Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Today’s Kerrying On serves a rather modest purpose. I’m offering a simple story as a means of solving a growing problem in America. People are constantly misusing the word irony. That’s right, grab your pitchforks, hot tar, and feathers and come join with me as I lead a counterassault on this growing threat.
This problem, as you may know, falls in the middle of an ugly onslaught of morphing words and degrading grammar—all of which are chipping away at the clarity of our communication. For example, teenagers in my neighborhood now use the word heinous (which means totally reprehensible, even abominable) to mean “out of fashion” or possibly “uncool.” For example, I recently overheard the following sentence. “She carried a purse that was positively heinous.” Now, unless said purse was actually seen wielding a chain saw in a school bus, it probably wasn’t one tiny bit heinous.
Some words have actually come to mean their exact opposite. People now use literally to mean “not literally.” Once again, overheard in a shopping mall: “I ate so much at the buffet that I was literally two potato chips away from exploding.” I doubt it.
The term ironic, which is rich in meaning and nuance, is routinely used to mean weird or paradoxical and that’s a bit of a shame because the word means so much more. If you look irony up in the dictionary, you don’t get much help. The most common meaning is: “surprising or unexpected,” but that’s much too broad an explanation.
“How’s your dad?”
“Didn’t you hear? He was hit by a truck and killed!”
“Really? How ironic.”
Of course, none of this verbal confusion is of much import. These examples are not nearly as bad as the fact that flammable and inflammable both mean “flammable.” Now there’s a verbal mix-up of some potential consequence.
Notwithstanding the triviality of the issue, I recently came up with such a wonderful tool for explaining the meaning of the word irony that I just have to tell the story.
It all started sixteen years ago when my wife and I bought the home we currently live in. The backyard of our new house consisted of a long, sloping stretch of lawn that was just terrific if you were a six-year-old who enjoyed rolling down the hill. My wife and I had other plans in mind, so we re-landscaped our entire yard. This included planting over two hundred trees and shrubs. As we chose between oak, red oak, flaming red oak, etc., I eventually became quite familiar with the names of all of our choices.
Unfortunately, as I continued my headlong plunge into senility, it wasn’t long until I had forgotten the name of almost every choice of foliage. I didn’t care a whit about this mental slippage until I discovered that people would look at our yard, like a particular tree or shrub, and then ask me for the name.
At first I was more than happy saying I couldn’t remember the name of the dumb plant until it became clear that people treat individuals who can’t remember the names of trees growing in their yard like some kind of drooling cretin who probably also doesn’t know the size and brand of the tires on his car (I think mine are two ten, net thirty) and who as such, wouldn’t have been able to bring down a woolly mammoth on his own and is really of no use to society.
It wasn’t long until I started taking a new tack. I made up names. For example, we selected the evergreen trees that grow next to my house because they grow tall and full, but not wide, so they wouldn’t block the garage door. Now that they’ve grown to their full size, absolute strangers driving by my house slam on their brakes, knock on my door, and ask me about the trees in front of my house that grow tall, but remain skinny—because they need some just like them for their yard.
“Why those,” I explain with a perfectly straight face, “are pynus anerexus and can be found at any nursery.”
This lack of memory, it turns out, extends to plants I’ve known for over forty years. For reasons known only to the memory Gods, I can never recall the name of Petunias when I need to. Picking up on a technique I read in an article, I decided to try the association game. I associated the flower with an imaginary pig because the only other Petunia I knew was Petunia Pig, Porky Pig’s girlfriend. Now I look at the flowers and think pig and call them Porkies. Last summer I actually asked the lady at the local nursery for a flat of Wilburs.
Growing increasingly concerned with the need to be able to recall the names of the plants in my yard, I committed to reading and memorizing the names of the annuals I put in each spring. After all, each little packet of six flowers comes with several white plastic sticks stating the name of whatever is growing in the container. After planting a lovely blue flower, I just knew that people were going to ask me what it was called so I read the name, spelled it in my head, said it aloud several times, and made up a little song. Surely I’d remember the name of this beauty.
Later that evening as I lay in bed replaying the events of the day in my mind, my thoughts turned to planting the new annuals and it struck me that I couldn’t recall the name of the beautiful blue flowers I had planted next to my walkway. What the heck were those things called anyway? The harder I tried the more my brain turned to mush until eventually I could take it no longer. In a fit of self loathing I grabbed a flashlight, put on flip-flops and a bathrobe, and at some time around one in the morning trudged out to find the silly blue flowers.
Seconds later I kneeled next to the flower bed, flashed my light around until I spotted a white stick with words printed on it, and pulled up eyeball-to-plastic stick until I could finally read the name of the flower I had—despite efforts to the contrary—completely forgotten. The name of the plant? “Forget-me-not.”
So there you have it. If you’re looking for a way to explain the meaning of irony to someone, I’ve now shared with you the perfect story. And please take the time to explain the real meaning of the word. Continued abuse of the meaning would be absolutely heinous. Literally.