“An old man turned ninety-eight. He won the lottery and died the next day”. Not really ironic is it? Unfortunate, yes and rotten timing too, not to mention a rather morbid opening line to the Alanis Morrisette’s song Ironic.
“It’s like rain on your wedding day”. Nope, not ironic either. Rather, just really bad luck.
“A no smoking sign on your cigarette break”. If the sign in question hung in an actual smoker’s lounge , then yes, this would be ironic. But otherwise, no, this is not irony, just annoying.
Really the only thing ironic in Ironic is that none of the situations she describes are, in fact, ironic.
So if Alanis got it all wrong, what then is ironic? There are three types of irony – verbal, dramatic and situational, each quite different from the other.
Verbal irony is when someone says something, but means another – there’s a bit of a confusion between verbal irony and sarcasm, as they cross over a little. For example “I’d rather pull out my own teeth” or “clear as mud” are both example of verbal irony. The irony is only recognisable by our given/stereotypical knowledge of the objects in the sentence, or the context being referred to. It is understood that mud is not clear and pulling teeth is painful, which take these sentences from being literal into the realm of irony.
Dramatic irony is a bit of a weird one. It is primarily used in a narrative where one of the people observing the situation is privy to information that at least one of the other characters is unaware. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, we have Romeo thinking Juliet is dead and killing himself when the audience knows she is just taken a swig of sleeping potion, which is dramatic irony. Similarly, in Oedipus the King the reader knows that Oedipus is the murderer he’s looking for; however his conscious self, Creon, and Jocasta do not. Or if you’re after a more modern example, The Truman Show showcases dramatic irony, because everyone apart from Truman knows he’s the main character of a reality show.
Situational irony, the type that is most commonly misused, involves a situation where the actions end up having an effect that is the opposite from what was intended or expected. Often situational irony is confused with coincidence, an obvious chain of events or something just being funny.
“We turned up to work on Friday wearing the same dress! How ironic!” – No, just a coincidence. But also kinda cute.
“My pen had been running out of ink but I took it into the exam anyway, and it ran out mid-essay. How ironic!” – No, just an obvious outcome to your pen showing signs of running out of ink and also terrible exam prep.
“This fire-extinguisher shoots out fire balls. How ironic!” Boom. Situational irony to a tee.
So with our newfound knowledge of irony we could perhaps rework a few of Morissette’s lines. Take “it’s a traffic jam when you’re already late”. If we try:
“It’s like a traffic jam when you’re already late to a political summit on road congestion”.
Is it as lyrically catchy? No.
Ironic? Through and through.