A clutch of of oxy­morons


Please al­low me to ask you some deep and prob­ing ques­tions.

How many an­gels can stand or, for that mat­ter, dance, on the head of a pin? Can God cre­ate a boul­der too big for him to lift? Is he able to cre­ate two ad­ja­cent moun­tains, with no val­ley in be­tween? Can he grab a bald­headed man by the hair of his head? (Please, no jokes about the fol­licly-chal­lenged!)

There may be those read­ers who think this colum­nist has too much spare time on his hands. Per­haps so. Still, I can­not help won­der­ing about cer­tain things. Oxy­morons of­ten grab my at­ten­tion, cre­at­ing a moment of lev­ity and bring­ing a smile to my face.

For those un­fa­mil­iar with this term, an oxy­moron is a fig­ure of speech by which a lo­cu­tion pro­duces an in­con­gru­ous, seem­ingly self-con­tra­dic­tory ef­fect. I will il­lus­trate.

There are many brief ex­am­ples of oxy­morons, such as a fine mess, aw­fully good, baby grand pi­ano, bright shade, cal­cu­lated risk, con­ser­va­tive lib­eral, cruel kind­ness, dark star, dull roar, ed­u­cated guess, eyes wide shut, fail safe, friendly en­emy, gen­uine im­i­ta­tion, gun­boat diplo­macy, half empty, hon­est crook, ill health, in­side out, joy­ful trou­ble, ju­nior sen­a­tor, and make haste slowly. I could ex­pand my list by con­tin­u­ing through the en­tire al­pha­bet.

Of late, I’ve been en­joy­ing other, more in­volved, oxy­morons. I beg the reader’s in­dul­gence as I list some of them.

Is it good if a vac­uum cleaner “re­ally sucks?”

Why is the third hand on a watch called the sec­ond hand?

If a word is mis­spelled in a dic­tio­nary, how would we ever know?

If Webster wrote the first dic­tio­nary, where did he find the words?

Why do we say some­thing is “out of whack?” What is a “ whack?”

Why do “slow down” and “slow up” mean the same thing?

Why do “ fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?

Why do tug­boats push their barges?

Why do we sing “ Take Me Out to the Ball­game” when we’re al­ready there?

Why are they called “stands” when they’re made for sit­ting?

Why is it called “af­ter dark” when it re­ally is “af­ter light”?

Doesn’t ex­pect­ing the un­ex­pected make the un­ex­pected ex­pected?

Why are a “ wise man” and a “ wise guy” op­po­sites?

Why do “over­look” and “over­see” mean op­po­site things?

Why is “phon­ics” not spelled the way it sounds?

If work is so ter­rific, why do they have to pay us to do it?

If all the world’s a stage, where’s the au­di­ence sit­ting?

If love is blind, why is lin­gerie so pop­u­lar?

Why is “ bra” sin­gu­lar and “panties” plu­ral?

Why do you press harder on the but­tons of a re­mote con­trol when you know the bat­ter­ies are dead?

Why do we put suits in gar­ment bags and gar­ments in a suit­case?

How come “ab­bre­vi­ated” is such a long word?

Why do we wash bath tow­els? Aren’t we clean when we use them?

Why doesn’t glue stick to the in­side of the bot­tle?

Why do they call it a TV “set” when you only have one?

Christ­mas — what other time of the year do we sit in front of a dead tree and eat candy out of our socks?

Why do we drive on a park­way and park on a drive­way? In­trigu­ing ques­tions all. Oxy­morons are es­pe­cially use­ful to writ­ers, in or­der to di­rect the reader’s at­ten­tion to an ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion. At times, oxy­morons, the more un­usual the bet­ter, make ef­fec­tive lit­er­ary tools. In other words, the idea be­ing re­layed by the wri t e r is more v ividly de­scribed when such a fig­ure of speech is used. In ad­di­tion, oxy­morons can add depth, in­ter­est and cre­ativ­ity to a piece, re­sult­ing in a rhetor­i­cal ef­fect by para­dox­i­cal means.

So what’s up with a gram­mar les­son on oxy­morons?

Both life and lan­guage are se­ri­ous busi­ness. Many peo­ple re­act to oxy­morons by shrug­ging them off as hu­mourous or in­con­se­quen­tial. In a world in which bad news is the or­der of the day, per­haps there are times when we should take a breather from the de­mands of life, sit back, and re­flect on some­thing as sim­ple as th e plea­sur­able as­pects of lan­guage.

We a l l nee d l ight­hearted mo­ments, to coun­ter­bal­ance the more solemn re­al­i­ties we face daily. If we can draw a moment of lev­ity from fig­ures of speech such as oxy­morons, then so much the bet­ter. Carpe diem. En­joy the present. An aw­fully good idea, don’t you think?

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