Thursday, June 23, 2011

Oxymoron: It's Not an Oxygen-powered Cleanser for Morons!

Connye Griffin writes for My Writing and Editing Coach.

The student-teacher ordered the jumbo shrimp. Two examples of seemingly contradictory terms, also known as oxymoron. If a person is a teacher, how is he or she also a student, and if the food is shrimp, a term describing small shellfish or a small person, then isn’t jumbo inappropriate?

Here are other examples of oxymorons:

• Peacekeeping armed forces
• Hard water
• Unbiased opinion
• Hell’s Angels
• Same difference
• Liquid gas
• Pretty ugly
• Modern Classic

Many more await you at

Writers create oxymorons in literature in order to highlight a paradoxical condition. For example, I Corinthians 13:12 describes the human condition as seeing through a glass darkly in order to underscore the living human’s ability to see and understand imperfectly whereas the soul, after death, will see clearly.

Shakespeare made extensive use of oxymorons in a passage from Romeo and Juliet:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! (Romeo, 1.1)

Consider the use of oxymoron in the wonderful poem below:

Poetry Of Departures by Philip Larkin

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It’s specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

The two oxymoronic phrases in bold font above capture the apparent contradiction. With the first, specially-chosen junk, the poet alludes to those items that we treasure but which have very little value to anyone else. Indeed, our junk may be carefully selected by us, but easily tossed aside as junk by everyone else.

In the second example, we rarely think of a perfect item, person, or idea as being reprehensible. Yet, that is the spirit of the poem. We may toy with the idea of walking away from our lives wherein we feel rooted, even imprisoned, but if we think as the speaker thinks, we would only walk away in order to recreate the same sense of belonging elsewhere, a perfect new life that we would come to despise.

Writing Challenge:

For each of the following words, add another before or after in order to create an oxymoron: home, war, peace, love and hate.

Reading Challenge:

Read the classic novel, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Make note of the oxymorons in use.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

In the first example for oxymoron, the term student-teacher is a hyphenated word made from two other words while jumbo shrimp needs no hyphen. Why?

Student teacher
could be confusing if it were not hyphenated. For example, the student teacher handed in the essays. One might have to re-read to make sense of that sentence, or he might wonder if the writer just failed to edit his text thoroughly. On the other hand, the student-teacher handed in the essays is clearer. No second thoughts or guessing is necessary. So hyphenate compound terms or coined terms to clarify.

On the other hand, jumbo functions as any adjective would; e.g., tiny shrimp, Gulf shrimp, or tasty shrimp. Jumbo describes the type of shrimp; thus, the two words do not create a new compounded term and no hyphen is necessary.