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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Illustrations by Greg ClarkeOver the past several years I have noticed a bastardization of the formerly specific word ironic. It seems that people now use it in place of coincidental or even to describe completely unrelated occurrences. During a recent baseball game an announcer said, "And isn't it ironic that the Goodyear blimp is here, because both of these teams are having good years." That one would have had O. Henry turning in his grave, I think. Do you have any guidelines on the use of the word?

Darren Katz
Atlanta, Ga.

When people are being ironic, they are saying something other than, or even contrary to, what their words mean literally. ("When I overheard my co-worker compare me to the Goodyear blimp, it made my day.") When occurrences are ironic, they haven't turned out in the way that might have been expected: if the Goodyear name had appeared in the sky above a game whose teams were both having bad years, therefore, there would be some excuse for calling that ironic. But note that an ironic event shouldn't be just improbable or incongruous -- the difference between expectation and reality must have something to do with "vanity," "folly," or human "inconsistency," in the words of The American Heritage Dictionary. So it wouldn't be ironic if the blimp was scheduled to appear at the game but didn't because of a pelting rain. But it would be ironic if the game was called after the blimp's pilot had risked life and limb to get to the ballpark despite the weather.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

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Word Police
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Illustrations by Greg Clarke I've noticed that in certain publications this type of construction is frequently used: "The installation artist John Adams, who is married to the poet Sally Brown, said recently that the state of arts funding in New York has become dismal in recent years." I'm wondering about the the that precedes the person's occupation. I've noticed that this construction is used only when the writer is referring to certain occupations. One theory I have is that it is used by convention to dignify these occupations, and by implication it denigrates others when it is not used. For example, one will see "the sociologist Dr. Peter Jackson" but very rarely "the lawyer Susan Johnson," and never "the accountant Alex Smith." And one will also never see any of the trades referred to in this way: "the cement finisher Bill Collins," "the garbage collector Mike Thompson." What light can you shed on this? My instinct is to say that this construction betrays a certain classism, but I leave such lofty conclusions up to you.

The starving graduate student
Mark R. G. Goodale
Madison, Wis.

The point is not actually class but fame. I don't think of the cartoon character Dilbert, for example, as a high-toned guy, and yet it seems appropriate for me to refer to him here with that phrase. The construction suggests I believe that you've heard of Dilbert but that you still might like a little hint to help you place him. Contrast the phrase Dilbert, a cartoon character, which is likely to leave you either feeling faintly insulted, because of course you've heard of Dilbert, or convinced that I must be really out of it not to know that he's a household name.

I would, though, be likely to introduce Breakup Girl, an online and TV superhero, with that phrase, whose implication is that I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first you've heard of her. Our language can also readily suggest a third degree of fame: extreme. Extremely famous people and characters need no introduction. That is, I would be inclined to say simply Superman or Spiderwoman, in the full expectation that the name alone is enough to call one of these characters to mind.

Illustrations by Greg Clarke Would you please discuss the adjectives crisp and crispy? I'm not satisfied with the dictionary treatment of them. Do we need crispy? If we don't need it, why does it persist? Could it be that the trochaic crispy fits more mellifluously into advertising jingles?

Charles Perrone
Moorestown, N.J.

Crispy certainly is persistent: it has been part of our language for at least 600 years. Early on it meant "curled," as did crisp. Some reputable present-day dictionaries declare it to be no more or less than a synonym for crisp -- but who ever says "I admire her crispy efficiency" or "It was a crispy spring morning"? Nonphysical meanings don't apply to this word. Then again, I don't think many people would say that they like fried chicken best when it's crisp -- and I don't mean they like it soggy. Fries and bacon, however, are commonly preferred either crisp or crispy. You're right that English doesn't really need crispy, but what do you say we keep it anyway, if only out of respect for tradition?


Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the author of Word Court.

Illustrations by Greg Clarke.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Word Court - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 136.