Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sixteen years later, we're still debating "Ironic"

An online writing group where I hang out was discussing the meaning behind Alanis Morissette's 1996 song "Ironic" earlier today. A poll posted by Word Snooper Lexie Kahn got our attention when she asked "what irks you more: people who use 'ironic' when they simply mean coincidental or when dictionaries provide both the traditional and misused form of the word."   

This naturally prompted us writerly types to debate whether the song actually does show irony or if it simply offers examples of bad luck. The group was divided on the topic, with just about equal writers on board that the song does, in fact, show irony while others said "no way" (I should mention, though, that it’s a small group).

Take, for example, the man who was afraid to fly but ultimately met his demise in a plane crash. That sucks, but there's not much irony there. Had he been driving across the country in order to avoid taking a plane to his destination, only to have a plane crash into him in his car…now, that would've been ironic. A black fly in your chardonnay? That sucks, too, but it's not very ironic. Of course, a song about things that suck isn't very catchy and probably wasn't what Alanis Morissette was going for.

I've always been a big fan of Alanis and I consume her songs as fast as she can put them out, so I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I like to think that she was being ironic by naming a song "Ironic" when it had no actual irony. Isn’t that ironic? Don't you think?

This totally ironic photo above is from Jeremy Wrenn.


  1. Great post and killer last line! Love that you threw that together.

    The 90s musical grammar flub that still drives me crazy is from I Don't Want to Wait by Paula Cole.
    "Say a little prayer for I."

    That could be another poll. What irks you more? When someone says me where they should say I, or when someone is trying to sound smart and says I when the should say me? Like Between you and I.

  2. This is fantastic. I loved the closing paragraph and the stop sign!

  3. I voted for #1 - irritated at people who use ironic but mean coincidental - but must admit, after our discussion today, now I have no idea. Love the Stop-Don't Stop photo. Now *that's irony! In my mind, anyway. Plus so much of life is like that, isn't it?

  4. Love this. And that seems like a stop sign you would find in LA!

  5. Well done, Holly!
    "Say a little prayer for I"?! Yikes! I managed to avoid hearing that one. I thought people changed "me" to "I" only after "and" and "or," as in "That's a big help to Bob and I." Ugh! I hate to even type that, but I know it's irrational. Linguists describe, not prescribe, how people talk.
    For a detailed disquisition on the subject see

  6. Yep, I concur, love the sign!

    Oops- and hope I'm using concur correctly, or I may end up in one of Lexie Kahn's polls.

  7. The stop sign is amazing indeed.

    This debate brings me back to my ninth-grade English class, when our discussion of situational vs. dramatic irony devolved into a debate about whether the song failed to live up to its promise by listing lots of unpleasant (or strange, or impossible ["a free ride when you've already paid"]) situations but no truly ironic ones, or whether Alanis had intended this all along as the ultimate sort of irony. If you're willing to grant Alanis the credit, you could even see it as higher-order irony: a song about irony that manages to be ironic while failing to describe any actual irony--a song, if you're feeling generous, that succeeds doubly while tricking viewers into believing it's failed.

    Are we willing to put so much faith in Ms. Morissette?

  8. Great stand-up making fun of this song...comedian Ed Byrne.

    Here's the YouTube video: