A month ago I was talking to a friend who is a linguist. We were discussing the cultural aspects of language, and he brought up irony. He asked me how I would explain irony to someone whose language didn’t have a term for it (i.e., it’s not part of their cultural milieu). I tried to explain it and failed. I told him that I’d have to consult my trusty M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms. (I adore that book!)
Later I realized that the best way to explain a term is by example. I’m teaching MacBeth right now and it’s rife with irony. For example, after Duncan’s murder, MacBeth wonders what will clean the blood from his hands. Lady MacBeth says “a little water.” Yet, she’ll be the one washing her hands saying, “Out damn spot” by the end.
But as good as literary examples are, real life ones are better. Yesterday, my daughter came home from her computer programming class. She said that class always gets interesting right around 5pm when the computer announces that the system will be shutting down in two minutes—right during the middle of the professor’s lecture. And it takes the professor about ten to fifteen minutes to get the whole system rebooted afterwards. It’s the third week of classes so the professor is getting very frustrated. He hasn’t been able to fix the problem. So yesterday he asked the class if they knew what was wrong. One student told him that the university computers are scheduled to reboot at 2am, and for some reason the computer system clock in the Java 2 class was set to the wrong time—2am instead of 5pm. All the prof had to do was reset the clock to the correct time. But the prof didn’t know how to do that. The student told him to right click the clock in the bottom right hand side of the screen. However, English is not the prof’s first language. And so he wasn’t able to reset the computer’s clock. A programming prof who can’t reset the computer’s clock—that, my friends, is irony. (Kind of like mathematics profs and students who can’t multiply—but that’s another post.)