The misuse of ironic is a common peeve among careful users of English. Some of the complaints are overblown, but ironic has undoubtedly been overextended.

The one definition of ironic of which everyone approves is using words to express the opposite of their literal meaning. Irony is similar to sarcasm, but the goal of sarcasm is to mock, while irony is usually used to make subtler points.

The following writers use ironic in its one unassailable sense:

And yes, I do say ‘LOL’ out loud. In almost an ironic sense, like a slow handclap after a bad joke. [quoted in BBC]

Is the publicly-funded body being ironic by epitomising in one document the very thing that it says it is against? [Financial Times]

“The Free World,” with its darkly ironic title, takes these lives deeper; they are treated with more respect, but no less love, than they were in “Natasha.” [Los Angeles Times]

A less accepted but longstanding definition of ironic is markedly different from what was expected. This is where ironic starts to rankle some people. But while this sense of ironic is more questionable than the original, it’s so widespread that we have to accept it. It’s even common in edited writing—for example:

It’s sad and ironic that wranglings over abortion should in any way impede action that could save babies’ lives. [Guardian]

There’s something ironic, in a limited sense, in the man’s moving to the suburbs and hurting himself on his own lawn. [Children’s Literature, Seth Lehrer]

It may seem ironic that workers in a nominally Communist country don’t have the right to strike. [New York Times]

While today’s English speakers have no choice but to accept ironic as a synonym of paradoxical, incongruous, or contradictory, the word is overextended where it becomes a synonym of funny, interesting, improbable, appropriate, or coincidental. For example, there are more fitting words than ironic in each of these instances:

Stefano sang “End of the Road” by Boys to Men, an ironic choice [a fitting choice?] considering he’s been close to the end of the road on this show for weeks. [Fox News]

I find it ironic [appropriate?] that the Chicago Flubs, er, I mean, Cubs are playing their home opener on April Fool’s Day. [Chicago Tribune]

It is somewhat ironic [interesting?] therefore, that Col. Gadhafi is under NATO and U.N. attack while Mr. Mugabe continues to terrorize Zimbabwe unhindered. [Washington Times]

6 thoughts on “Ironic”

  1. The second sense of irony works in almost every situation. There is almost always a way to express a situation so that it has some degree of irony. “Dramatic irony” is even worse; it can apply to any situation where the writer has some knowledge the subject does not. Guess which one is taught by every English teacher in America?

    In the first quote, the Boys to Men song is ironic, since the author didn’t expect such an appropriate song. The Cubs game is dramatically ironic because we can see with hindsight was the scheduler could not. The U.N. quote is ironic because nothing mankind has ever done will prevent the heat-death of the universe.

    See? Everything’s ironic!

  2. All I can add here, being Greek, is that 1) “irony” is something you couldn’t have known/expected. Can be something tragic,funny (though in a bitter way), or simply surprising (for any reason). In this way, a specific situation(itself) is ironic.Also, 2) the term can be used to mock someone or something, so in this way, a person is being ironic to someone or something else. (I hope I m helping)

    • The reason why irony also means “mock” is that, in many cases, one can be ironic to someone else, because the second person should have known better or acted differently. The second person bears the irony, thus the first person mocks him.

  3. people should get over correcting others about the use of the word ‘ironic’, it’s meaning evolves like meaning of all other words… how do you think antagonyms came to exist?


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