How To Use "Ironic" Properly: A Public Service Announcement

The photograph below is ironic. The funny coincidence that happened to you the other day is not.  Here's a handy guide to keep you from embarrassing yourself at the next snooty party you attend.

Irony personified

Irony personified

Irony is one of the most consistently misunderstood terms in the English language. I can't claim that I've always used the word properly myself in the past; in fact, I once had a friend call me out on misusing it in a Facebook comment. I then channeled the extreme pain I felt from that public grammar shaming into an intense study session to learn the true definition of irony. 

That study session lasted about three minutes. It also made me hypothesize that one of the reasons for the word's rampant bastardization of this fairly straightforward term is that the true definition is so simple, it seems like it should have a more nuanced meaning. But for the most part, true irony is about as nuanced as a Nickelback song. In case you were wondering, that's totally not nuanced in the slightest bit. Bonus points for working a Nickelback burn into a blog post about English!

I was generally satisfied with knowing the true definition of irony for myself until I read legendary sports announcer Al Michaels’ autobiography. Somehow, despite the stated presence of a Sports Illustrated co-writer (and presumably a grammar-savvy editor of some sort), Michaels repeatedly misuses the word “ironic” when he means “coincidentally" throughout the book.

Maybe we’ve complicated irony's definition in our minds because of all the things we want to think are ironic. Perhaps we simply like the sound of the word and strive to use it more frequently on a day-to-day basis. But if we're gonna use it, let's make sure we're using it right. Here’s a simple questionnaire that will help you decide if irony is the proper concept for your situation.



: the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny

: a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

1. Is it a funny/crazy coincidence, oddly unexpected, surprising or uncannily poetic?

That’s fun! That’s interesting! That’s totally weird! That’s a lot of things, but it’s not ironic. "Ironically" and "coincidentally" are not interchangeable terms. Some unexpected things could be ironic, but something isn’t ironic just by virtue of being unexpected.

2. Is it the exact opposite of what you would expect or what was intended?

Congratulations! That’s legitimate irony right there. Look again at the picture at the top of this post. It's ironic because a company devoted solely to selling sliding doors doesn't even have a sliding door on their own store. While a reasonable person might not expect total literalism from the architecture of a home goods boutique, it still presents an incongruous juxtaposition of opposites. I'll devote a future post to using the phrase "incongruous juxtaposition" properly as well. (No I won't.)

3. Is it sarcastic?

Sarcasm = irony because you’re saying one thing but meaning the opposite. There’s that word “opposite” again; it’s the key to this whole scheme. This is really hard to follow along with so far, isn't it? Haha, that was sarcasm! Get it?? Irony!

4. Are you a hipster?

You may, to many hipster-hating people’s dismay, be using irony. Like when you wear that Vanilla Ice shirt you love so much. Some people actually like Vanilla Ice. Most people are just being ironic. Hardcore, cliché hipsters barely can tell where their irony ends and real tastes begin, I'm guessing.

5. Are you Alanis Morrisette?

If so, you’re ironic—but not for the reason you might think. You see, nothing in the song “Ironic” is an actual example of irony, but a song about irony that doesn’t contain any irony is actually ironic, thereby making Alanis Morrissette the most accomplished hipster of the ‘90s. I said something to this effect on Tumblr and it's pretty much become the most popular thing I've ever posted to that site.

6. Did a person describe another person using a term that actually applies to themselves?

Well, they're a f#$%ing hypocrite. It's a pot-and-kettle situation, but not really an ironic one. If a jerk accuses someone else of being a jerk, they're just being an assholewhich is, in fact, exactly what you'd expect them to do rather than the opposite.

So there you have it. While there are some other types of irony out there, most of them apply to the written word rather than the real world (see: dramatic irony). That makes it incredibly easy to figure out if you can call something ironic or not. If you can't comfortably apply the word "opposite" to a situation, it's not irony. Somebody please kindly inform Al Michaels.