What do you think an oxymoron is?
No, we are not referring to a seriously stupid person lying under an oxygen tent. An oxymoron is actually a figure of speech where apparently contradictory terms are used in conjunction.
Let me illustrate.
Consider the phrase “civil war.” We take the phrase for granted but if you think about it, the two words are mutually exclusive. Wars are an awful, beastly business and they are almost never polite, courteous or mannerly.
And what about “military intelligence?” Asked to comment once about a recent Senate hearing that uncovered a secret Pentagon spy ring, Groucho Marx countered: “Are you talking about military intelligence? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”
American politicians tend to trip themselves up in the most engaging fashion. In trying to defend the death penalty, New York mayor Edward Koch had this to say: “Life is indeed precious and I believe the death penalty helps us affirm that fact.”
And bemoaning the state of affairs in the country, President Gerald Ford lamented: ”If Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”
When Ringo Starr sang Act Naturally, did he know that the song’s title was an oxymoron? It’s like describing a person as “awfully nice.”
Oxymorons are sometimes used to make a point for greater effect. You sort of make a splash when you use phrases like “deafening silence” or “conspicuous absence.” It reverberates in writing so much so it’s almost becoming a cliché.
I wish I were the writer who first came up with: “It’s about as clear as mud.” The point is obvious but it’s skilfully made.
Oxymorons are widely used in literature for dramatic effect. Shakespeare was the writer who first coined such phrases as “sweet sorrow” and “melancholy merriment.”
And who does not know that magnificent Paul Simon oxymoron set to music – the Sound of Silence.
There are also oxymorons that mean exactly what they say. Take idiot savant, for instance. Savant means “learned” and idiot means exactly what it says.
But idiot savant means both as in a person who has a mental disability but is gifted in one area like music or math. An example would be Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Rain Man who could count cards.
Some people come up with the most fabulous ones in their daily speech. Asked by a newspaper to describe himself, artist Andy Warhol thought for a bit and then came up with: “I’m a deeply superficial person.”
And singer Dolly Parton, commenting on her appearance at the Grammys’ said, only half-humorously: “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
Peter “Yogi” Berra was a much beloved US baseball player and manager renowned for his paradoxical, oxymoronic utterances. Examples: “You should always go to other people’s funerals otherwise they won’t come to yours ” and “a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
And later, after he retired: “I never really said the things I said.”
But the undisputed Monarch of Malaprop was movie producer Samuel Goldwyn of MGM fame. Among his best: “I never liked you and I always will.”
“If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.”
“I think no man should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”
“The scene is too dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.”
“Any man who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”
“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
And, famously, about World War Two: “Don’t worry about the war. It’s all over but the shooting.”