Seriously Funny: a Celebration of the Oxymoron

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“I’m taking a working vacation,” you say.
“But that’s an oxymoron!” your friend protests. Um…a what?

Oxymoron is one of those words it took me years to wrap my head around (like heuristic and allegory). A sophisticated literary term that includes the word “moron” tripped me up. But as it turns out, this is no accident: oxymoron comes from the Greek “oxy,” meaning sharp, plus “moron,” meaning dull or foolish! Sharp + dull, a union of opposites, perfectly captures the word’s meaning. The word is autological, that is, an example of what it describes: two contradictory words used together. I was surprised to learn that its etymology relies on the same meaning of moron as your most disdained acquaintance, celebrity, or public figure—namely, a stupid dolt. As the school principal tells his problem student in my favorite scene from Steve Martin’s 1989 movie Parenthood, “You want to know what a moron is? Your dad, that’s what a moron is!” 

Merriam-Webster defines an oxymoron as a rhetorical device in which a combination of contradictory or incongruous words is used in conjunction. It is often composed of an adjective and a noun that are not usually seen together, juxtaposed in a startling way. Common examples of oxymorons include cruel kindness, open secret, and jumbo shrimp (although the latter really expresses a relative size, i.e. jumbo as compared to other shrimp—all of them small). They can be ludicrous or deep, seeming to suggest the coexistence of opposites, defying logic like juggling balls that defy gravity. Oxymorons produce the effect of surprise and thus can be dramatic showstoppers in literature. While not making literal sense, they often reveal a deeper truth through the apparent synthesis of opposites. 

Have you ever had a love hate relationship with someone (or something), or felt that a friend’s advice was cold comfort? Have you ever used Icy Hot on an aching muscle, or eaten bittersweet chocolate? Then you’ve been oxymoroned! I love to eat Skinny Cow ice cream bars, while drinking water out of a plastic glass. Asking my contractor for an exact estimate of the cost of renovations puts him/her on the spot, and may be met with a deafening silence. The fact that Crozet is growing by leaps and bounds is old news, and trying to slow that growth down might be foolish wisdom. And when someone is experiencing a living death, it might be time to change this or her circumstances. One of my personal favorites is when The Late Show announcer crows, “and now, live on tape from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City, is Stephen Colbert!” These ideas seem mutually exclusive, and yet we speak of them all the time and enjoy their mind-blowing quality. 

At other times, calling something an oxymoron can negate the truth of the concept because it is a contradiction in terms. One author speaking at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book, for example, noted that there was really no such thing as a benevolent slaveholder. Although the news sometimes reports that a soldier died as a result of friendly fire, can there really be any such thing? 

The Lonely Crowd, a 1950 sociological analysis by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney, traced the nature of motivation for social behavior through history. This popular oxymoron also became the title of a 1984 song by The Specials, a line in “I Shall Be Released” by Bob Dylan (made famous by The Band in 1967), and the name of a contemporary Norwegian/English psychedelic rock band.

In this Easter season, we should not omit the central Christian concept of felix culpa, or happy fault. This point of faith maintains that Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence in the Garden of Eden was actually a blessing, because it made possible the redemption of mankind through Christ’s resurrection. Of course, a devout atheist would take issue with this doctrine.

Examples from classic literature abound, as in John Milton’s description of Hell in Paradise Lost as darkness visible (which was later used by William Styron as the title of his 1990 memoir). In his poem cycle “Idylls of the King,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes Lancelot’s treatment of Elaine this way:    

“His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

Shakespeare was fond of oxymorons, and used them frequently to express mixed emotions. In Julius Caesar, Antony refers to his enemy’s fearful bravery (V.1), and in The Tempest Caliban plots with Stephano, “Do that good mischief which may make this island thine own forever” (IV.1).

Romeo and Juliet, a play whose central theme is the union of opposing families, offers a goldmine of oxymorons, including Romeo’s famous lament, “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Consider the brash, romantic Romeo’s speech as he describes his tempestuous feelings about a lady who has rejected him (before he even meets Juliet):

O brawling love! O loving hate! ….
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

And in Act 3, Juliet reacts to the news that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt with: 

Beautiful tyrantfiend angelical!
Dove-feather’d ravenwolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st;
damnèd saint, an honorable villain!

Oxymorons are seriously funny! George Carlin used them in his comedy routines, pointing out the inherent nonsense in common phrases such as military intelligence and business ethics. Or consider these recent political examples from Merriam-Webster.com : 

“He calls himself a ‘bleeding-heart conservative,’ and that oxymoron sums up [his] unique …role in the Bush Administration: the apostle of free enterprise who is the ambassador to the poor.” —William Safire, New York Times Magazine, 25 Mar. 1990 

“As the war went on, ‘precision bombing’ became a comical oxymoron relished by bomber crews with a sense of black humor.” –Paul Fussell, Wartime, 1989

How silly is it to request the original copy of a document, or buy a necklace made of genuine imitation diamonds?! What on earth is a constant variable? In my unbiased opinion, a minor crisis is not really a crisis at all. That’s moronic—with or without the oxy-! 

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