I’ve done absolutely zero scientific research, but “ironic” has to rank at the top of the list of words that trip up professional writers. I see it all the time in news articles, blog posts, web copy, and even the occasional tweet: using “ironic” to mean coincidental, bad luck, Murphy’s law, etc. And they’re all wrong.

There are many different kinds of irony — dramatic, situational, verbal, etc. — and the definitions vary. But all types of irony have something to do with the unexpected: either something happens that is the opposite of what was supposed to happen, or the true meaning of the statement is the opposite of what’s actually said.

O. Henry was the master of irony, and his short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” still serves as the best illustration of the truly ironic. Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, and Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. See how that works? That’s irony. Winning the lottery and dropping dead the next day isn’t irony; it’s bad luck and bad timing! Breaking your leg the day after you buy those new running shoes you’ve been saving for? Murphy’s law, not irony. And the Alanis Morissette song? The only thing ironic about it is that contains not a single example of irony.

And I have to give a shout-out to the guys at MemphisWeather.net: On their Facebook page today, they pointed out the coincidence (not the irony!) of having bad storms during Severe Weather Awareness Week.

You know the old saying about how, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses instead of zebras? That applies here. Before you label something as ironic, make sure it’s not just coincidence, karma, or bad luck.


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