This is an article taken from Wednesday, October 1, 2008 thestaronline
Are oxymorons moronic?
By JOHN EVANS
WHAT is an oxymoron? It is a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are brought together intentionally to create a paradox, usually for emphasis or effect. The word comes from Greek, and literally means “pointedly foolish”.
It could be said that oxymorons reflect the complexities and ironies of life itself and of things not being quite what they seem. Oxymorons may be employed for humorous or polemical purposes too: couplings such as “honest politician”, “business ethics” and “military intelligence” have been considered as oxymoronic, either seriously or in jest.
Writers might try to spice up their prose with oxymoronic phrases such as “deafening silence”, “silent scream”, “beautiful noise” (once the title of a hit single by the American singer Neil Diamond) or “savage beauty”, but it is extremely hard to come up with an original oxymoron as opposed to a hackneyed or clichéd one. “Concrete jungle” is a cliché par excellence, and yet it still manages to pack a punch despite rampant overuse.
Other everyday oxymorons include:
“a definite maybe”,
“bloodless coup” (or revolution),
“poor little rich girl” (or boy),
“big baby” (when the “baby” is not an infant),
“plastic glass”, and
“accidentally on purpose”.
George W. Bush has been described as a “dry drunk”, and the Rolling Stones have been compared (perhaps with admiration as much as with denigration) to “walking corpses”.
It is not always clear whether an expression deserves to be called an oxymoron or not. “Neighbour from hell” could be considered oxymoronic if one accepts that neighbours are supposed to be friendly. After all, the adjective “neighbourly” implies a friendly and helpful disposition.
Similarly, “gentle giant” could be considered an oxymoron if one accepts that in the realm of fiction at any rate, giants are usually intimidating.
Oxymoronic idioms include “baptism of fire”, “dripping with jewellery”, “turn a blind eye (to something)”, “being cruel to be kind”, “iron hand/ fist in a velvet glove”, and “method in someone’s madness”.
An oxymoron which is mentioned with depressing regularity in the media is “friendly fire”. This expression refers to weapon fire coming from one’s own side that causes accidental injury or death to one’s own forces. No doubt the person who coined this oxymoron-cum-euphemism was full of good intentions, but the fact remains that to be shot or bombed whether by friend or foe is an equally “unfriendly” experience ...
Oxymorons are not limited to the English language. That famous Japanese word “karaoke” literally means “empty orchestra” and the French expression “idiot savant” could be translated as “knowledgeable idiot”, and refers to a person with learning difficulties who performs brilliantly at some specialised intellectual task, such as giving the day of the week for any calendar date past or present.
Again, the full name for a piano is “pianoforte” which is derived from Italian and literally means “soft and loud”.
Oxymorons are being coined all the time, and one could be forgiven for assuming that they are a 20th-century linguistic phenomenon. Not so. Oxymoronic phrases were especially cultivated in 16th century literature. In Act One of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo jests about the nature of love by using a rapid-fire series of oxymorons in a single speech.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!