Word Work: Irony vs Coincidence

Recently, a friend and I were working on a collaborative writing project when I saw this note from her, highlighting the word “ironically” in my section.

“I’d use coincidentally here, not ironically,” she wrote.

I scratched my head. Clearly, they were different words with different meanings, but I had never realized that they could be mistakenly interchanged. Then, my hands got a little sweaty and my throat constricted a little. Had I been making this mistake my entire writing life? Finally, I decided to get to the bottom of it. What, exactly, was the difference between irony and coincidence?

To solve the problem, I needed a little precision.

Coincidence seemed like the easier place to start. I could define it off the top of my head. Basically, a coincidence is when two things happen at the same time. They might be connected by time and space but aren’t planned that way. For instance, if I am at the grocery story and see my father-in-law also doing his shopping, it’s a coincidence if we didn’t plan to be there at the same time.

Irony took a little more digging.

According to The New York Times article, “Isn’t It Ironic? Probably Not,” defining irony is less straight forward than it seems. Bob Harris explains.

“Irony requires an opposing meaning between what’s said and what’s intended. Sounds simple, but it’s not. A paradox, something that seems contradictory but may be true, is not an irony.

The Times stylebook, which, believe me, can be harsh, offers useful advice: The loose “use of irony and ironically, to mean an incongruous turn of events, is trite. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is an irony, even loosely. And where irony does exist, sophisticated writing counts on the reader to recognize it.”

So remember my father-in-law and me at the grocery store? It was coincidental that we were there at the same time without planning on it. It would be ironic if we each had told the other that we weren’t going to the grocery because we didn’t need anything but both showed up anyway. According to The Times style guide, however, we wouldn’t need to tell you it was ironic. You would know the irony just by seeing it.

Interestingly (neither ironically or coincidentally), Weird Al Yankovic included this conundrum of irony versus coincidence in his parody video, “Word Crimes” at around 2:44. (You’ll want to watch this, if you haven’t already.)

Been struggling with the difference between these two words? Is it a coincidence that you stumbled over here today? I think not. (No, it’s not irony, either.)


Photo above by David Goehring, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.