When Life Is About As Clear As Molasses

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.”

The Art Of The Downplay

I was idly thumbing through the newspaper the other day when my eye fell on this headline. 

“Woman surprised by snake in bathroom at midnight.” 

Now I put it to you, ladies and g’s, no right thinking person is ever “surprised” by a snake in their bathrooms at midnight. They are terrified, petrified, scared silly perhaps. Some might even have had a bowel movement in their pants.

But “surprised?” You’ve got to be kidding. It brings to mind a mere pursing of the lips, perhaps an arch of an eyebrow or a sudden intake of breath as the “surprise” kicks in. 

Ah, the English language. Always pliable. The headline would qualify as an understatement, which can be broadly translated as representing a situation for less than what it is. In short, it’s the downplaying of an event for effect, humour or modesty.

Like after a torrential storm just dumped 100 inches of rain over Kuala Lumpur and have a newscaster describe the event as being “a trifle moist.” 

It’s employed a great deal in literature, even in comics. Do you remember the strip that ran in the daily papers in the 60s and 70s called Li’l Abner by Al Capp? 

It had a great cast of characters including a detective with a pencil moustache called Fearless Fosdick who got shot through the head so often that it usually featured as a literal hole in his head.

And asked about his health afterwards. The great crime buster, said hole in head all present and accounted for, would invariably reply: “It’s just a flesh wound, Chief.” 

I used to love the strip because it often employed word play to illustrate its humour. The makers of Kickapoo Joy Juice, for example, would often toss in a snarling bear – all sharp teeth and claws – into a vat boiling over a fire “for more bite.” 

There have been famous understatements in history. The most famous was probably Henry Morton Stanley’s quip when he finally met the man he was searching for after a 700-mile trek through the forests of Zanzibar: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

He was looking at English missionary David Livingstone who had been lost for several years. 

Everyone has heard of James Watson and Francis Crick, the two biochemists who unlocked the structure of the building blocks of existence itself. But not many people will remember the way they downplayed their discovery to the world. 

“The structure has novel features which may be of significant biological interest.” They were referring to the double helix-structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. 

It may have been the greatest scientific understatement of the 20th Century.

Emperor Hirohito knew how to break bad news to the Japanese public. This was how he announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies over radio in 1945.  “The war in the Pacific has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favour,” he said deadpan. 

Even Psycho had nothing on Jeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer who is also accused of cannibalism and necrophilia.  When he was finally caught, he casually asked the police: “I really messed up, didn’t I?”  

On the other hand, there’s overstatement, which is a gazillion times worse than understatement and is its polar opposite. Overstatement is rank exaggeration or hyperbole. 

Here’s Johnny Carson for illustration:

“It was so cold in the city yesterday that the flashers had to resort to describing themselves.” 


“It was so hot yesterday that I actually saw a squirrel fanning his nuts.” 

Fear Of Flying

The late, great Mohammad Ali was on a plane when the stewardess told him to fasten his seat belt.

Ali: “Superman don’t need no belt.” 

Stewardess: “Superman don’t need no plane either.”  

Having said that, there are certain things that are best left unsaid.

Aviation minutiae, for example. While air travel is undoubtedly the safest mode of current mass transport, an airline has apologised after tweeting information about where you are most likely to die on a plane if it crashes. 

KLM India has now removed the tweet, which received backlash online with many asking if it was appropriate. 

However, the airline tweeted saying: “We would like to sincerely apologise for a recent update. The post was based on a publicly available aviation fact, and isn’t a @KLM opinion.”

And, to be sure, the facts are depressing. According to studies, the highest survival rate is towards the rear of the plane with 69 per cent living to tell their tale.

Does that mean business and first class passengers get the short end of the stick? 

It simply isn’t clear. There is disagreement about whether the middle or front is most dangerous. 

According to Time magazine, the fatality rate for the seats in the middle of the plane is the highest. 

But according to Popular Mechanics, you have a 49 per cent chance of surviving if you are up front, while people in the centre – over the wings – have a 56 per cent chance. 

Be that as it may, air travel is now so commonplace that it’s taken for granted. But, to me at least, it used to be a big deal. 

I think I was 28 when I took my first flight – to Kota Kinabalu. In contrast, my daughter took her first flight as a baby.

Everything about air travel is different from ordinary experience. Airlines, for example, are never “late”: they are merely “delayed.” 

They never tell you stuff when selling you the ticket. That comes later when you’re already buckled in. Like, if the cabin pressure falls for some reason we are told that oxygen will be supplied.

At 35,000 feet, it better be. 

If you notice, the recordings always involve women with soothing voices. You are instructed to place the oxygen mask over “your nose and mouth” and “breathe normally.”

For pity’s sake, where else might we fit the mask?

And “breathe normally?” 


I would venture to suggest that when 300 or so oxygen masks simultaneously fall out from above, there will be few people breathing “normally.”

Then we are told that “if” in the “unlikely” event, the plane is “forced” to land on water, we have to follow other instructions. I assume the triple “doubt” expressed in the sentence indicates that the possibility of said event occurring is so remote as to be laughable. 

But, no, it does not appear so as the safety drill goes on to demonstrate how, precisely, one ties on a canary-yellow safety vest on one’s person.  

A “landing on sea” would seem a contradiction in terms or, at the very least, a grimly ironic oxymoron. 

But we are told our chances of rescue are vastly improved by three additions to the vest that the airline has thoughtfully supplied.  


A light, the easier to spot you as you helplessly bob about in the vast greyness of the Indian Ocean. 


A whistle, the easier to be heard above the roar and thunder of the waves crashing about your head. 


A nozzle, the better to blow into lest your vest begins deflating. 

Don’t you feel safer already?

What’s In A Name You Say? Everything!

British comedian Eddie Izzard was reflecting on unfortunate names thus : “So what do we call our baby son so that he does not get the sh.. kicked out of him at school? OK, I got it.  We’ll call him Engelbert Humperdinck. Yes, that’ll do it.”

But sometimes these monikers are self-inflicted.  A former soldier from the United Kingdom who changed his surname to “Fu-Kennard” for a laugh found out, to his chagrin, that the joke was on him.

The former Kenny Kennard found out that England’s Passport Office took a dim view of his brand of humour and denied him a passport – three times in a row. 

“They used to laugh at me in school when I said I would become a comedian,” the unfortunately-named prankster told pressmen. “But no one’s laughing now.” 

The failed comedian 33, changed his name in 2016 and even got a driving license under his new surname. 

But when his passport expired and he applied for a new one this year, his application was denied because his name “may cause offense.”

The former-soldier-turned supermarket worker from Cornwall has contested His Majesty’s Passport Office’s verdict three times — to no avail.

I read the above news item in the Star on Friday morning and it got me thinking. So I typed “embarrassing names” on Google and the list that emerged was jaw dropping. 

With a name like Chris P Bacon you can conclude a couple of things immediately. One, the guy is probably not Jewish. And, two, you can bet your bottom dollar he won’t get served in a bar.

They usually don’t serve food in those places. 

What were the parents thinking when they named their bouncing baby boy Mr Perv. The picture on the screen showed a smiling, balding man in his mid-40s who looked about as perverted as Tom Cruise looked like Quasimodo. 

He was listed as a scientist. I’m reliably informed that he disliked Harry Potter and when comparing competing theories, he could usually be counted on to choose the one that didn’t involve any magic spells.  

On the downside, he was also the one making nuclear weapons as if there’s no tomorrow. 

We are told there is a Singapore national, now 19, whose race is Javanese and whose name is, less than fittingly, Batman bin Superman. His father must have loved those DC comics. 

Then there is the distinguished doctor of neurology whose father must have known was destined for greatness. Not surprisingly, he was christened Lord Brain. But Mike Litoris cannot have been too chuffed with his parents by the time his first biology lesson rolled around.

Similarly I M Boring came out with a seminal book on the philosophy of Descartes. We are told that it combined the charm of a Lim Guan Eng budget speech with all the excitement of double entry bookkeeping.

I will end this droll, and hitherto true post with an equally true anecdote about one of my former neighbours, a retired Appeals Court Judge justly famed for his bon mots. 

Said Judge was taking some friends from England to May Kian Fatt, a Chinese restaurant in Ampang New Village, famous for its seafood. 

He takes one look at the signboard, does an exaggerated double take for the benefit of his friends and then stalks into the restaurant where he demands to see the proprietor.  

Bewildered owner comes to see him.

Judge, waving his arms and gesturing at the signboard: “I say, that is all very well but, tell me….”

 “…can May cook?”

Mind Your Language

In the early 1980s, a work of fiction first surfaced as a cult classic before rolling on, wavelike, to become an enormous best seller in the United States. Its title intrigued me so much, I bought it. 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a hilarious romp through the mind of its protagonist Ignatius J Reilly, a fat Don Quixote who bears a perpetual grudge against the world for reasons too crazy to explain. 

But the original source of my fascination with the book was its title, specifically the collective noun it employed to group “dunces.” A read-through of the book’s foreword cleared up the mystery.  

The title was spun off from a saying coined by the satirist Jonathan Swift: “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” In the context of the book, it made sense: Ignatius naturally fancied himself a genius. 

But it was the genius of the collective noun that grabbed me.  

The English language has always fascinated me because of its flexibility. A bird in itself cannot make a pun. But toucan. 

You see what I mean? 

But collective nouns like “confederacy” lend themselves to slick or surreal, even classy imagery. They can move you to awed respect as I was on witnessing said book title by Mr Toole. 

Or they can render you disbelieving. Take apes, for example. They still can’t believe that we descended from them which might explain why it is a “shrewdness” of apes. 

And I think it was an ape that pointed out that evolution was only a “theory” and that it was gravity that was the “law.”  

Crows are considered ugly, quarrelsome scavengers which one property agent actually thinks brings down the value of Malaysian neighbourhoods. So it’s no wonder that it’s a “murder” of crows although one suspects you still might have to prove probable cawse. 

One would immediately accept a “pride” of lions given the imperious bearing of the species. A “parliament” of owls also sounds right although they might not give a hoot. 

There is something poetic about an “exaltation” of larks while it might not be amusing to be confronted by an “obstinacy” of buffalo. A “tower” of giraffes rings true as does a “prickle” of porcupines. A “cauldron” of bats does render them sufficiently creepy and a “flamboyance” of flamingos is just classy. 

Similarly, a “caravan” of camels is perfect as in the ancient Arab proverb that dismisses criticism thus: the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.

I have never liked cats. They are far too independent and sneering to be considered seriously as pets. I mean, a dog has an owner but a cat has a staff.

Therefore, I congratulate the Earls of English for their choice of a “nuisance” of cats. That is spot-on given their propensity to turn up uninvited and make themselves at home. 

But, come on. I mean, a “cowardice” of dogs? OK, my old dog Sandy treated burglars with the same enthusiasm it reserved for my nieces but that had more to do with its infectious joy for life. I would respectfully suggest an “ebullience” or a “rapture” of dogs.