.  It rained on my wedding day, and I was just waiting for some idiot to start belting out the song (which came out around the same time) so I could belt him.  It would be a him.  My girlfriends had all heard my rant by this point.  Now, if one of them had started singing about rain on my wedding day being ironic… that would, in fact, be ironic.  Why?  Go back to the beginning and reread this blog post if you are still confused.

Ah, well.   There was that one lesson about irony in her song.  Perhaps that was her intention all along — that the song itself contained no irony, and that students all over the world could remember that when working on their literature finals.



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15 responses to “Irony: The Word That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

  1. I’m lost looking for the irony in the plane crash. How can a plane crash if the flight was cancelled?

  2. The irony is if he finally decides to go and then cannot because the choice is taken away from him. It’s understood that the plane will be there for him if he decides to go, which he never does. When he finally makes the choice, he discovers it doesn’t matter, and the issue isn’t really up to him anyhow. That’s situational irony.

  3. Ah, ok. I’d forgotten the first line where you said he was afraid to fly. I saw them as two separate incidents.

  4. Derek Odom

    Awesome blog post. Set ’em straight! Very interesting read.

  5. I enjoy Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” too much to get hung up on the errors.

    • Well, see, there aren’t any “I Hate English Teachers And Never Paid Attention” sorts of lyrics in that one. “Jagged Little Pill” happens to make excellent use of metaphor and is therefore perfectly wonderful.

      EDIT: I’m thinking of “You Live, You Learn” — that has the phrase “jagged little pill” in it, doesn’t it?

  6. I’ve heard many people use irony and coincidence interchangeably. They’ll say, “How ironic,” when what they mean is, “What a coincidence.” Nice blog on the topic.

  7. You’re right about the song, but now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll be humming it all day. It is so catchy!

  8. A traffic jam, when you are already late, a No smoking sign on your cigarette break. I love Alannis – the angry rocker chick, but what you say is true. Oh well, isn’t it ironic, that life has a funny way. And so do you!

  9. I think Jolie meant the album, which “Ironic” is found on. I also enjoy the album very much although I do remember noting to myself “That’s not really irony…” and then I sang along anyway. :p

  10. This one made me giggle. I’m glad I’m not the only one to break into hives over stuff like this. :O)

    My “I” post is here:

  11. Great explanation of irony. Loved this: “What it does contain is a number of examples of people having Very Bad Days, which is not the same thing.”

  12. Fun post! Her song was one of my favs back in the day. You’re right, no irony though.