You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

January 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

I’m one of those people — you know the type, people who pick out grammar and spelling errors constantly. In ads, signs, published writing, other people’s speech. Mostly I keep these observations to myself, since I have enough other qualities to explain why I’m single, but every once in a while, an error comes up again and again until I find myself spontaneously shouting in an aisle of Safeway. Alone.

No, this time I’m not talking about the need to use possessives with gerunds, or who vs. whom (though I read an interview with Rachel McAdams in Glamour a week or so ago, and she continually used whom correctly and now I have incredible respect for her — I may put too much emphasis on people’s ability to speak properly as evidence of their character worth).

I’m talking about the word “ironic.” Nathan Fillion knows what I’m talking about.

Rick Castle: Thank you.

Kate Beckett: For what?

Rick Castle: For using “irony” correctly. Ever since that Alanis Morissette song, people use it when they actually mean “coincidence.” It drives me nuts!

People call things “ironic” all the time, usually when something unexpected or coincidental happens. Identifying irony sounds both smart and flip, and in our “I’m too cool to care” society, saying “That’s ironic” in a droll tone works just as well as heavy-lidded eyes or a cigarette for getting you cool points. Most of the things people claim as “ironic,” however, aren’t. Really aren’t. There are several kinds of irony, but the kind that’s driving Castle crazy is situational irony. Other types include verbal irony, which constitutes saying the opposite of what you mean (similar to sarcasm) and dramatic irony (also called tragic irony), in which the audience of a play/book/movie knows something the character doesn’t, as in, “Romeo! Don’t kill yourself! Juliet’s just pretending to be dead. Oh — he drank the poison. Whoops.”

Situational irony occurs when something that happens is the exact opposite of what you expect. This reversal, in which expectations are upset, is important. If Sally refuses to go in the ocean because she’s afraid of getting killed by a shark, then gets mauled by a seagull on the beach and dies from those injuries, that would be irony. A variation on this kind of irony occurs when an action has the opposite effect it is meant to have. Let’s say I decide that I’m going to improve my health by eating better and, to this end, eat an (antioxidant-rich!) pomegranate, only it turns out I’m allergic to pomegranate and I die. That would be ironic. (Also, if a story involves someone dying, apparently I’m more likely to find it ironic.)

Also ironic: the fact that in a post about the misuse of “irony” as a term, I will probably make some mistake as to explaining it and misuse the term myself. F#&$ing Muphry’s Law.  (That’s right, Muphry’s, not Murphy’s. Check it out.)

Sometimes irony is mean.

The world is full of ironic things — but it’s even more full of non-ironic things.

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

We can mostly blame Alanis Morissette for Americans’ current complete misunderstanding of what irony means. Her 1995 single “Ironic” lists a series of situations while intermittently interjecting the refrain, “Isn’t it ironic? Don’t ya think?” For anyone who’s been listening to the lyrics, the answer is a resounding “No”.

Rain on your wedding day? Bad luck.

A free ride when you’ve already paid? Bad timing.

Good advice that you just didn’t take? Bad decision-making.

Calling a song “Ironic” and then filling the lyrics with things that aren’t ironic? Now that’s irony.

Still, in case you’re still having difficulty distinguishing between coincidence and the literary term used in conversation more than any other (don’t worry, denouement, I love you, even if other people think you sound like a sneeze), let’s look at an example of a situation that is not, I repeat not ironic. When I was a teenager, I did a lot of musical theater, which led to my having very colorful friends.

I wish.

One night, a bunch of us were hanging out at my house, just sitting around (or more accurately, sitting on each other — theater people aren’t known for their physical boundaries, and hormone-drenched teenagers even less so). There was talk about watching a movie. My friend D had some bootleg DVDs from China that his aunt, a flight attendant on international routes, had procured for him, including the first Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Nemo. This was summer 2003 and both of these movies had only just come out in theaters and were definitely not available on legitimate DVD.

We elected to watch Pirates. The Pirates DVD, however, looked like an eight-year-old had videotaped the screen in a movie theater with his cell phone (well, this was 2003, so I guess it couldn’t have been a cell phone camera, but you catch my drift).

Every time I see this image at a theater, I think, "Why is David Boreanaz in a movie theater with a hand cam?"

Having determined not to watch what appeared to be a grainy postmodern art piece about the alienating effect of mainstream entertainment, we replaced the Pirates DVD with Finding Nemo and then proceeded to ignore the movie entirely.

In the midst of a pillow fight/loud argument/spontaneous a cappella Grease sing-along, our choreographer (who, in an instance of homophonic glory, was named Corey) showed up with her boyfriend, whom we hadn’t previously met. Corey was older than the rest of us, post-collegiate, probably 22 or 23, and her boyfriend was even older than her — i.e. a real adult with, we were about to learn, a job.

They walk in, look at us, then look at the TV. Corey says, “This is my boyfriend, ____. He works for Pixar.” We’re watching a bootleg Pixar movie and someone from Pixar shows up in my living room? Now I’m afraid I’m going to have a Truman Show moment when I realize that my life is a sitcom.

Was this situation unfortunate? Yes. Was it unexpected? You bet your ass. Was it ironic? No. What was ironic was the fact that Mr. Pixar didn’t give a shit about our pirated movie (not to be confused with our Pirates movie).

Cheeky bastard.

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§ 5 Responses to You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • “Also ironic: the fact that in a post about the misuse of “irony” as a term, I will probably make some mistake as to explaining it and misuse the term myself.” Or complain about people’s incorrect spelling and then misspelling “Muphry’s Law”. Hahaha! Although I probably shouldn’t display this much schadenfreude, seeing that I’m sitting in the same boat (overly mindful to grammar and spelling mistakes of others, yet prone to committing them myself).
    Brilliant story, brilliantly written. But, oh, the spelling…

    • HB says:

      Click on the link, silly. Muphry’s Law is an actual term, based on a deliberate misspelling of Murphy’s Law. There may be a typo in the above post, but that definitely isn’t it.

  • Matt says:

    THANK YOU !!! The constant misuse of “ironic” has driven me so crazy that I, in my own mind, now approximate the level of crazy that other people have just assumed for years.

    Oh, I also love “Castle”.

  • Erika! says:

    Hilarious. Again. And I was in tears laughing at that picture of the amputee clinic. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

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