The questioning editor: Isn’t it ironic? No, it’s not

Copy editors can help writers by questioning the logic of a passage or the use of a word. Writers often pick up wrong ideas from reading misused phrases or words. A persnickety copy editor can serve to get a writer to think more clearly.

A sentence stopped me as I read today’s local paper (The Clayton News-Star, a semiweekly publication that is part of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., where I formerly worked). The story was about an N&O press operator from Clayton who had won a lottery prize. I’ll underline the word that led me to this post, but I am sure copy editors would have recognized the large stop sign.

Three days later, Carraway picked up a check for $165,344. The ironic part? He had just begun one week of unpaid leave as part of a company policy to save money.

A strict view of the adjective ironic holds that it can be used only to indicate irony or mockery (The evil Joker in the Batman comics wears a permanent ironic smile). And irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of the literal meaning. Irony is also a literary or rhetorical device that carries a meaning that is the opposite of what the words say. Marc Antony’s funeral speech in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” drips with irony: “For Brutus is an honorable man.” I think of sarcasm as a blunt form of irony. Another form is dramatic irony when the audience knows something that characters do not.

Dictionaries also list as a definition of irony “an outcome that is different from what was expected” and of ironic as “unexpected.” So when a confirmed bachelor who said he’d never marry falls head over heels in love and chases a reluctant woman halfway around the world to ask her to marry him, a writer might describe that as ironic. It is an outcome different from what was expected.

How then was it ironic that a man picks up his lottery winnings during an unpaid furlough from his job? It fits neither the classic use of irony nor the more casual use. It’s just a coincidence or maybe an odd juxtaposition. In fact, it is to be expected that the press operator would use a day off from work to go pick up his winnings. The timing was a nice development for the winner, I’d say. He could worry less about his lost week of pay. Perhaps that week of lost pay might even have a tax advantage. (You can tell that I now work for a publication devoted to accountancy.) Even if we deemed something ironic, we needn’t call attention to the unexpected circumstance; the readers can do that on their own.

My advice to editors is to always question the words irony, ironic and ironically in any piece. Make the writer say exactly how the word applies. This is liable to have benefits beyond squelching imprecise uses of ironic. Inducing a writer to think more deeply about what words mean will help the writer develop the proper skepticism about his or her own work.

Addendum: The Oatmeal has this funny take on irony. I should probably take its advice, too!

2 Responses to “The questioning editor: Isn’t it ironic? No, it’s not”

  1. Susan Phelps

    Could the incident be considered “fortuitous” rather than ironic?