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There seems to be a lot of confusion about the word ironic. A good example is Alanis Morissette's "Ironic". I looked at three articles discussing it, and one said that the song was ironic because the lyrics weren't ironic, one article explained how the lyrics actually are ironic, and another stated that neither the lyrics, nor the non-ironic nature of the lyrics were ironic.

So what is irony? Are the lyrics in "Ironic" ironic? Sometimes the word coincidence is used to describe situations like the ones in "Ironic", but that doesn't seem to capture the reality-can-be-"funny" feel to these kinds of situations.

Is there a word for this thing that we often call irony, but apparently isn't?

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  • Top result in Google says it pretty clearly: "happening in a way contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this." synonyms: paradoxical, incongruous, odd, strange, weird, peculiar, unexpected
    – mplungjan
    Nov 21, 2017 at 20:53
  • A word that is incorrectly used is a misnomer. Nov 21, 2017 at 20:58
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    There are different types of irony. This is the 'irony of fate'. This (as well as other types) has been discussed here before. This question gives a list. Nov 22, 2017 at 1:16
  • Please include the research you’ve done. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. Nov 22, 2017 at 1:19
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    I am voting to close this question as off-topic because it is asking us to analyze and describe the quality of a song, making it literary criticism, which is expressly outside of our scope.
    – Tonepoet
    Aug 13, 2019 at 5:35

4 Answers 4

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Most of the song is just bad luck, but there a few ironic phrases in there, for example "No Smoking sign on your cigarette break".

In Australia your work breaks (ie Morning or Afternoon tea) are called "Smoke O" when many people use to have a smoke...so that phrase is ironic because you wouldn't expect to see that sign on your cigarette break.

But have to agree it is irony to think that song is ironic.

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It is helpful to remember that irony is, first and foremost, a literary device. The Greeks coined the term Eironeia (literally "dissembling") to denote a rhetorical device that orators and dramatists could use to make a point. It was no more intended to represent observable, real-world phenomena than similar terms like synecdoche or metonymy or anaphora.

That's why it's so difficult to find actual, real-life examples of situational irony (as opposed to simple sarcasm) in action. It's supposed to be a poetic device, not a practical observation. It is the rarity of true cases or irony in the real world that causes them to have such resonance.

By the original intention of the term, an ironic situation is a reversal of expectations that has been deliberately crafted to make a specific moral or political point. Unfortunately, too many people simply stop at the "reversal of expectations" step, so that any situation that is unpleasant or frustrating is translated as irony.

The situations Morisette describes in Ironic are almost exclusively prosaic and inconsequential. "Rain on your wedding day" may be annoying, it may be disappointing, but there is no lesson to be learned there. "A free ride when you've already paid" may be bad timing, but it's not evidence of a moral failing. There is simply no point to the story.

If you're looking for a single word to encapsulate all of the examples Morisette uses, the best I can think of would be "unfortunate".

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A number of the verses in "Ironic" that are considered just bad luck can be considered irony in light of the MW definition:

"Incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result."

The strength of the relationship between irony and bad luck lies in the interpretation of the word "result" and the belief one has about luck. If luck is considered to be driven significantly by fate, an event associated with good luck encountering unexpected bad luck can be considered irony.

The lyric that comes closest for me is "meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife." Many people believe in the existence of a soul mate or some form of fate in finding their ideal mate. The plane crash after waiting his whole life is my second choice. The rest gets weaker in terms of an expected fate and range towards an undesirable encounter such as a traffic jam when you're late. When it comes to rain on a wedding day, it might feel ironic in the above sense to the wedding couple who have such joyful feelings and expect their occasion to reflect the fateful moment while feeling like typical chance or bad luck to a wedding guest who is interested in maintaining the joy of the occasion.

1 "Irony." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

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Irony is where you say the opposite of what you mean in a way that makes it obvious you don't mean it, "yeah, sure" being possibly the easiest example. It is not strictly an opposite, but sarcasm is where you say what you mean in a similar way. So instead of "yeah, sure" you reply If I were a cretin, I'd believe that."

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  • It doesn't have to be "say". It can be ironic that you win $1000 in the lottery two days after your house is foreclosed for want of $900 in back payments.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 22, 2017 at 1:16
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    Ironic is specifically thing that happen, not things said. Saying "Yeah sure" is not irony, it is sarcasm. Nov 22, 2017 at 2:20
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    @HotLicks: That isn't irony, at least not by the standard definition, the way it's always sbeen used, throughout the centuries. What you mean is "funny and surprising". This answer is actually the only one that gets the standard definition right. Jul 21, 2018 at 23:30
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    @SteveShipway: That is not true. True irony is only something said, not something that happens, which is surprising and/or funny. Jul 21, 2018 at 23:30

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