Irony is a hard concept to explain. I think people understand it when they see “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance. They know that the audience knows what Romeo does not when he visits the Capulet tomb: that Juliet has taken a sleeping potion and is not dead. That is dramatic irony. They also find it enjoyable when they read a story by O. Henry, the wonderful North Carolina-born writer whose tales almost always ended with a result that is the opposite of what the characters intended or expected. That, too, is called irony. People also laugh when a comedian uses verbal irony: “Oh, sure, I always wanted to be punched in the head repeatedly.” His underlying meaning is the opposite of what he is saying.
The adjective “ironic” and the adverb “ironically” seem more problematic. Some usage experts say that we shouldn’t use those forms of “irony” to describe anything other than dramatic or literary irony. They don’t accept that something is “ironic” just because it is a striking coincidence or an odd or notable juxtaposition of events.
Here is an example of the disputed usage from a story on CNN.com: In the 42-minute doc[umentary] “From Book to Screen,” [writer Guinevere] Turner also reveals how Gloria Steinem, an outspoken critic of the book [“American Psycho”], reportedly urged Leonardo DiCaprio not to play Bateman — which, ironically, paved the way for Bale, Steinem’s future stepson, to be cast. The writer finds it an odd outcome for Steinem, that the role she wanted DiCaprio to refuse went to someone who is now related to her. This is not a result different from what was expected, though, nor is it dramatic irony. It’s just a striking coincidence.
This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.