I've been listening to Alanis Morissette, so I started thinking about why there is such a fuss about how she used the word "ironic" incorrectly. In my experience, literary irony is generally just as well described by the term "sarcasm", but there is no one word that really describes the "unfortunate coincidence" meaning that "irony" has in the song.

So now I'm wondering why it's such a crime to use this word in a way that is colloquially understood, even if it's not the meaning the word has had in the past. English is an ever-changing language, and we have plenty of examples of word meanings getting garbled, so I'm wondering why so many people rebel against this specific change.

Thus my question: What does it take for a colloquial meaning of an English word to become canon, and what will it take for people to get over the fact that "irony" has a new colloquial use?

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    When the pedants finally give up caring. Jul 7, 2017 at 19:26
  • It can take a generation. A rainy wedding day is not ironic unless it's the weather reporter getting married. Nobody complained when Perry Como sang "It's impossible, ask a baby not to cry." After all, we can ask that -- as long as we don't expect results. Did crowds demand "Sing It's Fruitless and we're good"? No, they didn't. Jul 7, 2017 at 19:34

1 Answer 1


Your question raises an issue for editors of dictionaries. In "the old days," if you wanted to know whether a usage or a word was correct, you would go to the dictionary. In modern times, most dictionaries (e.g., Webster's and the OED) have ceased to pass judgment, simply recording instances of usage. They are descriptive, that is, "catalogues of usage" rather than "authorities." Some smaller dictionaries are designed to be "normative" or "prescriptive," that is, judgmental and conservative about how language evolves. It is important to know which type of dictionary you are using before citing it as an authority.

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