Ironic vs. Coincidental

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Cover of Alanis Morisette's "Ironic"Comedian Ed Byrne once said this about Alanis Morisette’s song, Ironic:

the only ironic thing about that song is it’s called ‘Ironic’ and it’s written by a woman who doesn’t know what irony is. That’s quite ironic.

Truth is, many people confuse irony with coincidence. Here’s a short explanation of the difference between them from Daily Writing Tips:

The impact of ironic has been diluted because many people use it to mean “coincidental,” when its traditional definition is “counter to expectations or what is appropriate.”

This is not as trivial or obvious as it might seem. After reading, try to think of situations you’d formerly describe as ironic and rethink if they are actually ironic, or plain coincidental.

If you’re still finding it hard to grasp, here’s an excellent example:

Person A and Person B are driving; they approach an intersection at which there is a traffic light, and collide.

Bystander C reports the accident, and Police Offer D arrives at the scene shortly. D finds that while B is clear and coherent, A is fairly drunk.

Based on this information, D makes the following statement to C: “Well, it’s pretty clear what happened here. Drunk drivers… what a menace.”

As it turns out, though, B is as much to blame as A. B was not paying attention, and ran the light when it was red; alcohol-impaired as he was, A could not stop in time to avoid the accident.

C, having witnessed the collision, responds thus to D‘s statement: “Ironically, officer, B is as much to blame as A. It’s really an unfortunate coincidence that B ran the light right in front of a drunk driver.”

Explanation: C knows what he’s talking about. Because A was drunk, one would expect the accident to have been entirely his fault. The actuality of the event — the fact that B is also to blame — is incongruous with the expectation, and is thus ironic. What one must keep in mind, however, is that B‘s crime (running the red light) and A‘s (driving drunk) were completely independent events that happened to interact in an unexpected way — quite a coincidence.

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