A clutch of oxymorons

Please allow me to ask 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 who think I have too much spare time on my 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.

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 writer is more vividly 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 the pleasurable aspects of language.

We all need lighthearted 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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