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We Do Not Stock Oxymorons

It seems as if Your Humble Blogger has yet to write a Puff Piece on A.Word.a.Day, Anu Garg’s tremendously entertaining service where he emails you, well, a word a day. Unlike some other seemingly similar services I’ve tried, Mr. Garg often chooses words that even my Gentle Readers will be unfamiliar with, and which are interesting in themselves. I have learned, on a few occasions, that I have been using a word incorrectly, and on many more, I have found that there is a word for something that I had always thought no single word described. For instance, where I have always used avuncular to refer to the particular affection an uncle shows his nieces and nephews, I had never heard materteral, which means much the same only referring to an aunt. I can now say that, for instance, a certain ex-boss looked out for the people in her employ with a materteral eye, not quite maternal, and certainly not grandmotherly. True, I’d have to explain what it means, but only once or twice, right?

As I say, it’s too bad I haven’t written a Puff Piece, because I’m all cranky about one of the daily notes, and as it’s so much easier to write hatchet jobs than puff pieces, here we are. Or perhaps it much easier to refrain from writing the puff pieces. Anyway.

This week’s began very nicely with three “words about wordplay”: antanaclasis, paralipsis, and antiphrasis. All of these are great and useful words, and describe quite specifically certain rhetorical figures that come up far more frequently than the words that describe them. So far, so good. Then came Thursday, and Thursday’s word was oxymoron.

Oxymoron has been a pet peeve of mine as far back as I can recall. Mr. Garg’s definition is typical: A figure of speech in which two contradictory terms appear together for emphasis, for example, “deafening silence”. For comparison, the American Heritage fourth edition’s is quite similar: A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist. I’ll go ahead and quote from ooo is for oxymoron, from Jed’s late lamented column:

An oxymoron is what columnist Herb Caen used to call a "self-cancelling phrase"—a phrase which is internally contradictory. An oxymoron usually consists of two words which appear to be opposite in meaning. Often the apparent contradiction is simply due to the words in the phrase having other meanings than the intended ones. For instance, the phrase "even odds" makes perfect sense in its intended meaning, but it's often cited as an oxymoron because other meanings of "even" and "odd" are opposites of each other.

What Jed gets at here that the other two definitions miss is that the words in the phrase appear to contradict each other, but do not. The appearance of contradiction is the rhetorical trick. An oxymoron is not a phrase that actually does contradict itself, but one that appears to. So “deafening silence” is an oxymoron, because we ordinarily think of deafening as being more or less a synonym for loud, and in that sense it would contradict silence. In this case of course, either (more rarely) we are talking literally, as the total absence of sound (or silence) has the effect of somehow deafening someone (through atrophy?), or (more likely) we are using deafening to mean something like having the same social effect as a really loud noise, such as a person screaming abuse. As the common use of metaphor is to compare a thing to a thing that it is unlike, these phrases are very common. Jumbo shrimp is commonly called an oxymoron; Jumbo, was, of course, P.T. Barnum’s prize elephant and thus things that are elephantine, er, large are often called jumbo, whereas shrimp are quite small, and thus things that are small are often called shrimpy or shrimps. But shrimp is not used here to (metaphorically) mean small, just to mean (literally) shrimp. But jumbo prawn is not considered an oxymoron, nor does jumbo eggs, and eggs aren’t much larger than shrimp, because one metaphor is common and another isn’t.

Probably about two-thirds of the phrases that show up on lists such as Jed’s or the one from Oymorons.info are derived this way. In dry wine, dry is a less-commonly-used meaning, derived from metaphor. In Plastic glasses, glass is a commonly-used Schenectady, but the point is the same. In taped live or recorded live, live means neither live nor the metaphorical live nor yet the extended metaphor live, but the common descriptor derived from that metaphor, live, which makes it no contradiction at all. But those aren’t very interesting, other than to notice how words have a variety of different uses, and they aren’t responsible for them all at once. Anyway, it’s OK to call those oxymorons, technically, although most of them really they are sub-oxymorons, accidental juxtapositions due to the migration of words, having little rhetorical effect.

I would reserve the word, ideally, for the deliberate use of apparently contradictory words to either emphasize (deafening silence) or make a joke, or just draw attention to the words themselves. If I describe a particular celebrity as scandalously nice, or a novel as sublimely bad, I am using the rhetorical trick of an oxymoron, and I may be using it effectively, too. If a name a song Freezing Fire, I’m using an attention-getting rhetorical trick, and perhaps effectively, too. And if Milton (in Paradise Lost) says

Yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe
it’s pretty damned effective. And the point, you know, of these things having names is that they are, potentially, effective tricks, and knowing about them, being able to differentiate one from another and spot them in the wild can help you either become an effective speaker/writer, or build up immunity to effective writers and speakers.

Now, there’s a third category of things often called oxymorons. These are joke oxymorons, phrases which contain no inherent contradiction, either actual or metaphoric, but which are called oxymorons as a joke. As Jed wrote, “to say that "California culture" is an oxymoron is to say that there is no culture in California, or that all Californians are uncultured.” In other words, the phrase California culture can only be called an oxymoron in jest or in insult. Similarly, it’s a fairly good, if tired, joke to claim that military intelligence is an oxymoron. It isn’t. If it was, the joke wouldn’t be funny. No, it isn’t funny anyway, but there it is. It could be funny. It’s theoretically funny. Similarly, if you call the phrase Christian Science an oxymoron, you are making a weak joke, or weakly insulting Christians, or scientists, or members of TCCS or something. What you are not doing is actually claiming that Christian Science is an oxymoron. And that’s fine. Until someone tries to tell you what an oxymoron is by using a joke oxymoron.

The AWAD definition was fine (if incomplete), but here’s the example, from an article called “The Family That Cheats Together”, by Karen D'Souza in the Mar 25, 2005 San Jose Mercury News: “A man for whom the term 'business ethics' is not just a polite oxymoron...” I understand that Ms. D’Souza was, herself, making a joke, and although I would have been gritting my teeth whilst reading it, I would have eventually let it go. I would not, not ever, have used it as an example. American Rhetoric, an otherwise terrific resource chooses as its example a line from a movie: “Safe sex -- now there's an oxymoron. That's like 'tactical Nuke' or 'adult male'.” Hahaha. Yes, I actually think it’s funny (funny-once) to call adult male an oxymoron. See, it’s a joke. It’s not an example. It’s not an example, people! It’s just not! It may be funny to say that if you look up choke in the dictionary you’ll see the 2004 Yankees team picture. It would not be funny for the dictionary to place that picture there. Well, it would be funny, but it wouldn’t be responsible.

Most of the time I see an example of oxymoron, it’s one of those joke ones. On occasion, it’s one of the accidental ones, such as jumbo shrimp or home office. Is it asking too much to use the Milton? Then how about Tennyson’s “His honor rooted in dishonor stood / And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true” (from Lancelot and Elaine)? John Donne’s “O miserable abundance / O beggarly riches”? Edmund Spenser’s “painful pleasure turns to pleasing pain”? Or Shakespeare’s “fearful bravery” (“thinking by this face / To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage”)? John F. Kennedy’s “peaceful revolution of hope”?

Well, and now that I’ve ranted for a ludicrous amount of time, I see that Wikipedia’s entry actually is rather good. So that’s all right. And even Richard Lederer after his usual blather eventually admits that it is a legitimate literary technique, although as usual he prefers mockery to explication. But I’m not just whistling in the wind, here.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


how irresistably dull. bravo.

anyway the merriam-webster collegiate sitting here beside me calls an oxymoron a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as "cruel kindness").

some of the incongruities that are joke oxymorons seem to come from turning half a compound phrase ("california" and "military") into descriptive qualifiers ("californian" and "military").

"tactical nuke" and "safe sex" do seem in the area of a literary oxymoron, because they are intentional attempts at persuasive misrepresentation - overloading the adjective in order to reframe the noun. doublespeak is perhaps the deceptive application of oxymoron.

("safer sex" is more accurate, encouraging a more practical approach to contraception and disease prevention. "tactical nuke," used outside strategy planning circles, is absolutely intended to imply that there are large nuclear weapons - much larger, as a class, than the bombs dropped on japan - whose effects can be predicted and controlled. in any case if we're talking about one writer negating a noun to add meaning, and another writer negating a noun to remove meaning, the difference between clarification and obfuscation is slim - i think...)

(in fact the public use of the "tactical nuke" phrase is in diplomatic circles the opposite of its domestic political purpose - "we have the capacity to immediately devastate the innocent - genocide - without the militant sub-group laying a finger on us. no sense waiting for another MAD situation, you see - this is a cultural kill switch, which we have a moral right to operate." in that case it is being used as an oxymoron?)

anyway regarding "recorded live" - which i guess means "selected segments and points of view of a performance whose principal audience was non-technical people in the room at the time, no retakes allowed" - is definitely sliding toward doublespeak. if the audience came without the information that the performance was being recorded for broadcast, then "recorded live" works for me as an innocent mix of metaphors, but we're moving into literary license when we have "applause" signs and actors turning toward a particular camera, commerical breaks, and so on.

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