There is a peculiarly maddening song in the charts at the moment, a work which has its irritant effect not because of some nagging, unshiftable melody - lodging in the brain like a popcorn husk beneath a molar - nor because of some repeated lyrical idiocy. It is an error of rhetoric that causes the difficulty, not an anxiety you would conventionally associate with the Radio 1 playlist. The song is "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette and the frustration arises out of the fact that her carefully worked list of examples contains virtually nothing that could properly sit under that adjective. "It's a black fly in your Chardonnay / It's a Death Row pardon two minutes late" sings Ms Morissette, exploring the full spectrum of life's little irritations. Then she pounds into the chorus: "It's like rain on your wedding day / It's a free ride when you've already paid / It's the good advice that you just didn't take."
It dawns on you pretty quickly that a more accurate title for this song would be "It's A Total Bummer" or "Oh Hell, That's All I Need Right Now", but there is nothing to be done. The song has been recorded, and will continue to transmit error to the nation's youth, five or six times a day. If you aren't careful it can provoke you to those sotto voce private arguments which flutter across the face, and make passers-by hurry on, fearful that the Care in the Community policy is about to claim another innocent victim. When she sings "It's a traffic jam when you're already late" you find yourself muttering "I've never said 'Oh, how ironic' when I've been stuck in traffic. Where does this woman come from?" Canada, as it happens, which is close enough to the United States to suggest that she may share the fabled American incomprehension of irony.
Certainly she is capable of some astonishing near-misses, coming within a whisker of describing a genuinely ironic situation and then peeling off at the last minute. "Mr Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly," she sings. "He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye / He waited his whole damn life to take that flight / And as the plane crashed down he thought / Well isn't this nice / And isn't it ironic?" No, it BLOODY WELL ISN'T! If he made his kids get on the plane and was run over by a bus as he left for the train station, then that would be ironic. At this point a man looks up nervously from across the crowded tube train and glances towards the emergency stop button.
Morissette has some excuses for her confusion because some odd things have happened to irony in its passage from rhetorical trope to condition of life. Indeed, it's slightly difficult to see how its common meaning could derive from its classical origin, except perhaps by means of another rhetorical trope, personification. In rhetoric, irony is simply that figure of speech in which the speaker's intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. Macaulay notes that "a drayman, in a passion, calls out 'You are a pretty fellow', without suspecting that he is uttering irony". (Very nicely spoken drayman, I must say. The current equivalent would be a lorry driver, I suppose, and while it's just about possible that one might lean from his cab and shout "Oh nice one, squire," it's more likely that the passion would generate rougher expletives. But perhaps Victorian London was more tutored, the streets packed with artisans wielding litotes and synecdoche with unconscious fluency.)
In short, irony is a posh form of sarcasm, for some reason excluded from the general contempt in which the latter form is held. (Sarcasm has its own pop song, as it happens: Pink Floyd's ineffably witless "Another Brick In The Wall", in which it represents adult suppression of teenage creativity.) But we're still not much closer to working out how life can be ironic. After all, life can't be sarcastic, a quality which has been exclusively reserved for human agency. I think the explanation might run something like this: a sort of dialogue is imagined between our expectations and the stubborn realities of life, a dialogue which replicates the essentially doubled nature of irony - the opposition between what is said and what is meant. So we declare confidently that it would be fatal to travel by plane and life replies, with wry comic timing, that actually the exact opposite is the case that day. What's essential, though, is the sense of bitter, dark comedy. An early English writer, attempting to explain irony, writes of "the figure Ironia, which we call the drye mock". The "drye mock" gets it just right - not the dull-witted, literal toe-stubbings enumerated in Morissette's admittedly catchy song, but a reminder that life will often rebuke our plans with a deadpan mischief.
The figure of irony demands from its audience a certain playful resistance, a testing habit of mind which taps the words for hollow spots. This sophistication isn't beyond some pop songs but it seems to have passed "Ironic" by. And that is ironic.