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Ironically Unironic

December 30, 2009

This nice compendium of humorous pictures from around the web bills itself as “Irony at its best,” and while several of the pictures depict situations which are ironic, the set highlights the misunderstood distinction between irony and coincidence. 

Irony, on the one hand, refers to a situation where the result is the opposite of what might have been expected given the circumstances.  Coincidence, on the other, refers to a situation where an accidental result seems planned or arranged.  Indeed, the two are almost opposites: expectations of results are contradicted in irony, the intentionality in achieving those result is contradicted or misconceived in coincidence.

I won’t waste your time by retreading old ground and bemoaning Alanis Morisette’s lyrics, but here is an explanation using the aforementioned photo set:

To start,

Plastic Opener

is ironic because one would expect a device that is intended to make opening annoying plastic packaging to be packaged in a way that doesn’t presume ownership of the same device.


F*ck the Police

is not at all ironic.  One would rationally expect someone bearing a “Fuck the Police” tattoo to become embroiled in conflict with said police; the juxtaposition just makes the scene appear staged or intentional.


Windows Error Reporter

is ironic because one would expect that such an error message wouldn’t be displayed if the error reporting software was not already installed.


Seagull Sign

is not at all ironic because one would expect gulls to be present in any place that found it necessary to put up such a sign.  It merely appears intentional that such a gull would be sitting on that sign, though it was probably an accidental, if timely, catch by the photographer.

Of course, there are borderline cases where the irony is not so clear-cut. For example,

WTC Heaven

is probably not ironic (but a borderline case) because there is no incongruity between the expectation that the World Trade Center would have been “the closest some of us will ever get to heaven” and the result that thousands of people died in the 9/11 attacks.  Instead, the contradiction of the message was a result that has greater significance in light of the results, making the juxtaposition seem planned. It’s not like you would witness the events of 9/11 and say, “Whoa, that was ironic in light of the expectations I formed after witnessing that poster.”  I guess this would be a candidate for reverse irony if there were such a thing.

Getting the picture?

Anyway, please feel free to correct my (potentially ironic) mistaken analysis or post your favorite misapplications or misnomers in the comments.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Curtis permalink
    December 30, 2009 7:36 pm

    Contemplate a situation in which you are in a public place, and you think you see a particular person, and it doesn’t turn out to be that person. But then, within a short time frame, you see the actual person whom you thought you saw to begin with. Is this ironic? You might say it is, as it would be an “unexpected” occurrence. Of course, if this were “ironic,” I think the definition of ironic would have to be expanded beyond “ironic’s” “true” meaning. Surely just because something is unexpected (the Cubs winning a World Series, for example) doesn’t mean it is ironic.

    Is the situation I described a “coincidence,” or coincidental? I think there is a much better case that such a situation WOULD be a coincidence. After all, thinking you see someone, and actually seeing that person moments later, are in a way unrelated (one didn’t cause the other). But they are also connected in that it is the same person being perceived each time. Granted it is not expected, but the situation is not remarkable because it is unexpected. It is remarkable because the connection between the person you think you see, and the person you see moments later.

    Therefore, understanding this situation (properly, I believe) as coincidental should persuade you, or your loyal readers, that a coincidence need not appear “planned.”

  2. slickricks permalink*
    December 30, 2009 7:47 pm

    An excellent distinction, Curtis. As you rightly point out, “planned” is an analytically sloppy way of describing what I meant. What I meant to describe was when two seemingly related events coincide (if you prefer not to use the word in its own definition, then “occur simultaneously” can substitute) without any intervening causal relationship. Such a definition seems more circular, but is certainly more accurate (likewise, there seems to be something circular about that preceding statement in its own right).

    In any event, you are also correct to note that there is nothing ironic about your example. There are no expectations created by mistakenly believing someone to be someone else, nor are any expected results subverted by seeing the person you thought you saw in the first instance. The mistaken perception simply does not affect the overall odds that you would randomly see that person in any event.

  3. fish permalink
    December 31, 2009 8:53 am

    if irony “refers to a situation where the result is the opposite of what might have been expected given the circumstances” then, in curts’s example, is the fact of mistaken identity, in and of itself, ironic? or does the mistaken identity constitute a merely incorrect assessment, thus failing to rise to the level of an “opposite” result. if the latter, would an opposite result require (1) that the person whom you thought you saw had an opposite somewhere in the world, say an arch nemesis, and (2) that the actual identity of the person turn out to be the nemesis? what else might qualify as an opposite result? or, more to the point, is oppositeness actually a requirement of irony? what if the actual identity of the person was the brother or the cousin of the person whom you thought it was? that seems not to be an opposite result (unless one loosely defines opposite as anything other than the expected result). however, it doesn’t seem coincidental, and it does seem to be something more than just wrong.

  4. Curtis permalink
    January 1, 2010 10:36 pm

    I agree with Fish that “ironic” cannot merely mean “opposite.” My only point was that I think the definition of “coincidental” needs to be refined, as the situation I described would be more accurately described as coincidental than ironic. And I don’t think Rick’s initial definition of coincidental would capture my mistaken identity example.

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