I read a story on BBC's news web site recently about a man who caught a mouse in his home. The man was bored, and instead of ridding himself of the mouse by drowning it or returning it to the wilds of British suburbia, he (probably) thought to himself "Oi, wouldn't it be a kick in the knickers if I torched the little bugger alive?"

As fortune would have it, the man was burning brush in his backyard at the time. Giddy, he hurried outside and with sadistic pleasure cast the hapless rodent into the flames. "That'll teach 'im to dally about me property!" the man may or may not have said, reveling in the illusion of great power.

But then something wonderful happened. Reacting to a survival instinct that its executioner had failed to account for in his carefully calculated mouse-elimination strategy, the mouse tried to escape the fire. It bolted out of the inferno, scampered across the lawn, and sought sanctuary, quite naturally, in the man's house.

"Bollocks!" the man very likely exclaimed.

Now, going through all that trouble to incinerate a defenseless creature only to have it defy death and resume its infestation of his home was a lot of work for nothing, so one can understand the man's frustration. But there was an even more urgent concern: the mouse was still on fire.

Yes, that heroic little rodent returned to the man's house from whence it came...and burned it to the ground.

When at last the structure's remains lay smoldering atop its foundation, the mouse climbed to the peak of the half-collapsed chimney, looked down with great satisfaction at the man's ashen face, and gave him the finger.

Okay, I made that very last part up. But the rest of the story is true, which brings me to my word of the day: irony.

iro?ny (I-r&-nE also I(-&)r-nE). n. 3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (source: Merriam-Webster's).

I mean, talk about serious irony?you could practically build a religion on that kind of a parable. Yes, irony lives! But it is not just a British craze, everyone's got the fever...do you?

"Of course not," you might reply. "I am a serious, self-possessed person with an acute sense of awareness and a partial college education. I am a figurative stone wall to the winds of irony!"

I'm just kidding. You don't really talk like that.

The thing is that like herpes, irony can often afflict a person without an exhibition of explicit symptoms. And like herpes, it is horribly contagious.

Entertain, for example, the following scenario: You put off writing your philosophy essay for the two weeks allotted by your professor, assuming that daily viewings of VH1's "Best Week Ever" will offer insight into Kant's discussion of the Categorical Imperative.

"Dude, it's three in the morning, and your paper's due in five and a half hours," says your roommate, who knows for a fact that you haven't even purchased the book. "Don't you think you should start working on it?"

"Nah," you say, selecting the "play all" option on your "Family Guy" DVD's menu screen. "Papers about normative ethics practically write themselves. I have time to watch at least another four or five episodes."

Here we observe a sort of irony especially common to collegians:

iro?ny (I-r&-nE also I(-&)r-nE). n. 3 b (1): 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?also called dramatic irony, tragic irony.

Everyone reading this anecdote knows that your paper is not going to get finished in time, yet your character remains convinced that it will. Most students play this role from time to time in the epic tragicomedy that is their college education. Ironically, most also study it.

But if that example fails to strike a familiar chord, try this one on for size:

You're at a campus-wide party at one of the social houses, shaking what God gave you in an attempt to convey some semblance of sex appeal. After a few drinks, your inhibitions slip away and you feel increasingly convinced that you are channeling Usher. You begin gyrating to the beat of the music with enthusiasm those around you will later describe as "terrifying." At some point, you begin "dancing" in close enough proximity to a member of the opposite sex to lead you to believe that you are dancing "with" her.

After a little while, when the music dies down and members of the coed congregation begin either pairing off or passing out, you spy your involuntary dance partner lingering by the coats. Acting on the supposition that her physical association with you had not been merely incidental, you put on your "game face" and make your approach (note to readers: never make your "game face" in front of a mirror or any reflective surface). Your interaction goes like this:

You: What's goin' on?

Her: Nothing.

You: Nice, nice...So what are you up to now?

Her: I'm not sure (averts eyes, looks over at friends). I'm pretty tired. I'll probably go to bed soon.

You: (maintaining "game face") It's so early, though! You should stick around, have a few drinks...I've got the whole first season of "Reno 911" on DVD...

Her: I don't know, I have to get up early and it's probably best that I get some shut-eye. But hey, thanks for the dance!

You: Okay, well, don't be a stranger!

Her: I won't. Goodbye!

Perfectly diplomatic, wasn't it? And if it weren't for irony, you might actually be convinced that you had this exact conversation. But you'd be wrong.

You see, the Bowdoin student body is a conglomeration of perhaps the most friendly, courteous, and conscientious 18 to 22-year-olds in the country?everyone is extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings of everyone else. Consequently, in scenarios such as these, candor tends to get the axe, and our third definition of irony inevitably takes root:

iro?ny (I-r&-nE also I(-&)r-nE). n. 2 a: the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning.

In the effort to be polite, many disinterested parties will tactfully cloak their real responses in ironic language. This is the conversation you actually had:

You: What's goin' on?

Her: Uh-oh. You're hitting on me.

You: Nice, nice...So what are you up to now?

Her: I'm leaving (averts eyes, looks over at friends). I'll probably go to an off-campus party with my friends and flirt with upperclassmen.

You: (maintaining "game face") It's so early, though! You should stick around, have a few drinks...I've got the whole first season of "Reno 911" on DVD...

Her: I don't know what that is. It's probably best that I go before this becomes protracted and awkward. But hey, thanks for sweating on me!

You: Okay, well, don't be a stranger!

Her: Technically, I am. Goodbye!

These accounts may seem unsettling, but the prevalence of irony in college life is by no means lamentable. Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed, "Irony is a disciplinarian feared by those who don't know it, and cherished by those who do."

Of course, it's unclear whether or not he was just being ironic.