Thursday, December 8, 2011

If Nobody's Perfect, Does That Mean I Don't Exist?

As a high school English teacher, some of the most basic lessons I teach are about the meaning and use of figurative language and rhetorical devices.  Nothing in my classroom gets met with more quizzical looks and questions than the concept of IRONY.

So what exactly is irony? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.”  This is the basic definition I try to impress upon my students.  But just to make things a bit more complicated, I also explore with my students the three basic forms of irony: Verbal, Situational, and Dramatic. 
Verbal Irony is the one we are most familiar with because it is often sarcastic and humorous, though it does not have to be either of those things.  It occurs when someone says something that is different from what they really mean, or different from what would be expected from someone in their situation.  In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells Paris that she loves him.  This is an example of (non-sarcastic) verbal irony because the “him” she is referring to is Romeo, but Paris thinks she means him (Paris). 
Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a situation is totally unexpected and not anticipated based on earlier events.  Continuing our use of Romeo and Juliet, in Act III Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished.  Juliet tells her mother that she wishes she could go to Romeo that night. This is situational irony because Juliet’s mother thinks that Juliet means to go to Romeo and kill him when, in fact, she wants to go to Romeo to be with him romantically.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience or reader knows something that the characters do not, something which adds suspense or humor.  So in Act IV of Romeo and Juliet, we know that Juliet has taken a sleeping potion while all the other characters (except Friar Lawrence) think she is dead.

All of this is enough to confuse many high school students.  I admit, it is sometimes difficult to keep it all straight.  I often try to incorporate popular culture examples in my classes, so as to make the concepts a bit more accessible to the students.  When my students asked me to explain irony using the song “Ironic” by Alannis Morrisette, I cringed.  The only thing that is ironic about this song is that NONE of the situations that she presents in the song are, in fact, ironic.  
So why this 9th grade English lesson in a blog post? Well, it makes me INSANE when people misuse the term.  For example, as I was writing this post I popped on to Facebook for a moment and saw a picture of wet USPS mail posted by my husband’s cousin.  She explained in the caption of the photo that she had repeatedly asked her letter carrier to place her mail in her mailbox and to not just leave it on the ground.  She even went as far as showing the letter carrier where her mailbox was and how it opened so that her mail could be placed there.  However, her mail arrived wet and soggy because her letter carrier failed to place it in the mailbox and it happened to be raining that day.  This situation is ironic because she showed her letter carrier where her mail was supposed to be placed.  So the situation of her wet and soggy mail was not anticipated based on the earlier event of showing the letter carrier the mailbox.  Are you with me so far? Good.  There’s more.....
The wet mail and USPS letter
As part of the soggy mail, there was a letter from the USPS requesting that my husband’s cousin sign up to act as a “reporter” of sorts, providing the post office with details of her daily mail deliveries in an effort (I assume) to monitor and improve service.  Is that irony? While it is fortuitous, it is not ironic.  Now here comes my favorite part.....
I commented on this picture that I was writing this post about irony and that I was going to “steal” her story (which she gave me permission to do).  Another one of her friend ‘s commented after my comment: “talk about irony, that is funny!”  I couldn’t believe how “full circle” this had come.  THIS was the exact reason that I began writing this post.  My writing about irony and my husband’s cousin’s “wet mail incident” was simply a COINCIDENCE.  There is no element of irony there - unless you are Alannis Morrissette :)
It is a serious pet peeve of mine when vocabulary is misused.  As I always tell my students,  if you are unsure of a word’s meaning DON’T USE IT until you get clear on it.    I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who is upset by the improper grammar, punctuation (or lack thereof), and misuse of vocabulary that scrolls across the bottom of the television screen during the morning news.  I'll write more on the importance of good grammar later.  Check out this book - Eats, Shoots & Leaves - if you are interested now.  Now my husband will tell you that I’m just a psychotic English teacher and no one really cares about stuff like this.  To that I reply an emphatic (John McLaughlin style, for you old schoolers) WRONG!!!  The English language, while sometimes complicated, provides us with an amazing variety of words suitable to express anything and everything.  The key is knowing which words to use at which time.  I care about proper vocabulary use for two simple reasons:  first, other people will judge you based on the words that you use.  As unfair as it seems to (sort of) "judge a book by it's cover," it's true.  People will view you as more competent and intelligent when you speak with a good vocabulary.  Second, language and thought cannot be separated.  Try it.  Ask yourself a question and then try to think the answer without  thinking in words.  It's impossible.  Our brains use language to think.  So that means that a larger vocabulary gives our brain more tools.  In a way, a better vocabulary improves our ability to think.  

As you ponder my case for improving your vocabulary PROPERLY, and commit to memory the proper definition of irony, I leave you with some related pictures and stories.  Most are tragic, but all are ironic.

A very interesting book on this subject.  Though not apparent from the photo, the book is ironic because the title calls it a BIG book when, in fact, the book itself is small.  I also love the photo on the cover.

And, finally, a picture that should need no words.....