Thursday, December 04, 2003

Word Nerd!

Yesterday morning, Kam had walked the dogs in the short space of time that it wasn't actually raining, and then they were quite wet and confined to the laundry, waiting for me to find a dry-ish towel to reduce them to merely damp, and therefore suitable for entry to the rest of the house. This caused me to comment on the irony of almost all the dog's towels (ie the old ratty ones) being out on the line, in the rain. I couldn't use them because they were soaking wet, and the time we need them the most is when it rains and we need to dry the dogs and cover the couches.

Recently I pointed out that I didn't think Ethan Hawke's pithy definition of irony in Reality Bites quite hit the mark. Reeling from this bombshell, Jo challenged me to:


"When the actual meaning is the exact opposite of what's said."

This sounded really good in the movie. Pithy, sharp, and off-the-cuff. But it's not exactly my understanding of irony.

I think the Reality Bites definition is probably closer to sarcasm, though even for that it would have to depend on the tone and intention. At face value, it could be just a definition of stupidity.

I'm constantly discovering how much of my vocabulary is based only on in-context understandings. I often find myself grabbing the dictionary as I'm reading (or scribbling the word on my bus ticket to look up later) to check words I once would have happily accepted. My understanding of irony seems to be all in-context, and I was hard-pressed to actually define the word.

Oddly, the several dictionaries I consulted consistently put what seems to be a definition of sarcasm as number 1, under irony.

Witness, the Australian Oxford:

1. the expression of one's meaning by using words of the opposite meaning in order to make one's remarks forceful.
2. (of an occurrence) the quality of being so unexpected or ill-timed that it appears to be deliberately perverse.

Number 2 here is getting towards the way I would use the term, but is still really quite unsatisfying. It sounds a bit like just bad luck. My instinct is that genuine irony needs to have something more to it. This guy, in pulling apart Alanis Morrissette's song "Ironic", contends that bad luck isn't enough.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary has a similar definition, but adds Socratic irony up first, which is a bit odd. I would have expected it to be tacked on at the end.

Main Entry: iro·ny
Pronunciation: 'I-r&-nE also 'I(-&)r-nE
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural -nies
Etymology: Latin ironia, from Greek eirOnia, from eirOn dissembler
Date: 1502
1 : a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning -- called also Socratic irony
2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b : a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c : an ironic expression or utterance
3 a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play -- called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

Merriam Webster's 3a is, I think, getting towards what I was looking for. It covers some of the different scenarios that are commonly considered ironic.

Surfing the net revealed a few gems, like this one: "Watching Shallow Hal long enough to see the part where the bethonged Gwyneth Paltrow bends over, then shutting off the television." I haven't seen the movie but I think I know enough - the movie is about a guy who is forced (bewitched?) to see the inner beauty of women instead of the exterior. He sees the Gwyneth Paltrow character as gorgeous and slender, and it is only later in the movie when he finds out she is actually obese. The message of the movie would be something about the dangers of judging people by their looks alone.

In my previous post I referred to the irony of forgetting, on the 12th of November, that the previous day had been Remembrance Day.

These examples seem to be irony, and they do fit the definition above. But I still don’t think the definition really covers it. I think you come up with an example that fits the definition but isn’t really ironic.

Anyone care to help me out?

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