Hearing this line in a recent news report got me thinking about oxymorons.
The government made it clear they will give unspecified military aid…
Given that this is the government speaking, I shouldn’t be surprised by the contradictory language. After all, we’ve come to accept doublespeak from governments. They have given us such non sequiturs as military intelligence, bipartisan cooperation, Amtrak schedule, and government worker, to name a few.
By definition an oxymoron is the combination of contradictory or incongruous statements. As most dictionaries point out, oxymoron is itself an oxymoron since it is the joining of the Greek words oxy, meaning pointed or sharp and moron, meaning foolish. When two seemingly opposing ideas come together in a phrase or expression to make a “pointed foolishness,” it’s an oxymoron.
As a literary tool, it serves a useful purpose. Most often found in poetry, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines the oxymoron as a form of condensed paradox—another literary device that pairs two seemingly contradictory elements. Used well, the technique can reveal a deeper level of truth, or at least prompt the reader to think about the situation in a different light. Bittersweet is a good one-word example. It conveys both the disappointment and joy that comingle in certain events and circumstances.
Similar to the oxymorons listed in the opening paragraph, many that we bandy about contain a certain degree of cynicism. Consider: honest attorney. We’ve become so inured to the stereotypical ambulance-chasing attorney that the idea of an honest attorney seems oxymoronic. Likewise, fair reporting, fast food, and government efficiency generate more cynicism than enlightenment.
Some oxymorons have become so familiar, that we hardly recognize them as oxymorons anymore. Consider:
- good grief
- pretty ugly
- cold sweat
- old news
And some are punny:
- jumbo shrimp (made famous by comedian George Carlin)
- flat busted
- baby grand
- death benefit.
Listen to your own language and discover just how often you employ oxymorons in daily conversation. Looking for more? Check out these sites.