Learn English – the meaning of “ironically” in this passage


A rocket launched and shortly afterward exploded, on Tuesday. Below is passage from a news article written about it:

This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening's try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket's danger zone–ironically, the restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

Please explain to me how ironically is used here. I don't see any irony in restricting an area for safety purposes then it turns out that place was dangerous, due to the explosion. Is there another definition or perhaps the author meant something else that I'm missing?

Best Answer

Definitions of irony (and there are quite a few) emphasize the notion of incongruity—between something expected and something that comes to pass, for example, or between something said or done in a dramatic situation and how the action is understood by the audience. Here is the entry for irony in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

irony n (1502) 1 : a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other's false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning — called also Socratic irony 2 a : the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning b : a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony c : an ironic expression or utterance 3 a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play — called also dramatic irony, tragic irony

It seems fairly clear than nothing in this entry makes ironically a good fit for the sentence quoted in the OP's question. So what was the intended word? I suspect that the author might have been looking for coincidentally. Again from the Eleventh Collegiate:

coincidentally adv (1837) 1 : in a coincidental manner : by coincidence {lonely singles who meet coincidentally and click — People} 2 : it is or seems coincidental that {coincidentally, the dog died exactly one year after his owner did}

In the example, there is a kind of coincidence in the fact that launch was delayed by an unsafe condition (the sailboat's presence in the rocket's danger zone) and the fact that the explosion of the rocket was precisely the kind of potentially disastrous occurrence that led the government to delay launches when the boats are in the area. But this is not a case of incongruity between launch policy and launch result; instead it's a clear case of congruity between the two. It follows that ironically is not a suitable word to describe the relationship between the launch delay and the launch explosion.

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