ooo: A Tautology Is a Tautology Is a Tautology

About seven months ago, an English teacher wrote to ask me if I knew of any lists of oxymorons. I did a little poking around on the Web and in various reference and wordplay books, but found surprisingly little on the subject. For instance, neither the rec.puzzles archive nor the alt.usage.english FAQ mentioned oxymorons at all the last time I looked. As a public service, then, I provide here a list of oxymorons, along with some discussion of both oxymorons and tautologies.

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.

At least as often when someone says something is an oxymoron, they mean, jokingly and usually at least somewhat insultingly, that such a thing doesn't or can't exist. For instance, to say that "California culture" is an oxymoron is to say that there is no culture in California, or that all Californians are uncultured. Taking this approach a step further, saying that "airline food" is an oxymoron means not that there's no such thing as food on an airplane, but that there is no good airline food—that is, that the stuff served as food on an airline isn't worthy of the name "food." The best-known such "oxymoron" is "military intelligence"—suggesting that this is an oxymoron indicates that the speaker feels the military doesn't behave intelligently, though it ignores the fact that the word "intelligence" in this context means "information."

Some other so-called oxymorons are simply modifiers attached to precise terms. There's nothing really contradictory about the phrase "almost exactly"—it merely takes a precise term and makes it more vague. But since precision and vagueness are often opposed to each other, there's a certain tension in the phrase that can be seen as oxymoronic.

Finally, there are some oxymorons that really do mix opposite terms. "Bittersweet," for instance, is a mix of bitter and sweet.

Have I dissected the jokes to the point where they're no longer funny yet? Sorry. The list has plenty more where those came from.

(I'm obliquely reminded of the story about the lecturer telling an audience that although a double negative often cancels itself to become positive, there's no way to use two positive terms to mean something negative. To which a voice in the back of the room called out, in a sarcastic tone, "Yeah, yeah.")

Moving from the contradictory to the repetitive:

My dictionary lists three definitions for "tautology." The first is "needless repetition"; the second is "an instance of tautology"; the third is "a tautologous statement." Hmm. Seems needlessly repetitive to me. Similarly, a "pleonasm" is "the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense...: redundancy."

I'm not sure whether Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" is tautologous or just repetitive, but I'm fond of tautologous similes and metaphors in general. Once while riding a motorcycle on the freeway, pleased with how smoothly the machine ran, I caught myself thinking, "This bike runs like a well-oiled engine."

A while back I obtained a Magnetic Proverbs set. It consists of a few dozen proverbs printed on magnetic vinyl (like a magnetic poetry set), with each proverb broken into two pieces (subject and predicate) so you can mix and match halves of proverbs. Unfortunately I don't have ordering information handy, but game stores might have it. Mixing the pieces results in phrases like "Beauty should be seen and not heard" and "A rolling stone killed the cat." Almost any match you make is at least somewhat entertaining.

As I put the mixed proverbs up on my refrigerator, I noticed that the set makes it easy to produce fine semi-tautological proverbs, like these:

  • Dead men die young.
  • Children will be boys.
  • Cleanliness sweeps clean.
  • Love makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Absence keeps the doctor away.
  • Behind every good man is virtue.

There are plenty of redundant phrases in common use: animated cartoon, rakish angle, willing volunteer, and so on. (Dominus suggests that an unwilling volunteer should be called a "nolunteer"; compare "nolens volens," Latin for "unwilling [or] willing," meaning about the same thing as "willy-nilly.") Also in common use are lots of redundant phrases that involve acronyms: ATM machine, PIN number, TWAIN technology. But there are also redundancies we're not aware of most of the time, sometimes because they combine languages. I've had friends refer to hot salsa as "salsa sauce," for instance, unaware that "salsa" means "sauce." Similarly, the dining hall at Swarthmore used to serve "roast beef au jus with sauce," and a friend once ate "chicken pollos" on a visit to Costa Rica. Finally, most people are probably unaware that the word "Tahoe" comes from Washoe da'au, meaning "lake," so "Lake Tahoe," too, is bilingually redundant.


Reader comments and addenda page

One Response to “ooo: A Tautology Is a Tautology Is a Tautology”

  1. Edward Jay Blume

    Wow, I love this page of yours. I found this page when I wrote: if tautology is the saying of the same thing twice in different words, and is the exact opposite of oxymoron, which is both a figure of speech, in which is a contradictory term as well as not being in harmony with itself, then the exact opposite of tautology, is a double positive, which is a Double Negatives, as two negative words cancel each other out to become positive, So as we can’t hope to win for losing, here is a deliciously disgusting, hopelessly hopeful, of my mindless mindful as my ADHD filled brain, as I successfully begin to comprehend what my brain can’t begin to comprehend for what may seem to be senselessly sensible, for how can I expect that anyone would still be reading this rant of a run on sentence of mine, but why not? Wow a break, yes and no, as I find myself lost in this thoughtless thought’s of mine. So I ask anyone, what’s is the difference and similarity between a person who has found himself, hopelessly lost, as most think he’s could be certifiably insane, yet, what most who either don’t realize or care to know that it’s them who maybe certifiably insane, for both I just ask the reader, if I’m wrong, then explain to me, why for as long as man’s written history, why have they continue to attempt and for the most part succeed in ripping each others throats out, to this very day? Now if I’m insane, it won’t matter pointing out to the reader, that the as per the UN’s report last, year, for if we don’t change things around, by 2030, we are all may be lost. I also see as per Messianic and End Time Prophecies, from the Book of Daniel Chapter’s 2, 7, 8, 9, and the 10-12 which is one long prophecy (most rabbi’s says Daniel is fiction, but I beg to differ for the simple fact as with Jeremiah 31:27-34, Isaiah, Joel, Micah, , Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, 2 Theologians 2, 2 Peter 3:3-4, 11-12, 8-9, Revelation 6 & 7 , 8:10-11, has is some is still happening as well as what still to be. You think Trump is a fluke? Daniel 11:21 21 “He will be succeeded by a contemptible person who has not been given the honor of royalty. He will invade the kingdom when its people feel secure, and he will seize it through intrigue (not given the honor of royalty is the particular country’s of legally choosing the Head of State, as per Kings, Queens and Presidents, as no one is willing to admit that Trump never legally became President as Trump is always been a Putin puppet. About the King of the north as in Daniel 7:5, 11:15, 27 Putin and Trump, at Germany’s G-20, 28 has yet to happen 29 is Trumps attack on our southern border, which unlike 1830-1898, as Revelation 6:2 as the rider on white horse talks of about Manifest Destiny 1830-1845 Jackson and Polk’s expansionism as America’s to 1898. Now this horseman represents an American Indian Chief with an arrowless bow, and the crown as John never saw and American Indian Chief’s Headdress, Revelation 13:1-10 1st beast (skin orange, feet of a bear as Russia is known as the Russian Bear and boast like a Lion roaring) The seven heads is the 7 republican presidents from Eisenhower to Trump, and the one horn who’s fatal wound healed? 1981 President Reagan, who would had died had not one secret service man insist the hospital instead of going back to the White House. as ). The 2nd beast like a lamb with 2 horns, but speaks like the dragon, don’t we have someone like that as VP from Indiana?), These are but a teaser, and everyone thinks I’m insane? Matthew 24:12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most has grown cold. 81% of former Messianic Jews and Evangelical Christian who traded their humility for an evil political agenda? 1 Thessalonians 2:9-12, 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. Welcome to what you think is my insanity! Eddie

    reply

Join the Conversation

Click here to cancel reply.