Oh, the irony

Today on a national broadcaster, I saw a presenter asking about irony vs. coincidence. The occasion was that New Zealand held the world’s first national earthquake drill, just minutes after a (small) real earthquake hit just off the coast. Was that a coincidence, or was it ironic?

While irony is a rich concept (with dramatic, situational and verbal as the main types), a key part of it is something that happens that is contrary to expectation, or there is a difference between how things appear and how they are. The broadcaster was getting at the apparent relationship between the earthquake drill and the earthquake event, thinking this was an example of cosmic irony, where it seems that the gods are toying with us mere mortals. However, given that earthquake drills are held with the expectation of earthquakes, there is nothing ironic about their coinciding; it is merely coincidence. It would have been ironic if the drill were held and no earthquake ever happened again; it would have been particularly ironic if the earthquake drill caused a flux in the universe that prevented earthquakes.

In verbal irony, what is actually said is opposite in meaning to what is meant, although the true meaning may be conveyed in tone. For example, when asked whether she enjoyed the roller coaster and the woman says in a shaking voice, ‘It was great fun,’ we have an example of verbal irony. These kinds of example cross over with sarcasm, although there must be an element of ridicule in sarcasm: ‘Yes, I’m FINE, thank you!’ says the woman, after she has had to sit down, to her inquiring friend. The difference here is that in the first example, the woman did not intend to criticise her friend, but it is clear that there is a disparity between what she says and what she is feeling; in the second example she is still clearly not fine, but she intends to punish the stupid question with sarcasm that points out the disparity.

Dramatic irony is the interesting one from a writer’s point of view, because you have a mechanism that exploits the two audiences of the message: the reader, and the characters. In the play Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus himself is the murderer he is searching for. In The Truman Show, the audience knows that Truman is on television, but he does not.

There could be irony in news presenters needing to ask the difference between irony and coincidence; are they not people whose job is to tell, not ask? Are they not trained in the dramatic arts? However, this is possibly expecting too much of news presenters, and will almost certainly lead to me being hoist by my own petard, which IS ironic indeed.

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