Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Word "Irony" is on the Ropes, and it's Alanis Morissette's Fault

Specific words fall in and out of vogue, usually emerging from their time on the tips of everyone’s tongues much battered and bruised. Awesome, for instance, once described a thing of humbling beauty or power like a volcano or a vision of God. Now it can serve to describe a sandwich. 

The same thing has happened to irony, only in irony’s case, it’s not a recalibration of scale; it’s a set of wholly wrong definitions. Alanis Morissette is the most notorious offender, and the one who started the wave of destroying this particular word. In her breakout song, Isn’t it Ironic, none of the eleven illustrations of irony in the lyric properly reflect irony.

I did a quick assessment, and of these eleven citations, there are three remarkable occurrences, three coincidences, two minor annoyances, two massive human tragedies and one implausible hypothetical scenario. Zero instances of irony. Morissette has cast out such a wide selection of different types of non-irony that the many listeners who  formed their definition of irony through that song have it wrong in a half-dozen different ways.

Irony is when a thing’s literal meaning belies its actual meaning. If you slammed into a bridge abutment while you were adjusting your seat belt, that would be ironic. Irony is a close cousin to sarcasm in some cases, but sarcasm’s bar is generally lower. A certain level of artfulness is expected of irony, some sort of threading together of opposing elements to make a hard-hitting point. It is a once complex, nuanced, elegant word born of Greek tragedies that we leave to the next generation a hollowed out husk of misunderstanding. And it’s mostly Alana Morissette’s fault. She seems well-meaning and nice, but man, she knocked the stuffing out of that word.