Is Ironic the Most Abused Word in English?

irony, ironic

“That is sooooo ironic.” This sentence is used frequently — and usually incorrectly — in American English.

Often the word “ironic” is misused to remark on a coincidence, such as “This is the third time today we’ve run into each other. How ironic.”

It is also mistakenly used to describe something out of the ordinary or unusual: “Yesterday was a beautiful, warm day in November. It was really ironic.” And, unfortunately, it is sometimes used to simply emphasize something interesting. For example, “Ironically, it was the best movie I’ve seen all year!” We submit that ironic might be the most abused word in the English language.

Even Alanis Morissette was called out for being too loose with the word in her 1995 hit “Ironic.” The critics were so sharp that Morissette was forced to explain that she wasn’t trying to make every lyric in the song “technically ironic.”

So, what does the word really mean? And how do you make a proper ironic statement? An ironic remark conveys a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning. So, in an ironic statement one thing is said, while another thing is meant. For example, if you were trying to be ironic on a stormy, dreary day, you might say: “What glorious weather!” Or if you were suffering from a bad cold, you might ironically say: “I feel like a million bucks.” These are both examples of verbal irony, the most common occurrence of the figure of speech.

Irony is often confused with sarcasm. While the two are similar, in sarcasm there is a stronger intent to ridicule or mock, often harshly or crudely. Dramatic irony is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play. Situational irony is an outcome that turns out to be very different from what was expected. This third type is the most prone to ambiguity and personal interpretation, setting up the potential for misunderstanding, and misuse.

Do you agree with our assessment, or do you feel we need to let language evolve no matter how far usage drifts from a precise meaning? What other words or phrases receive such treatment? Let us know, below.


US Fed News Service, Including US State News October 17, 2006 The State University of New York’s Finger Lakes Community College issued the following news release:

Last night the Finger Lakes Community College Board of Trustees approved a new Teaching Assistant certificate program. The program proposal will also be sent for approval to the State University of New York (SUNY) and the New York State Department of Education The College anticipates accepting applications for this certificate for the fall 2007 semester. Teacher assistants work individually or with small groups of students in the classroom or as assigned by the school district. this web site new york state department of education

This certificate is designed to prepare individuals for teacher assistant positions in the area of public education The program will focus on the interactions taking place in the classroom and within the school system from the perspective of a teacher assistant Students will address issues that specifically relate to the duties of the teacher assistant, such as the philosophy and history of education, instructional techniques, current educational trends, and the functioning of a school system Additionally, students will learn about federal and state laws and regulations, child and adolescent development and learning, classroom and behavior management, and instructional strategies to improve student learning Students will be eligible to apply for the Teaching Assistant Level III certification through the New York state Department of Education after completing the Teaching Assistant certificate program, or progress to the College’s A.A. Liberal Arts and Sciences degree program. go to website new york state department of education

Courses in the teacher assistant certificate program include: Freshman English, Introduction to Literature, Public Speaking or Interpersonal Communications, Teacher Assistant I, Teacher Assistant II, Introduction to Psychology, and Math for Elementary Teachers.

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  1. Kiki -  April 16, 2014 - 7:27 pm

    So what word would you use to describe a situation that was unexpected, a crazy coincidence? I’m looking for a word besides “coincidentally” and that ends in “ly.”

  2. Rodrigo -  April 11, 2014 - 10:46 am

    Thanks to Microsoft, tool may be the most overused word in English, and it has contributed to the misuse of the Spanish word herramienta as well. In English, the word’s primary definition is a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task. For a computer function, a more precise word is application or app. In Spanish, the meaning of herramienta is more precise. It is a device, often made of iron or steel, used by a craftsman in his work. Unfortunately, Microsoft mistranslates tool as herramienta when referring to computer applications.

  3. Mechelle -  April 9, 2014 - 7:15 am

    Ignorant! I hear people use this word improperly all the time.

  4. Richard Gearon -  April 9, 2014 - 4:57 am

    I believe that the most overused, and incorrectly used, word is “were.” In almost all instances of the use of this word, the correct word is “was.” It’s a simple matter of plural or singular, but lots of people get it wrong.

    • Tsalnor -  April 15, 2014 - 10:41 am

      The very notion of people using “were” incorrectly bothers me. It’s much more likely you’re just a little mistaken about English grammar. If not, some examples would be appreciated, although you’ll likely find that they’re in the subjunctive mood.

  5. Geoff -  April 7, 2014 - 5:12 am

    “Ironic” and “literally” are about on par, but neither comes close to the truly most abused word: the extra-grammatical “like”. Twenty years ago (OK, maybe 25) many of us would laugh at “Valley Girls” who used “like” five times plus in one sentence. Now it seems as if half the U.S. population talks that way. I was confined to a car with such a person the other day–don’t know how many times I had to bite my tongue. Another friend finally couldn’t resist and said, “Is ‘like dying’ the same as dying?” The friendly jab wasn’t even perceived by the first guy. Oy.

    • Sally -  April 9, 2014 - 3:07 pm

      In my experience, “literally” is the most abused, misused word. It always amazes me that people who “literally died” somehow live to tell about it!

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