Key Terms and Concepts

To fully appreciate the many examples of oxymoronica to be found on this site, it might be helpful if you knew a bit more about some key terms and concepts.

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Oxymoronica is a relatively new coinage that has not yet made it into any official dictionaries. The word came into my mind a little over a decade ago when I began to get serious about collecting oxymoronic & paradoxical quotations. I was searching for a shorthand word to describe such quotations, but hadn't come up with anything satisfactory (I was tentatively calling them "oxy quotes" but wasn't really satisfied with that expression).

One day in the early 1990s, I was reading an article about an adult sex store (in Seattle, I believe) named Toys in Babeland. The name of the store, parenthetically, is an example of implied chiasmus, another expression I coined. Implied chiasmus occurs when the words of popular sayings are cleverly reversed, as in Mae West's "A hard man is good to find" or G. B. Shaw's, "A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned." In this case, of course, the saying being reversed was babes in toyland. Click here for more information on implied chiasmus.

Founded by a couple of female entrepreneurs, Toys in Babeland sold all kinds of sex toys and, as the name suggests, was geared to the female market. The article describing the store made reference to the many examples of erotica on the shelves. I'd always loved the word erotica, but had never formally looked up the meaning. When I went to my favorite dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I was surprised to discover no mention at all of the word. I then went to The American Heritage Dictionary, which had this brief entry:

Erotica. Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire. (Greek erotikos, from eros, erot-, sexual love. See EROTIC)

I decided to check out another word with the same suffix: exotica. Once again the OED, to my surprise, offered no help. But The American Heritage Dictionary came through once again:

Exotica. Things that are curiously unusual or excitingly strange; such gustatory exotica as killer bee honey or fresh catnip sauce (Latin exotica, from neuter pl. of exoticus, exotic. See EXOTIC)

In what psychologists call a "clang association," a word suddenly came into my mind: oxymoronica. If erotica and exotica describe things that hold a special interest or fascination, then why not oxymoronica to refer to this special interest of mine? Just like that, a new word was born. I'm not 100% sure I'm the first person in history to use the term, but I'm absolutely certain that in the future my name will be the one most closely associated with the word.

As the 1990s progressed, I began telling people that Oxymoronica was the title of a new book I was working on. The word almost always brought a smile to people's faces, which was very encouraging. But just having a word was not enough; I also needed a definition. Here's what I came up with:

Oxymoronica, n., (AHK-see-mor-AHN-uh-kah), Any compilation of phrases or quotations that initially appear illogical or nonsensical, but upon reflection, make a good deal of sense and are often profoundly true.

Now that you know what oxymoronica means, let's take a look at a number of related words, all of which can be found in standard reference works.


The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary defines oxymoron this way:

A rhetorical figure by which contradictory or incongruous terms are conjoined so as to give point to the statement or expression; an expression in its superficial or literal meaning self-contradictory or absurd, but involving a point.

Another of my favorite reference works, The Oxford Companion to the English Language, has a slightly more readable entry:

A term in rhetoric for bringing opposites together in a compact paradoxical word or phrase: bittersweet; be cruel to be kind; a cheerful pessimist. The term is often used for social comment, both humorously or cynically (such as calling military intelligence a contradiction in terms).

Oxymoron has an interesting etymology. In ancient Greece oxus meant "sharp; pointed" and moros meant "dull; stupid; foolish." So the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron, literally meaning something like "a sharp dullness" or "pointed foolishness." Technically, the correct plural form of the word is oxymora, but so many people say oxymorons that it is now generally regarded as an acceptable usage. I use both forms of the words, depending on the audience.

The word first made its appearance in the English language in 1640, when an English cleric named Brother Reynolds made reference to "a bold and true oxymoron of Seneca." For many centuries, it was an obscure word, familiar only to classical scholars and students of rhetoric. When I graduated from high school in 1960, for example, I didn't have a clue about what it meant. Several months later, during my freshman year at the University of North Dakota, I recall an English professor introducing the word in her class. For almost all of us, it was the first time we had heard the word. We delighted in the examples she cited: pretty ugly, old news, and serious fun.

During the 1960s and 70s, the word began to be used with increasing frequency, especially in college environments, but it was still an uncommon word. Then, in 1986, Warren S. Blumenfeld published a small book titled Jumbo Shrimp and Other Almost Perfect Oxymorons. Blumenfeld, a professor at Georgia State University, defined oxymorons as "contradictory expressions that make absolute sense." Even though the book was written in an overly-cutesy style, it made a quite a splash. Articles about oxymorons began appearing in newspapers all over the country and Blumenfeld was a frequent guest on radio talk shows. As much as anybody, this otherwise little-known Georgia professor helped make oxymoron the household word it is today. In 1989, he published a sequel titled, Pretty Ugly: More Oxymorons and Other Illogical Expressions That Make Absolute Sense. In that book he described the object of his interest this way:

An oxymoron is two concepts (usually two words) that do not go together but are used together. It is the bringing together of contradictory expressions.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics adds a fascinating dimension to our understanding of oxymoron when it links it to another important literary and rhetorical device: paradox:

A figure of speech which yokes together two seemingly contradictory elements. Oxymoron is thus a form of condensed paradox.

A condensed paradox? How interesting that the terms oxymoron and paradox, not normally mentioned in the same breath, are actually quite closely related. Let's take a closer look at it.


Paradox is a concept with a long and rich history in literary and intellectual circles. And, while almost all literate people are familiar with the word, it is also true that most of them have trouble defining what it means. Before reading on, give it a shot. Try to describe the meaning of paradox in a few simple words. Ask a couple of friends or family members to try it as well. Don't be surprised if some pretty intelligent people stumble over their own words as they attempt an answer.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language

The Oxford Companion to the English Language describes paradox this way:

A term in rhetoric for a situation or a statement that is or seems self-contradictory and even absurd, but may contain an insight into life, such as the child is father of the man. Rationally, a child cannot be a father, but one can propose in this figurative way that the nature of one's early life affects later ideas and attitudes.

Earlier we saw that it was possible to view an oxymoron as a compressed paradox. In many ways, it is also possible to see a paradox as an extended oxymoron. Consider this entry on paradox in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics:

A daring statement which unites seemingly contradictory words but which on closer examination proves to have unexpected meaning and truth ("The longest way round is the shortest way home")…. The structure of paradox is similar to the oxymoron, which unites two contradictory concepts into a third ("heavy lightness").


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