by Richard Lederer
Word Ways, 1990
Not long ago, a couple I know tooled down to a local car emporium to look over the latest products. Attracted to the low sticker price on the basic model, they told the salesman that they were considering buying an unadorned automobile and had no inclination to purchase any of the long list of options affixed to the side window of the vehicle they were inspecting.
"But you will have to pay $200 for the rear window wiper," the salesman explained.
"We don't want the rear wiper," my friends protested.
And the salesman said: "We want to keep the sticker price low, but every car comes with the rear window wiper, so you have to buy it. It's a mandatory option."
Mandatory option is a telling example of the kind of push-me pull-you verbiage that pervades the language of business and politics these days. It is also a striking instance of an oxymoron.
"Good grief!" some people exclaim when I use the word. "What's an oxymoron? Is it a dumb bovine?"
Appropriately, the word oxymoron is itself oxymoronic because it is formed from two Greek roots of opposite meaning, oxys "sharp, keen," and moros "foolish," the same root that gives us the word moron . Noting that oxymoron is a single-word oxymoron consisting of two morphemes that are dependent in English, the intrepid linguist senses a rich opportunity to impose order on seeming chaos, to extract significance from the swirl of data that escape through the holes in people's faces, leak from their pens, and glow on their computer screens.
With books such as Warren S. Blumenfeld's Jumbo Shrimp and Pretty Ugly (Perigee, 1986, 1989) selling so well, oxymora (my preferred plural form) were a hot language item in the 1980s. Now that we can recollect that decade with some tranquility, it is time to attempt a taxonomy of the collected oxymoronic specimens and to set the aborning discipline of oxymoronology in some order.
Single-word oxymora composed of dependent morphemes The more in oxymoron also gives us the more in sophomore, a "wise fool"--and there are indeed many sophomoric sophomores. Other, examples: pianoforte ("soft-loud"), preposterous ("before-after"), and superette ("big-small").
Single-word oxymora composed of independent morphemes Two meaning-bearing elements that could each be a word in itself are welded together into a single word: spendthrift, bridegroom, bittersweet, ballpoint, speechwriting, firewater and someone.
Logological oxymora If we view words as surface letter combinations and disregard meaning, we note that the word nook joins the opposing words no and OK, and the name Noyes no and yes. I welcome additional specimens from Word Ways readers.
Natural oxymora Most speakers of English who know the definition of an oxymoron would have little trouble identifying the pairs inside out, student teacher, working vacation and small fortune as oxymora. I call this major category of oxymoronology "natural" because the perception of these duos as oxymora is relatively direct and effortless and does not depend on plays on words or personal values. Among the tens of additional examples:
industrial park, open secret, sight unseen, loyal opposition,
idiot savant, light heavyweight, original copy, final draft,
random order, freezer burn, negative growth, standard deviation,
build-down, elevated subway, mobile home, benign neglect,
fresh frozen, deliberate speed, benevolent despot, recorded live,
one-man band, old boy, living end
Punning oxymora Probably the best-known oxymoron in the United States is one from comedian George Carlin's record "Toledo Window Box," the delightful jumbo shrimp. I submit that the popularity of jumbo shrimp springs in part from an invitation to leap from an apparent meaning to a less-apparent one. While the meaning of jumbo as "large" is obvious, we must rise above the surface significance of shrimp, "decapod crustacean," to the more elevated "small." This is the stuff that punning is made of, the compacting of two meanings into a verbal space that they do not occupy in ordinary discourse. Thus, flat busted relies on the multiple meanings of the second word, "financially broke" and "breasts." This process is at work in the likes of even odds, baby grand, cardinal sin, female jock, indoor bleachers and death benefit. Punning can lurk even in single-word oxymora such as wholesome.
Conversion puns Closely related to the above is a group of oxymoronic pairs that rely on the coexistence of two parts of speech for the same word. Some of my favorites in this small cluster are press release, kickstand, divorce court, building wrecking and White Rose in which the oxymora emerge only with the interpretation of the two words in each pair as verbs.
Dead metaphors Over time a word may become emptied of its original meaning. Fabulous, for example, no longer denotes "based on a fable," and awful, for another example, no longer means "awe-inspiring." But enough of the primordial meaning may respose in a word that it becomes oxymoronic when set along another word that collides with its earlier signification:
awful(ly) good, terribly good, damned good, many fewer,
barely clothed, exactly wrong, clearly obfuscating, far nearer,
kind of cruel, hardly easy, a little big, growing small
Close kin to the first two is wicked good. A product of American slang, in which bad has come to mean "good" and cool mean "hot," wicked good clearly empties the old meaning from wicked. But the draining is so contrived that wicked good should perhaps be assigned to the next category.
Crafted oxymora Some compact paradoxes have about them a sense of consciousness contriv-ance and crafting, as when Stephen Douglas was dubbed the Little Giant and Tom Landry ap-proached a Super Bowl saying that his team was confidently scared. When we say same difference, global village, accidentally on purpose, "it went over like a lead balloon," and "keep it down to a dull roar," we are likely to be more aware of the collision of opposites than when we say old news, indoor bleachers and death benefit.
Literary oxynmora Brightly crystallized forms of oxymoronic language become art in literature created by our greatest writers:
hateful good (Chaucer), proud humility (Spenser),
darkness visible (Milton), damn with faint praise ((Pope),
expressive silence (Thomson), melancholy merriment (Byron),
falsely true (Tennyson), parting is such sweet sorrow (Shakespeare),
scalding coolness (Hemingway)
Doublespeak oxymora When people consciously fabricate oxymoronic combinations with the purpose of confusing us, we enter the world of doublespeak, defined by William Lutz in Doublespeak (Harper & Row, 1989) as "language that pretends to communicate but really doesn't. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable...lt is language that conceals or prevents thought." Oxymora like
genuine imitation, virtually spotless, real counterfeit diamonds,
mandatory option, new and improved, terminal living,
constitute language that, according to Lutz, "avoids or shifts responsibility... is at variance with its real or purported meaning."
Opinion oxymora When we inject our personal values and editorialize unabashedly, we expand our oxymoronic repertoire considerably. Those of us who spout oxymora to entertain others quickly learn that opinion (or editorial) oxymora ordinarily evoke the roundest laughs from an audience:
military intelligence, non-working mother, young Republican,
war games, peacekeeper missile, business ethics,
student athlete, educational television, designer jeans,
rock music, postal service, Amtrak schedule,
airline food, Iranian moderate, Greater (fill in a city), President (your scapegoat)
I make no pretensions of having forever clarified the discipline of oxymoronology or of having presented in my disquisition a complete taxonomy. First, I know that in some Platonic realm float oxymoronic forms that I have not yet made fixed and concrete. Should a special category be assigned to oxymora generated by emerging technologies? Some examples of these are:
paper tablecloths, green blackboards, metal wood,
plastic silverware, plastic glasses, plastic wood
What about evolving oxymora, word pairs that were once pleonasms but have, of late, trans-mogrified into oxymora: healthy tan or Soviet Union? Or oxymora such as criminal lawyer (in a time of lawyer-bashing) that have traveled in the opposite direction and become pleonasms? Let us hope that United Nations, once an oxymoron, may soon complete its journey to pleonasm. And, speaking of Soviet Union, should place names be given a special place? A few examples of these are Little Big Horn, Old New York,and Fork Union.
And let us admit that the categories I have named are not always mutually exclusive. Old news, loose tights, and tight slacks tiptoe along the fuzzy boundary between natural and punning oxymora. Civil engineer is both a punning and opinion oxymoron. Is Moral Majority simply an opinion oxymoron, or can we also class it as an evolving oxymoron? Was sex ever sufficiently safe for us to assert that safe sex has made the journey from pleonasm to oxymoron? Is semiboneless an honest single-word oxymoron or an example of doublespeak? Are good grief and now then (as in "Now then, will the class please come to order?") punning oxymora or dead metaphors--or can they be both?
Should oxymoronic strings like the double-play fresh frozen jumbo shrimp be accorded special mention? What about triple plays in which all three words interact? This category sprang to mind when I learned early last year that NBC had named comedian Jay Leno as permanent guest host for the "Tonight" Show.
Ultimately, we confront the truth of all efforts to classify words and phrases: the living language wriggles out from under even the most searching of microscopes. While the forms that oxymora assume are far from infinite, they are intriguingly varied. The boundaries separating one category from another blur and shift even as we draw them, but the lines can be useful. As all taxonomists should know, it is not always easy to know where the front of a horse ends and the back begins, but we usually can perceive the difference between a horse's head and a horse's ass.
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