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").
While compiling quotations for my Never Let a Fool Kiss You book, I kept running into many 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:
Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.
Free love is too expensive.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
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, n., A compilation of self-contradictory terms, phrases, or quotations; examples of oxymoronica appear illogical or nonsensical at first, but upon reflection, make a good deal of sense and are often profoundly true.
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."
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:
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
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:
The matters I relate are true lies.
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):
Our interest's on the
dangerous edge of things
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
Here are a few more quotations that contain a contradiction in ideas:
Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's own ignorance.
To do exactly the opposite is also a form of imitation.
—G. C. Lichtenberg
Man is worse than an animal when he is an animal.
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:
Wine is a bad thing. It makes you quarrel with your neighbor, It makes you shoot at your landlord, It makes you—miss him.
—Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Russian-American pianist, quoted in C. Clemens, My Husband Gabrilowitsch (1938)
A guest should be permitted to graze, as it were, in the pastures of his host's kindness, left even to his own devices, like a rational being, and handsomely neglected.
—Louise Imogen Guiney, Russian-American pianist, in Goose-Quill Papers (1885)
I need so much time for doing nothing
that I have no time for work.
—Pierre Reverdy, in The Book Beside Me (1948)
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.
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.
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 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").