Twenty years ago, a 21-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter named Alanis Morissette released an album called “Jagged Little Pill.” One song in particular from that best-selling album has provoked two decades of peevishness, bickering, and high school English lectures: “Ironic,” which became — ironically — one of the most well-known rosters of things that weren’t actually ironic.
“Irony,” in its oldest and most basic definition, denotes a style of conversation or humor in which you say something while communicating its opposite. Over the past 200 years, it has also come to describe a situation in which a dramatic, and often fatalistically cruel, reversal takes place. As George Carlin famously wrote, if a diabetic is killed by a truck on his way to buy insulin, that’s an accident. But if the truck is delivering insulin — that’s irony.
According to critics, the lyrics of “Ironic” describe numerous unfortunate occurrences — a rainy wedding day, a death row pardon a few minutes too late — without the dramatic twist necessary for a true irony. But, as is often true with language, history is on the side of the mistake, not the correction. The word’s definition has expanded for decades, and like it or not, Morissette’s definitions of “irony” are now mainstream.
For centuries, irony was specifically a rhetorical device: saying one thing while meaning something else, sometimes (as in Socratic irony) in service of making an argument without showing your own hand. The OED’s first citation for this type of irony goes back to the 16th century, derived from a Greek term meaning “dissimulation” or “pretended ignorance.” Situational irony (according to the OED: “A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations”) doesn’t appear until 1833.
Since then, the incidence of the word’s use have shot up enormously. This isn’t all that surprising, since situational irony can be applied much more broadly than rhetorical or Socratic irony. In Frederick Buechner’s 1974 novel, “Love Feast,” for instance, a character is asked to define irony and uses a familiar scenario to do so: “Suppose you had a bride on her wedding day. Suppose she was all dressed up in her white dress and veil, and then on her way back from church a car ran into her and she was killed.” For Buechner’s character, this is ironic “because on the same day that she started out on a new life, her life stopped” — but arguably, it is really just a horrible coincidence. Bryan Garner, author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage” and a self-described professional stickler, said that the definition of situational irony has often become quite loose because of the subjectivity of what counts as an ironic twist. “The more shocking [a] coincidence, the more it blurs into situational irony,” he said. “To some people, almost any coincidence is mildly shocking.”
When the song “Ironic” first hit the airwaves, grammarians leapt on it immediately for blurring the lines between coincidence, or even just lousy life event, and true situational irony. “Much of Ms. Morissette’s ‘Ironic’ is more of a ‘Gosh, Life Can Be a Pain,’ or ‘You Wouldn’t Believe What Just Happened,’ ” wrote Warren Clements in the Toronto Globe and Mail in May 1996. Certain writers just seemed annoyed with Gen-X in general: those apathetic ’90s slackers undermining the historic meaning of the word “irony” by tossing it around so damn carelessly! In a 1996 Washington Post article complaining about “rampant Irony Abuse,” staff writer Richard Lieby also mentioned Winona Ryder’s character in the 1994 film “Reality Bites”: “ ‘Define irony,’ an editor commands. ‘Well, I can’t really . . . but I know it when I see it,’ Ryder offers before the elevator doors slam shut.”
But although Lieby quoted her disparagingly, Ryder probably spoke for a lot of us. “[Irony] is very difficult to accurately define, and it does mean a lot of things to a lot of different people,” said Ammon Shea, author of “Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation.” Moreover, the expansion in the word’s meaning that began nearly 200 years ago continues today, according to lexicographer Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster. Over the past century, she said, a meaning close to Morissettian irony — “ironic” as “bizarre” or “coincidental” — has shown up frequently enough in Merriam-Webster’s files on how people really speak that Stamper considers it a good candidate for entry in a later edition of the dictionary. “It’s ironic that Alanis gets blamed for this meaning of ‘ironic’ when it was around long before Alanis was,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“Ironic” and its too-broad definition of situational irony continue to irritate. A New York Times blog item on the question in 2008 provoked a ferocious stream of comments (“I’m always happy to see someone criticize this linguistic atrocity in public,” wrote Sean Coffee). The website Isitironic.com has a whole section devoted to Morissette and accuses her of “misus[ing] and abus[ing] irony in the most vicious and terrifying way.” Two sisters composed a (very hilarious) song called “It’s Finally Ironic” in 2013, rewriting the lines to ironic-ize them properly (“It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay/ That was specifically purchased to repel black flies”). However, as Morissette herself pointed out in a 2014 HuffPostLive interview, the haters are being left behind by a shifting language. “[With] the old-school definition of ironic, I think it would definitely not be filled with ironies,” she said. “The new-school Webster definition, I’ve had people come up to me showing me the dictionary saying, ‘See, it is ironic!’ ” A true irony, indeed.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
Watch: The music video for ‘Ironic’