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Friday, September 18, 2009

Word of the Day!

And now that Katy got me thinking about this, I've decided to dedicate today's Word of the Day! to yet another oft-misused word, the infamous irony.

irony [ahy-ruh-nee, ahy-er-]
-noun, plural -nies
1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, "How nice!" when I said I had to work all weekend.
2. Literature.
a. a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually ostensibly stated.
b. (esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.
3. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.
4. an objectively sardonic style of speech or writing.

Sheesh! I can't possibly understand how people get this wrong all the time, it's soooo straight-forward*. I guess we'll sort of sort this out one bullet point at a time.

1. The example given is really a very good one. Sarcasm is usually a good example of irony, and is of course used in about 99.9999% of Generation Xers' day to day conversations, but while sarcasm is almost always ironic, irony is not always sarcasm. It's just the manner that our generation chooses to employ irony most often. For an interesting discussion of this distinction go here.

2a and b. The best example I can think of right now of irony being used in this manner is the book "Slaughterhouse Five". In this book Vonnegut continually uses humorously detached language to depict extraordinarily horrible events (i.e. the transport of thousands of sick Allied soldiers into German Concentration camps). The tone is completely incongruous with the subject matter and hence ironic. Another good example of this sort of irony is just about any postmodern author after about 1970**, with an especial shout-out to David Foster Wallace's gorgeous "Infinite Jest"***.

3. This is the trickiest of the definitions because it leads most people to what I've dubbed the "Alanis Fallacy". In her song "Ironic" she lists a series of situations that she claims are ironic when really all of them are simply darkly coincidental. For example she says that "an old man turned 98, he won the lottery, then died the next day" which on the surface appears to, in fact, be ironic. But here is the subtle difference that actually makes this coincidental: His winning the lottery in no way contributed to his dying the next day. See? The ironic event has to somehow influence the outcome in some sort of twist. If she had said instead, "An old man turned 98, he won the lottery and was so overjoyed he had a heartattack and died on the spot" that would have been ironic.

4. This is more or less repeating definition #1 in a more generalized manner.

Well, there you go. I hope that helps clear that up. TTFN!

*See people? I'm being ironic.
**Delillo, Easton, et. al.
***I will be posting about my experience reading this book hopefully next week. Don't be fooled by DFW's extensive use of irony in IJ, he uses it to such deft effect that rather than being detached a cold, this book is one of the most emotional and heartfelt pieces of literature ever. He uses irony, the dialectic currency of our postmodern generation, in order to get us to accept honesty and sincerity. It's brilliant in ways I will never fully understand.


Kb_Mal said...

So true! Thank you for spreading the good word!

What are your thoughts on people responding, "I'm doing good" instead of "I'm doing well" when asked, "How are you doing?"

Tres Crow said...

Well, Kb, I don't have much opinion one way or another although your bringing this up reminds me of a section in Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (you might have heard me mention it. LOL) In which a character named Avril Incandenza, who is a Militant Grammarian, leads boycotts against any store chain that says "10 Items of Less" in their express Check-out lanes. I'm sure you know this already, Kb, but the correct way of phrasing this would actually be "10 Items or Fewer". Anyway, thought you might get a kick out of that.