• Paul Anthony Jones

Oxymoron

(n.) a word, phrase or written construction in which two contradictory words or ideas are juxtaposed

white smoke against a black background

You probably already know what an oxymoron is—a terribly good figure of speech in which two contradictory words or ideas are juxtaposed for rhetorical effect. Like Shakespeare’s “witty fool”, Chaucer’s “hateful good”, Tennyson’s “falsely true”, Hemingway’s “scalding coolness”, Milton’s “darkness visible”, or Cameron’s “True Lies”. But you were probably already unconsciously aware of that. Like an open secret. Or old news.

But you might not know that the word oxymoron itself, appropriately enough, is an oxymoron. The oxy– part (the same as in words like oxygen, paroxysm and peroxide) comes from the Greek word for “sharp” or “acrid”, oxys. The –moron part (the same as in—well, moron) comes from the Greek word for “dull”, moros. So an oxymoron is literally a “sharp-dull” turn of phrase.

There’s something fantastically oxymoronic about oxymoron being oxymoronic. But it’s certainly not alone. That Greek word moros, for instance, is also the root of sophomore, the first part of which is the Greek word for “clever” or “wise, sophos. So a sophomore is literally a “wise-dull” person.

Similarly, if you play the pianoforte then you’re playing the Italian words for “soft”, piano, and “loud”, forte—the name was deliberately coined because the piano was the first keyboard instrument that allowed the player to change the volume of what he or she was playing. And the preposterous meaning of preposterous comes from the fact that it combines two entirely contradictory Latin words: prae, meaning “before”, and posterus, meaning “after” or “subsequent”. So something described as preposterous is literally as absurd as something that has its “before after”.

And then there are words like bittersweet, speechwriting, and dry ice. The word bridegroom literally means “bride-man”. Firewater is an old name for strong liquor. And how can you really have a ballpoint when balls don’t have points? Or be a spendthrift when thrifty people don’t spend? And how exactly can you be wholesome? Feel free to add your own oxymoronic examples to this list.

In random order, of course.

#Latin #Italian #Greek #literature #music #rhetoric

Hi! We’re currently updating the HH blog, including all the tags (below). But with over 700 posts to reformat, well—apologies, this might take a while... 

For now, you can browse the back catalogue using all the tags from the blogposts we’ve already completed; this list will grow as more blogs are brought up to date.

 

Thanks for your patience in the meantime—and any problems or questions, just let us know at haggard@haggardhawks.com.