Oxymoronica is a word you won't find in any dictionary (at least not yet), because I have only recently brought this relatively new coinage to the attention of a popular audience. I came up with the word in the early 1990s when I was working on my 1999 book Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. A new word invention is formally called a neologism, and my dream is that oxymoronica will one day show up in a dictionary (and given the meaning "a group or collection of oxymoronic and paradoxical quotations").
The Never Let a Fool Kiss You book introduced people to the fascinating literary device known as chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus). Chiasmus occurs when the order of words is reversed in parallel phrases, as in Cicero's "One should eat to live, not live to eat" or Mae West's "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men." Even though chiasmus shows up in some of the world's most famous sayings (like John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" line), the term is not well known, even among sophisticated and highly literate people.
While compiling quotations for my Never Let a Fool Kiss You book, I kept running into many other quotations that I loved, but that didn't fit into the chiasmus theme. Some of the most fascinating quotes captured my interest because they had one special thing in common—they contained either a contradiction in terms or a contradiction in ideas:
As my collection of these kinds of quotes slowly grew from a few dozen to a few hundred, and then burgeoned from a few hundred to a few thousand, I needed a word to describe them. Some contained a classical oxymoron (like silent shout) and others a classical paradox (like cruel only to be kind). But simply calling them oxymoronic or paradoxical didn't come close to capturing their collective magic.
Then, one cold winter day in the early 1990s, I found myself looking up the word erotica in the dictionary. I knew what the word meant, but wanted to get a precise definition. Very quickly, the entry on erotica took me to another familiar word with the same suffix: exotica. Both words referred to collections of things, especially things that hold a particular fascination or interest. Just like that, a word popped into my mind. Oxymoronica. I tried the word out on a number of friends and it almost always brought a smile to their faces. I knew I was on to something.
For more than a decade now, I've been using the word oxymoronica as a "catch-all" term to describe both oxymoronic and paradoxical quotations. If I had to provide a formal definition, I'd put it this way:
Oxymoronica is also the title of my second "word and language" book, which was published by HarperCollins in March of 2004. The book is a collection of over 1,400 of the cleverest and most provocative things ever said or written, along with my commentary on many of them. The book is divided into many different chapters, like "Oxymoronic Wit & Humor," "Political Oxymoronica," and "Oxymoronic Insults." For more, go to about the book.
I've been interested in "self-contradictory" quotes for more than forty years. I can still remember hearing the expression less is more for the first time when I was a college freshman at the University of North Dakota in 1960. My first reaction—like so many of my classmates—was to feel strangely attracted to the saying. I liked the concept, but couldn't immediately articulate why. When our English professor explained how removing excess verbiage from a written passage actually improved it—often dramatically—we could all see that, indeed, less sometimes is more. As she explained the concept, I recall having a flashback to my high school days, when our coach, a wonderful man named Don Soli, had once said that getting rid of the bad apples on a sports team could dramatically improve the team. I loved the way Coach Soli characterized the phenomenon: "We call this addition by subtraction."
During my research, I discovered a wonderful observation that captures the allure of expressions like less is more and addition by subtraction and thousands more quotes like them:
Most examples of oxymoronica contain a "marriage of opposites" that often stops us in our tracks and compels our attention. These kinds of sayings are "self-contradictory" because they are false at a surface level and true at deeper level. For people who enjoy wordplay and ideaplay, there is something intrinsically fascinating about the mental tension that is created when one portion of a quote stands in direct opposition to another portion.
Of course, when most people think about the word oxymoron, they think about a simple contradiction in terms like jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, or, according to many, military intelligence. Even though I've always enjoyed oxymorons (or to be technically correct, oxymora), my main interest is not so much in simple two-word constructions as it is in oxymoronic and paradoxical quotations.
An example of a quotation that contains a simple contradiction in terms is the famous line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
Sweet sorrow is a classical oxymoron. In an oxymoron, two words that are incompatible or that don't normally go together are linked in a way that ends up making a lot of sense. When Shakespeare tried to capture the complex range of emotions that young lovers feel when they leave one another's embrace, he did what many other great writers have done throughout history—he used an oxymoron to convey the idea. Never before in history had the words sweet and sorrow been yoked together in a single expression. Once done, though, the expression became unforgettable, a true classic line in the history of literature. A well-crafted oxymoron is intellectually very appealing because it is false at a superficial level and true at deeper level.
Another example comes from the French writer Jean Genet:
A true lie? As is the case with so many self-contradictory expressions, this unexpected linking of incompatible concepts grabs our attention. How can a lie be true? What Genet means, I believe, is that his creations are works of fiction, meaning they are not technically true. But he is also suggesting that his works of fiction capture important truths about the human experience. Hence, he is the creator of true lies.
Every great writer in history has authored at least one powerful oxymoron, some have offered scores of them. Robert Browning, the original author of the famous less is more line (it comes from his 1855 poem Andrea del Sarto), managed to insert three of them into the same poetic passage (from Bishop Blougrams's Apology):
The English writer Graham Greene was so taken with this line—and so convinced that it captured the motivation of writers of fiction—that he said it could serve as the epigraph for every one of his novels.
Some quotations don't contain so much a simple contradiction in terms as what might be called a contradiction in ideas. An example comes from the English writer Samuel Butler:
Think about this quote for a moment. If people are always right, it means they're never wrong. At least that's the way things work at a strictly logical level. But in the real world of human beings, there's no bigger turn-off than pompous know-it-alls who believe they're always right. Butler found a fascinating oxymoronic way of linking up the concepts of "always being right" and "great mistake." At one level, the two may be considered incompatible. But at another level, as Butler demonstrates, they go together perfectly.
Another powerful example comes from the pen of the German-born American political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt. In 1962, the New York Times sent Arendt to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi war criminal and mass murderer Adolph Eichmann. Arriving at the trial, Arendt expected to find a depraved monster. She was shocked to discover a man who looked more like an innocuous clerk or a mild-mannered bureaucrat. In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she coined an oxymoronic phrase that was so powerful and so chilling that it will forever be associated with her name:
Normally, people use the word banality to describe things that are drearily commonplace or even trite. Never before in history had the word banality been linked to the word evil. But once the connection was made, the expression appeared to capture exactly what happened in Nazi Germany, when the most unspeakable acts of horror were so commonplace they were routinely—almost automatically—done by people who in all other ways considered themselves sophisticated and civilized.
Here are a few more quotations that contain a contradiction in ideas:
And lest you think that all self-contradictory quotes are serious or profound, let me remind you that many wonderful examples of oxymoronica are hilarious:
I've been a word and language lover since my teenage years and have been an avid quotation collector for almost forty years. Just as some people collect coins or stamps or butterflies, I collect quotations. I estimate that I have well over a hundred thousand quotations in my personal collection, organized into many different categories (approximately 10,000 fall into the self-contradictory category). You can find over 1,400 of the best of them in my Oxymoronica book. You will find many thousands more on this site.
You are about to savor some of the most fascinating, some of the wittiest, and some of the most perception-altering quotations ever assembled. Many will be familiar to you, for they come from some of the most famous writers and thinkers of all time. But many of the best are little known or even obscure, like these fabulous observations:
I take some pleasure in knowing that obscure—but wonderful—oxymoronic quotations like these would continue to languish in obscurity were it not for a web site like this to honor them.
A logical next place to go might be Key Terms and Concepts. There I define and discuss key terms and concepts, like oxymoron, paradox, and self-contradiction.
Even though this site is mainly about quotations, I would be remiss if I did not provide a comprehensive listing of oxymorons (technically, though, the correct plural form is oxymora). You'll find such a list in Oxymora: The List.
In Oxymoronic Samplers, I will present an attractive sampling of oxymoronic and paradoxical quotes geared to members of specific group like actors and writers.
In Oxymoronic Titles, you will see how writers and other creative people have capitalized on the power of self-contradictory phrasing to title their creations. Many will be familiar to you, like the titles of such popular films as "Back to the Future" and "Eyes Wide Shut." Others, equally provocative, will be new to you, and might otherwise be lost to history or relegated to obscurity if not honored and enshrined in this site.
In Masters of Oxymoronica, you will have an opportunity to savor the creations of wordsmiths who've been so adept at crafting oxymoronic and paradoxical observations that I consider them masters of the form.
The Oxymoronic Verse page will show how poets great and small have experimented with oxymoronica in their poetry. You'll not only find scores of fabulous poetic passages, but many fascinating oxymoronic observations poets have made about their craft.
In About the Book, I'll tell you about my Oxymoronica book, share some of the kind things people have said about it, and provide you with online ordering information.
Welcome to the world of oxymoronica!