What does the English word ironic really mean?

In this video lesson we’ll show you how the word ironic is used in action. It seems to mean rather different things to different people.

Normally we use ironic in a couple of different ways. One is to describe how we say things. When we use words with the opposite meaning to their literal meaning, we’re being ironic.

And the other meaning is similar. We could describe observations or comments as ironic when words are used with the opposite meaning to their normal meaning.

But some people use the word much more loosely. They might use ironic to describe unfortunate events or coincidences. We’ll show you lots of examples in this video.

Click here to see how we use the word literally in English. Is it an over-used word?
Click here to see more vocabulary videos.

How to use the word ironic

EEnglish word ironic meaning

Languages change and today we’re looking at a word that might be changing its meaning, or not.
The word is ironic.
Ironic is an adjective and irony is the noun.
And there’s controversy about what ironic means.
No. There’s controversy.
People disagree. But let’s start with what people agree about. We use ‘ironic’ in a couple of different ways. One is to describe how we say things.
When we use words with the opposite meaning to their literal meaning, we’re being ironic.
Hi.
Hi.
Ooo, I like your new hairstyle. It’s very sophisticated.
Oh thank you! Hang on. Are you being ironic?

If a comment is ironic, the words mean the opposite of what they normally mean.
Ironic means much the same as sarcastic in that example.
You’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?
So with irony and sarcasm we say the opposite of what we mean. More on their differences later.
Back to the word ironic. Its other use is similar. We use it to describe a situation that’s surprising because it’s the opposite of what we expect.
Like when we predict one thing but then the opposite happens.
Brussel sprouts are Vicki’s favorite vegetable. We have to buy a lot of them.
It’s ironic because I didn’t use to like them when I was a kid.
Me neither.
I hated Brussel-sprouts when I was a kid, so you might predict that I’d hate them now too, but the opposite happened.
Another example.
We’ve just spent 3 hours trying to fix this computer.
It’s ironic because computers are supposed to save you time.
We expected computers to save us time, but the opposite happened.
So it’s a bit ironic, eh? But often we use ironic when something is very strange and unexpected.
Have you heard that Sandy and Jim’s house burned down?
Oh no!
And the ironic thing is they live next door to a fire station.
Oh that’s terrible!
Now that’s clearly ironic.
If a house is next door to a fire station, you don’t expect it to burn down.
And it illustrates another feature of the word. If something’s ironic, it’s often kind of funny in a bad way.
It’s a strange twist of fate. An unfortunate bit of luck.
So here are the features of ironic situations. They’re unpredictable. We expect one thing and then the opposite happens.
They’re often funny and they’re often unfortunate as well.
So funny in a sad way.
OK, now those were things people agree about. But what do they disagree about?
Well, sometimes people use the word ironic very loosely. Here’s an example.
It’s so hot today!
Yes, it’s ironic because it’s November!
You might hear people say things like that, but was it really ironic in the normal sense of the word?
I don’t think so. It’s surprising if it’s hot in November, but just because something’s surprising doesn’t mean it’s ironic.
And sometimes people will say things are ironic when they’re just talking about co-incidences.
When I was growing up we lived in Victoria Road.
Really?
Yes. It was ironic because my name’s Victoria.
It was co-incidental that my name and the street name were the same, but was it really ironic?
No. A street name is just a street name. You can’t use it to predict what the people who live there are called.
And if you can’t make a prediction, the result can’t be ironic.
So there’s disagreement about how we use the word.
Exactly. And it’s been going on for a while. Back In 1996, there was a song by Alanis Morissette called ‘Ironic’ which listed unlucky events, like rain on your wedding day, or being offered a free ride when you’ve just bought your ticket
Or dying the day after you win the lottery.
She called these situations ‘ironic’ and a lot of people complained. They said these things are unfortunate co-incidences, but they’re not ironic.
Rain falls on lots of people’s wedding days. It’s bad luck, but that doesn’t mean it’s ironic. Another example.
Hey I bumped into Chris three times in the market today.
How is he?
He’s fine. But it’s ironic because I haven’t seen him for months and then I bump into him three times in one day.
So that’s another example of a coincidence.
Yeah. It was unexpected because I didn’t plan to meet Chris. It just happened by chance. But that’s not enough to make it ironic.
It would have to be VERY unexpected to be ironic.
But if I’d gone to the market in order to avoid meeting Chris, then would be ironic.
That would be an unfortunate twist of fate.
Exactly. Here’s a great example by George Carlin. He said if a diabetic person is run over by a truck full of sugar, it’s a coincidence. But if a diabetic person is run over by a truck full of insulin, it’s ironic.
So why does sugar or insulin make a difference here?
It’s because we expect sugar to kill someone who is diabetic. But we don’t expect insulin to kill them.
So it’s a twist of fate.
And a funny twist of fate in a sad way.
OK. Let’s see how much you’ve learned. We’ve got 3 meanings of the word ironic here. Are they all correct?
Is it using words that mean the opposite of what you mean? Is it a situation where the opposite of what we expect happens?
And is it a surprising coincidence –an unhappy and surprising coincidence?
Meanings one and two are correct and these are the traditional meanings of ironic. But meaning three is debatable and most people would say no.
To be ironic a coincidence would need to have an opposite result.
And an unexpected result. But if it’s an unhappy coincidence that’s funny at the same time, then it could be ironic.
So let’s look at three examples, and you can tell us if you think these situations are ironic or not
Here’s a funny thing. Vicki and I both share the same birthday.
Of course I’m much younger than Jay but we were both born on February 11th.
So what do you think. Is that ironic or not?
It’s a surprising coincidence, but that’s all. It isn’t ironic in the traditional sense of the word.
There was no twist of fate. OK, Next one.
My car’s been stolen. And the crazy thing is I parked it outside the police station!
Is that ironic or not?
It’s definitely ironic. If you park your car outside a police station, you don’t expect it to be stolen.
OK. One more example.
Look what I’ve just found.
My keys! I thought they were lost forever!
They were behind the photocopier.
It’s so annoying! I just got a new set made yesterday.
So what do you think? Was it ironic that I just found Vicki’s keys?
The timing was unlucky because I’d just had a new set made, but it probably wasn’t ironic in the normal sense of the word.
But you might hear people using it like that.
Yeah. Some people use it very loosely. Now here’s a different question: What’s the difference between irony and sarcasm?
They’re very similar. You’re more likely to hear irony when we’re talking about literature.
We tend to use irony in more formal contexts.
And it’s more neutral than sarcasm.
Sarcasm often implies something negative. We can use sarcasm to make fun of someone or mock them.
And it’s interesting because the word sarcasm is used a little differently in British and American English.
We’re going to look at that in a future video, so make sure you subscribe to our channel so you don’t miss it.
And hit the bell so you get notified. Until then, bye-bye everyone.
Bye.

 

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