Most people aren’t sure what irony is exactly. God knows Alanis Morrissette doesn’t. Ask somebody to define irony, and they invariably say, “I can’t really describe it, but I know it when I see it.” Of course you could always just grab the dictionary and see how our buddy Mr. Webster described it, but what fun is that?
Okay, fine. Irony defined. There are a few different definitions to choose from; the word derives from a Greek word meaning “dissembler” which is a nice word for liar. The original meaning derives from a teaching method of Socrates, in which one pretends ignorance and willingness to learn from another, so that the other’s false notions will be conspicuously displayed as a result of “innocent” questions. Since then, the definition has expanded; a simple definition would be comic incongruity; when the actual results of an action turn out to be the exact opposite of what was intended, that’s irony. Going back to Alanis’ song for a moment, “rain on your wedding day” isn’t ironic, unless you happen to be the weather man. Here are a few examples of irony for you, starting with the most recent…
ITEM: The vice-principal of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego was worried about a fad called “freak dancing” that was occurring at the school dances. Freaking is an exhibitionistic dance style; the participants, especially the girls, dance in a very suggestive manner, sometimes lifting their skirts to display their thong underwear to their partner. Well, Ms. VP wasn’t going to have any exhibitionism going on at HER school dances! She decided to take measures to prevent freaking; she conducted a thong inspection, requiring the female students to lift their dresses and show that they weren’t wearing thongs. She also made some girls unbutton their blouses to prove they were wearing bras. Ms. VP made the girls show off their underwear in front of the male students; in some cases she actually lifted the girls’ dresses herself, giving the boys an eyeful of the very thing she was trying to prevent. She says she did it for the girls’ safety. She doesn’t understand what all the outrage is about. Parents are demanding that she be fired for invasion of privacy. I think she should be fired for being too stupid to be a teacher.
ITEM: About 10 years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union was sued for $42,000 for violating somebody’s civil rights. True story. The ACLU sponsored a public meeting on police surveillance techniques. An off-duty police officer decided to attend. When he was recognized as a police officer, he was thrown out of the meeting, which was open to the public. Since he was discriminated against on the basis of his employment, he sued and won. (Note: When I told this story to a friend, he was very offended and took it as an attack on the ACLU. It wasn’t; I just thought it was funny that the guardian of civil rights would violate them.)
ITEM: What was it that allowed Japan to go from defeat to economic dominance of the world in a mere four decades? The answer, of course, is electronics. The Japanese electronics companies created innovative new technologies that have driven the economy of the western world for the last 20-odd years. What was the key component that fueled this creative tidal wave? The transistor. The transistor was the building block of modern electronics, and led to the invention of the microchip. But the transistor was invented in America; how did it become the catalyst for the Japanese resurgence? We sold it to them, but that’s not the irony. The irony is, we sold it to them because we didn’t want to develop any products that would compete with our existing ones. Seriously. Western Electric sold the rights to the transistor to Sony because they didn’t want to put any products on the market that would compete with their vacuum-tube radios and televisions. They thought the Japanese would just use it in toys.
ITEM: You’ve heard the story about how George Washington’s men froze at Valley Forge in the icy winter of 1779; did you ever wonder why they were freezing? They froze because the new uniforms for the Continental Army weren’t ready in time. The uniforms weren’t ready because the buttons weren’t ready. The buttons weren’t ready because the congressional committee in charge of choosing the design for the buttons couldn’t agree on what they should look like.
Isn’t it ironic?