To paraphrase The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, “What about the language? Won’t somebody please think of the language?”
Here’s a definition:
irony (n.) — the least understood word in America.
A catchy beat, a great chorus, awesome production values, and fading memories of You Can’t Do That on Television turned the word “irony” into a hopeless quivering mass of consonants and vowels, a term so far removed from its origins in Greek drama that it found itself in the outer abyss of semiotic vacancies and void meanings. Far from the evolution of language, in providing the mid-1990s with the upbeat soundtrack needed for marathon sessions of Myst, Alanis Morissette catapulted an ancient, overloaded term into oblivion.
And that’s what we do to language. Couple this with Nickelback, Justin Bieber, and Bryan Adams and the question the world asks America is, “Why not take them out for a change?” (The answer, friends, is RUSH. Thank your lucky stars, Canada. But just as soon as Neil dies it’s all up to God Speed You! Black Emperor.)
But in all seriousness, when Alanis Morissette provided a laundry list of unfortunate events and slapped the word “ironic” on them, the label stuck. Irony became synonymous with misfortune and, moreover, the power of popular culture to relegate the venerable to the midden.
What passes for irony today is at best sarcasm, at worst hubris. It’s a sneer, a jeer, an upturned nose, and defiance of common decency as well as common sense. Far from information telegraphed to the audience over the heads of fictitious characters, today’s sense of irony defies any to read the overt cues of body language, challenges people to find the intended snarl beneath the saccharine tone of the petty functionary who delights in refusing the simplest of requests. Irony has become cattiness.
With one pop hit, irony exploded from the page and stage into the material world. But our world doesn’t contain literary devices terribly well, except as tragedies. Irony, never born to breathe the same air as we, didn’t so much adapt as its true meaning died. The outer form continued to walk about, like a praying mantis animated by the parasitic worm responsible for its demise.
Since then, we haven’t stopped. Words get purloined and repurposed, overloaded and broken beneath new burdens. The Internet facilitates the fast-track devolution of language, largely into shibboleths among tribal factions.
And so meaning dies in the world. It dies because it’s attached to language never intended for the work given it. It dies because we get our clumsy shithooks on it and lug it into the swamp of our daily lives and expect it to describe what we’re too stupid to articulate any other way.
Language dies because we no longer seek meaning.
The zeal to make everything accessible, to make everything open without gatekeepers, contributes to the culture of irresponsible language. When all are free to change the meanings of words and the details of events, the synthesis of the fantastic and the material produces only the mindless muddying of clear waters wherein nothing real retains its value and nothing philosophic can be recognized as true.