13 March 2015


You probably already know what an oxymoron is—a terribly good figure of speech in which two contradictory words or ideas are juxtaposed for rhetorical effect. Like Shakespeare’s “witty fool”, Chaucer’s “hateful good”, Tennyson’s “falsely true”, Hemingway’s “scalding coolness”, Milton’s “darkness visible”, or Cameron’s “True Lies”. But you were probably already unconsciously aware of that. Like an open secret. Or old news.

A light heavyweight. And some dry ice.

But you might not know that the word oxymoron itself, appropriately enough, is an oxymoron. The oxy– part (the same as in words like oxygen, paroxysm and peroxide) comes from the Greek word for “sharp” or “acrid”, oxys. The –moron part (the same as in, well, moron) comes from the Greek word for “dull”, moros. So an oxymoron is literally a “sharp-dull” turn of phrase.

There’s something fantastically oxymoronic about oxymoron being oxymoronic. But it’s certainly not alone. That Greek word moros, for instance, is also the root of sophomore, the first part of which is the Greek word for “clever” or “wise”, sophos. So a sophomore is literally a “wise-dull” person. 

Similarly, if you play the pianoforte then you’re playing the Italian words for “soft”, piano, and “loud”, forte—the name was deliberately coined because the piano was the first keyboard instrument that allowed the player to change the volume of what he or she was playing. And the preposterous meaning of preposterous comes from the fact that it combines two entirely contradictory Latin words: prae, meaning “before”, and posterus, meaning “after” or “subsequent”. So something described as preposterous is literally as absurd as something that has its “before after”.

And then there are words like bittersweet, and speechwriting. The word bridegroom literally means “bride-man”. Firewater is an old name for strong liquor. And how can you really have a ballpoint when balls don’t have points? Or be a spendthrift when thrifty people don’t spend? And how exactly can you be wholesome? Feel free to add your own oxymoronic examples to this list. 

In random order, of course.