THE OXYMORON – GOOD GRIEF! – IT’S EVERYWHERE (January 16/98)

At the foul line the basketball player made his first free throw and missed the second. Commenting on the play, the sports announcer blandly informed viewers that the foul shooter had “made the front end of a one-and-one and then threw up an air ball.”

Even if the commentator had been on radio and it wasn’t a televised game, basketball fans would have understood the sequence of events. The lingo would have puzzled someone learning English, however. The “one-and-one” and an “air ball” could be explained to the learner but he’d have difficulty with “front end.” How could one possibly explain that only in English can the front also be the end and you don’t even have to talking about something that has a physical front and end.

I think they call these figures of speech “oxymora” (meaning contradictory terms that are joined together) and our language has many such crazy inconsistencies and puzzling figures of speech. We used to see them all the time at the newspaper and chuckle over them. Examples of oxymora (the singular is oxymoron) can also be seen any time at your local food store where they often feature “fresh frozen” meat and fish and my favorite which I see occasionally, “jumbo shrimp.”

While I’m not an oxymoron collector I can’t help notice how much they’re used in everyday speech. They’re so common and people are so unaware of their contradictory nature that I decided to devote this column to them. At Tim Horton’s the other day, for example, someone at a table next to me smacked their lips after sipping cappuccino and exclaimed, “That’s awful good.” Then there’s my old buddy who habitually exclaims “good grief” when startled or puzzled. Tell him he’s using an oxymoron and he looks even more startled and puzzled.

In my favourite card game, poker, an oxymoron is commonly used with most players being unaware of it. When the game is high-low, the pot is split between the best high hand and lowest hand. Among the players declaring “low,” the best worst hand (no kidding) is the winner. In fact, when we were playing recently one of the guys claimed his share of the pot with the comment, “I’ve got the best worst hand.” Another poker cohort, talking about hands, often uses the oxymoron “even odds.”

On the national news we occasionally hear the oxymoron “peace offensive.” A favourite military oxymoron in troubled parts of the world today is “war games.” But we don’t have to read newspapers or catch the evening news for oxymoronic examples. Listen closely to your friends, your fellow workers, your neighbours; you’ll hear them saying such things as “that’s pretty ugly,” “that’s old news,” and the most irritating oxymoron of all, “same difference.”

The other day the chief cook and bottlewasher at our household turned the house “inside out” looking for a lost item. She scolded our grandson for running around the house “half naked.” Not that long ago she was concerned about some food having “freezer burn.”

Recently a friend told me something he said was an “open secret.” Another friend bought some equipment “sight unseen” but he wasn’t about to spend a “small fortune” on it. When the Senatorial absentees in Ottawa were in the news, a national reporter used an oxymoron, “conspicuously absent.” Someone used an oxymoron humorously to suggested that our absent Senators were on “working vacations.” And on the financial pages a few days ago there was a piece on “negative growth.”

As I said, the oxymoron is alive and well and in common use. Perhaps a reader has a favourite example she or he would like to share with us. Your submissions are invited.

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