The Grammarphobia Blog

Taking irony’s pulse

Q: Can you explain why people declared after 9/11 that irony was dead? Which meaning of “irony” died and what did 9/11 have to do with it? I think “irony” is overused to mean something surprising or peculiar or coincidental. It means the opposite of what is expected, as “It is ironic that Eliot Spitzer got caught with his pants down after being critical of other people’s morals.”

A: Many commentators made statements about the death of irony in the days and weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

For example, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, told the online media-industry site Inside.com: “It’s the end of the age of irony.” And the essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote in Time magazine: “It could spell the end of the age of irony.”

Also, Gerry Howard, editorial director of Broadway Books, was quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying: “I think somebody should do a marker that says irony died on 9-11-01.”

What they meant was that ironic, covertly sarcastic humor was no longer appropriate. Irony requires us to keep our distance from something in order to find humor in it. But here was an event that defied humor and defied us to maintain our cool detachment from reality.

Of course irony came back. It always does.

Interestingly, in recent months some pundits have suggested that the election of Barack Obama has killed irony.

An Op-Ed piece by Andy Newman in the New York Times on Nov. 21, 2008, ran under a headline proclaiming: “Irony Is Dead. Again. Yeah, Right.” What occasioned this were statements by Joan Didion and others that in the wake of the election, irony had once again kicked the bucket.

During a talk in New York, Ms. Didion remarked that in the Obama era the country had become an “irony-free zone,” where innocence and naïveté were prized, according to Newman’s Op-Ed article.

Later in the article, Newman quotes Rosenblatt as saying: “Irony is a diminishing act — the incongruity between what’s expected and what occurs makes us smile at the distance.”

But some events, like 9/11 and perhaps Obama’s election, “are so big that they almost imply an obligation not to diminish it by clever comparisons,” Rosenblatt reportedly said.

One of these days, someone is going to proclaim the death of statements that irony is dead!

As for the meaning of “irony,” you’re right. It’s not mere surprise or oddness or coincidence. I did a blog item a while back that addresses your complaint, and a later posting with more history. If your interest in the subject hasn’t died yet, check out my entry about the pronunciation of “irony.”

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