How ‘Reality Bites’ and the dictionary screw up irony

It’s no longer funny to dump on the Alanis Morissette song Ironic. It’s been done, ad nauseam. We get it — rain on your wedding day is not ironic.

But Alanis isn’t to blame for a generation’s misuse of the term. I blame the wretched film Reality Bites. Ethan Hawke’s character, who is supposed to be some sort of underachieving genius, says this: “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” To which a Wolfgnards blogger adroitly responds:

It seems very much correct. But this would mean that all opposites are ironic and doesn’t take in the incongruous nature of the situation.

Exactly. Hawke’s loser dude has basically defined sarcasm. “Great catch” when a catch is dropped. At best, he has defined one narrow sliver of the ironic pie.

“Opposite” isn’t enough to make something ironic. Another football example: A pass being intercepted isn’t ironic, even though it’s the opposite of what was expected. Now let’s say a pass to the end zone is intercepted, and the defensive back who picks it off was a high school teammate of the quarterback who threw it. Even better, let’s say that defensive back also played receiver in high school and caught the touchdown pass that won the state championships. That has to be ironic.

To get a second opinion, I’m putting up that example on the site isitironic.com, which lets readers vote on possible irony. But consensus isn’t always there.

The “most popular irony” on the site is on Paul Walker’s death. The actor from The Fast and the Furious series died in a car accident in which the driver was doing the same sort of fast and dangerous driving that was endemic to the films. Seems ironic to me. Yet 62% say it’s not.

Dictionaries often don’t bring clarity. (Is that ironic?) Merriam-Webster offers three definitions, none wholly satisfying. The first definition — “Socratic irony” — just defines how Socrates demonstrated flaws in others’ arguments by asking questions. (Which reminds me that every law school is using “Socratic” incorrectly, but that’s another rant.) The second is almost what Hawke-dude said, but it’s more expansive — “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite.”

The third definition is what we usually think when we hear “irony”: “incongruity between the actual event of a sequence of events and the normal or expected results.” DailyWritingTips.com distills the definition to this point: “A simple way of putting it is that irony usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and reality.” Not bad.

But then the same blog moves on to the Wikipedia definition, which twice uses the phrase “exactly opposite.” Again, I don’t think so. If a B-52 accidentally drops a bomb on a B-52s concert, I don’t think that’s “exactly opposite.” It’s UNexpected, yes. But the opposite? No one goes to a concert thinking, “I think a B-52 will not drop a bomb on this concert.”

The Alanis song lists mere coincidences. Or unfortunate things. I think she’s actually closer to the definition than Hawke-dude. Irony has some element of coincidence. Like this:

Maybe we’re all just like Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites. She can’t define it, but she knows it when she sees it. Maybe the non-definition is better than the definition. 

Now that’s ironic. Don’t you think?

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One Response to How ‘Reality Bites’ and the dictionary screw up irony

  1. Pingback: Best of 2010-2015 | Duresport

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