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Irony vs. Coincidence

The concept of irony is oft misused. Because this happens to be a pet-peeve of mine, I've been attempting to educate my friends on the subject. Thanks to my campaign, they now look over their shoulders to see if I'm around before calling anything ironic. Admittedly, this is not exactly the result I was going for... but it's a start.

A thorough entry here seems like a good way to reach a broader audience — and if even one of you thinks twice the next time the word "ironic" comes to mind, then the world will be a better place. So — let's set the record straight.

Several different concepts fall under the umbrella of irony, and this is, perhaps, one source of confusion. The concept I will focus on here is called situational irony1. From now on, whenever I say "irony," I'm referring specifically to situational irony. When I say something is "NOT IRONIC," though, I'm probably talking about irony in general. OK... that said, here we go.

Situational irony is the type of irony you are most likely to come across — or use — in conversation. As used here, situational irony is defined as:

Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

It sounds harmless, I know. The big issue, in my experience, is that the concept of situational irony is often confused with that of coincidence.2 As used here, coincidence is defined as:

A sequence of events that, although accidental, seems to have been planned or arranged.

Pay close attention now, because this is where it gets confusing. To call a fact or event ironic is to make a statement about the relationship between the actuality of a fact or event and one's expectations regarding that fact or event. To call a fact or event coincidental, on the other hand, is to make a statement about the relationship between that fact or event and another, independent fact or event.

I know it sounds confusing, but it really isn't. Consider the situation described below as an example of what I'm talking about.

Person A and Person B are driving; they approach an intersection at which there is a traffic light, and collide.

Bystander C reports the accident, and Police Offer D arrives at the scene shortly. D finds that while B is clear and coherent, A is fairly tipsy.

Based on this information, D makes the following statment to C: "Well, it's pretty clear what happened here. Drunk drivers... what a menace."

As it turns out, though, B is as much to blame as A. B was not paying attention, and ran the light when it was red; alcohol-impaired as he was, A could not stop in time to avoid the accident.

C, having witnessed the collision, responds thus to D's statement: "Ironically, officer, B is as much to blame as A. It's really an unfortunate coincidence that B ran the light right in front of a drunk driver."

So... raise your hand if you followed that. Ooooookay, I'll explain. C knows what he's talking about (har har har). Because A was drunk, one would expect the accident to have been entirely his fault. The actuality of the event — the fact that B is also to blame — is incongruous with the expectation, and is thus ironic. What one must keep in mind, however, is that B's crime (running the red light) and A's (driving drunk) were completely independent events that happened to interact in an unexpected way — quite a coincidence.

See? It's easy. For another simple example, check out this quote from the homepage of Purity Ice Cream:

Purity's home office is located in Ithaca NY, ironically the birthplace of the American ice cream sundae.

Purity is an ice cream company based in Ithaca, NY? Fact. Ithaca, NY is the birthplace of the American ice cream sundae? Fact. The relationship between the two? Coincidence. Coincidence. Coincidence.

And for some reason, people never call ironies coincidental. It is a one-way mistake. No, I don't get it either, but here's a little trick. Next time you are about to say "Gee, that's ironic.", do me a favor and think first. Ask yourself: "Gee, is that coincidental?" If the answer is "yes," then it is probably NOT IRONIC.

Now for a more advanced example (my personal favorite) — the song "Ironic," by Alanis Morissette. "Isn't it ironic?", asks Alanis. "No, it isn't.", answers Drag Reduction.

To fully appreciate this blasphemy, I recommend checking out the complete lyrics. There is a relatively good copy available here. Below are some choice examples of Alanis' little "ironies":

1. A death row pardon, two minutes too late;
2. Rain on your wedding day;
3. A free ride when you've already paid;
4. A traffic jam when you're already late; and
5. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

These are only five of the many events Ms. Morissette uses as examples of irony in her song, and with maybe one minor exception,3 they just aren't. They're not necessarily coincidental (although most are), but that doesn't mean they are ironic.

But here's a little meta-irony for you. In a song entitled "Ironic", Ms. Morissette gives numerous examples... none of which are ironic. Isn't that ironic? Yes. Yes it is.4

1 The wonderful Wikipedia has an excellent entry on irony here.
2 Dictionary.com has an interesting "usage note" on this issue here.
3 The plane crash might qualify as ironic, if properly interpreted. Maybe.
4 Apparently I'm not nearly the first person to point this out. Wikipedia has an entry on Alanis' "Ironic", describing the whole situation in great detail.


Dave said...

To be fair, the lyric about the guy who has an irrational fear of flight finally overcoming that fear and getting on a plane which promptly crashes, killing him, is pretty ironic.

The guy dying the day after he wins the lottery would be ironic, if it weren't for the fact that he was stupid enough to play the lottery at age 98.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are arguing about this topic and enjoyed using your blog as a platform for our discussion. We can't decide who is the winner, but have decided that there is some subjectivity involved in this topic.

Paddy Duke said...

I've been on the hunt for some good explanations of irony versus coincidence. My friends refuse to believe that I am right, so I will be pointing them towards this article the next time the debate arises.

However, during my search I came across this teaching resource which uses the Lyrics to "Ironic" to teach the concept of irony to school children.


Now that is ironic.

Chuck Posner said...

I've had this same convo with Tim MANY times. But I enjoyed it anyway.

Christine said...

Are you familiar with the TV show Castle? It's about a writer who is observing a detective as inspiration for his novel. One if his personal crusades deals with irony, and he makes some of the exact points that are made here, including the reference to the Alanis Morisette song. Because I'm an English dork I wanted to find something that clarified this for me a bit, and this blog was perfect. Thanks.

Susan said...

How about this one: I was nominated for Teacher of the Year AND turned in to the Superintendent of Schools for Child Maltreatment on the same day! Awesome, don't cha think?

Ashley said...

To be fair, the lyric about the guy who has an irrational fear of flight finally overcoming that fear and getting on a plane which promptly crashes, killing him, is pretty ironic.
- Actually wouldn't it be more ironic if he died in a car accident on the way to the airport?

billy said...

The plane crash was not ironic at all as it was exactly what he expected would happen if he ever got on a plane; If he help the pilot crash land the plane; now that would have been ironic.

robert_snelling said...

It might be ironic that the plane crashed killing him because he got over his fear of flying. He finally realised that you should not expect it to crash because it usually doesn't. It would be ironic now because he didn't expect it.

However, in the general sense, just because "normal" people get on planes everyday, it would not really be ironic if the plane crashed. I know most people do not expect it to crash, but the amount of flights that happen everyday kind of removes the irony from the entire situation. I would not call this irony.

To finish, if you flew your plane low because you wanted to avoid lightning hitting your plane and crashing you, yet the fact that there is actually more chance of it happening when flying low, would be ironic - because it is incongruous with what is expected.

The thing that confuses people, I feel, is the subtle changes in a story can flip irony to coincidence.

This is a brilliant article. Thank you.

Burnis Johnson said...

George Carlin explained it best: If a diabetic is crossing the street and is hit and killed by a truck delivering sugar, that would be a coincidence. If a diabetic is crossing the street and is hit and killed by a truck delivering insulin, THEN that would be irony writ large.

Unknown said...

Damn! It is quite a COINCIDENCE that your very first paragraph illustrates an example of IRONY. You're a freakin' genius!

private user said...

The diabetic, hit by ANY truck, but saved by CPR performed by the passing driver of an ice cream truck would be ironic. (unexpectedly, sugar is his hero)

Ben Detrixhe said...

I think a lot of the confusion results when people want to imply that something coincidental is humorous, particularly if it is darkly so, but want to use only one word to convey that meaning. I had this argument with a classmate recently when I used the word ironic to describe a man whose last name seemed to foreshadow an aspect of his fate. I'm pretty sure now that my usage was wrong in this situation, but to say that it was coincidental that this man had x name and then turned out to look like an x would have completely left out the recognition of the dark humor of the observation. If there is a single word that conveys this meaning, I haven't found it, and while I am happy to use multiple words in formal situations, in casual situations I am not necessarily averse to incorrect usage that conveys the intended meaning in a manner that is clear and concise and fits in with the natural flow of speech. Still, I'll try to be more careful about my use of the word ironic going forward.

private user said...

@ Ben - is that something like people who look like their dogs? ;-) I'm not convinced your usage was incorrect - if X="Princely" I would call that "serendipitous." However if X="Ogre", I would call it a cruel twist of fate, in which case "irony of fate" may be appropriate. But you're right, aside from simply "unfortunate", a single word for that evades an effective conversational quip.

Tom said...

Definition 3 on Dictionary.com: "coincidental; unexpected: 'It was ironic that I was seated next to my ex-husband at the dinner.'"

Clearly you're making a big deal out of nothing at all.

Jae Baeli said...

I'm an author, and I struggle with this damn irony issue all the time. Just when I think I have a grasp of it, I'm wrong again.

But what I want to know is, what are the situations Alanis describes in her song REALLY CALLED? I know there's a word for that, and it's the one I'm looking for.

Kelli Jae Baeli

Jae Baeli said...

I'm an author, and I struggle with this damn irony issue all the time. Just when I think I have a grasp of it, I'm wrong again.

But what I want to know is, what are the situations Alanis describes in her song REALLY CALLED? I know there's a word for that, and it's the one I'm looking for.

Kelli Jae Baeli

kurriking said...

Ok. BUT explain this...Cosmic Irony.

Example: A charity saves two seals from an oil spill, cleans them, does the whole petition fiasco to stop oil spills, etc. and finally they release the two seals back to their natural environment, only to see them eaten a minute after by an orca whale.

Now... I get it is ironic because the people did not expect to release them onto their deaths. BUT... is it not equally a coincidence?
It is a fact that the seals were released in their natural environment. Yet, it is equally the fact that seals are prey to orca whales in the same environment.
Savvy what I'm saying?

kurriking said...

Explain this please.. Cosmic Irony. Can it not be regarded as coincedence, depending on perspective?

Example: At a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale.

It is IRONIC because the goal was to save the seals, not lead them to their doom. Yes.

BUT... It is a COINCIDENCE because it is a fact that seals occupy said environment. It is equally a fact that orcas occupy the same environment and prey on the seals.

So... from a fisherman's (or fisherwoman's) perspective, ignorant to the charity, he/she would seethe situation as a mere coincidence.

Put that in your pipe and pass it along. Savvy what I'm getting at?

Joe said...

@ Tom: Alas, dictionary.com DOES NOT also have coincidental and ironic, or coincidence and irony, listed as synonyms, so they are, in fact, different.

Just because it's on the Internet doesn't make it true. ('self-referential'?)

lifeexplorerdiscovery said...

Well, raining on your wedding day could be ironic. If you planned for your wedding to occur in a city and-or at a certain time in the year where rain is uncommon explicitly for the purpose of avoiding such a thing and then it rains on your wedding day, its ironic.

Dallin Smith said...

I respectfully disagree with some of your assessment. True, many of the things in that song are not ironic but coincidental, but how is finding 10,000 spoons when you look somewhere you expect to find a knife not ironic? Maybe if you were looking in a spoon factory, it wouldn't be ironic, but pretty much anywhere else, that's a pretty huge piece of irony. The fact that someone who had an irrational fear of flying actually dies in a plane crash in his first flight is clearly ironic. And the man who won the lottery and died on his way to pick it up WOULD be ironic... if he wasn't 98 years old and expected him to die at any moment.

JediBrooker said...

it's ironic that you try to educate people on the difference between irony and coincidence but you use a common grammatical misconception of using quotation marks for emphasis. quote marks should be used for sarcasm or actual quotes, not for emphasis.

Bryan ONeill said...

Not a bad blog post but ultimately flawed. The kind of irony Alanis talks about is cosmic irony. Ill give you all time to look it up. In that case her entire song is valid. Please make a note of it.


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