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.” 

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.