Shashi Tharoor on oxymorons

Shashi Tharoor/Dubai
Filed on July 15, 2021

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

A figure of speech that a politician like me needs to be familiar with is the oxymoron, a phrase in which seemingly contradictory terms appear in conjunction with each other. Take this sentence, for instance: “Even as he swore his perpetual loyalty to his party leader, he was looking around to see if he could do better, but she was taken in by his falsely true manner.”

Oxymorons sound like idiots out of breath gasping for air, but they’re just phrases (like “falsely true” in this example, or “loving hate” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) that combine two words of opposite meaning to good effect. Of course, politics is full of people whose earnest professions are falsely true, but that’s another subject altogether.

“Oxymoron” is derived from the Greek words oksus, meaning sharp or pointed, and moros, meaning dull or foolish. Of course, for an oxymoron to work, the combined expression has to make sense: there’s no point saying “black white” and expecting people to roar in appreciation, unless you are referring to an African gentleman named Mr White, in which case it’s an oxymoron.

In fact, oxymorons are far more common than one might imagine. How often has someone, caught in a place where she shouldn’t be, been told to ‘act naturally’? You’re either acting or you’re natural — put them together and you have an oxymoron. How many seemingly knowledgeable people have confided in you an ‘open secret’? How is it secret if it’s open? How often has a clerk demanded an ‘original copy’? Or, while negotiating a service, have you demanded an ‘exact estimate’? These are all oxymorons, because if you look at each word, one seems to contradict the other, and yet their meaning is perfectly clear to all of us.

When I was assailed by politicians and media in India for my use of the expression “cattle class”, I was ‘clearly misunderstood’ — I had used the term, but it didn’t mean what my critics thought it did. When roll-call was taken in a boarding school and a girl was ‘found missing’, that was an oxymoron as well as a major crisis for the school administration. (The girl was missing, she needed to be found!) Boys’ boarding schools, of course, feature a lot of conversations about girls, and many of the superficial judgements passed involve oxymorons — ‘God, she’s pretty ugly’, ‘she’s awfully beautiful’, ‘that woman was barely dressed’, and the like. Girls, being less superficial, are likely to describe the boys they know with other oxymorons: ‘he’s seriously funny’, for instance, or ‘he’s terribly nice’.

By their very nature, oxymorons also lend themselves to low humour — when terms that are, in fact, not contradictory are placed together and described as oxymorons (even when they are not supposed to be), the joke is that you think the expression is a contradiction in terms. “American culture”, some Brits say, is an oxymoron. (When Washington was throwing its weight around the world, leading to the coining of the phrase “the Ugly American”, some commentators rudely suggested that “American diplomacy” was an oxymoron too.) Many American diplomats, in turn, would consider “United Nations” an oxymoron too, since nations are rarely united. Indeed a common misprint, in the days before auto-correct, was “Untied Nations”!

The armed forces are no stranger to oxymorons: think of “friendly fire”, which brings down your own soldiers. A few pseudo-intellectuals would go farther and list “military intelligence” as an oxymoron, reinforcing the image of the bluff honest soldier without a thought in his head — since they sneer that only the unintelligent go off to risk their lives for the country in war. Or worse still, fight in another oxymoron, a “civil war” — for what could be more uncivil than warfare? Of course, when they quit, many soldiers seek an “active retirement” — another oxymoron.

The cynical public seem to think “honest politician” is an oxymoron. So, the politician’s retort is “business ethics”. Many would laugh at “educational television” as a misnomer. And anti-romantics would claim “Happily Married” is an oxymoron…

Ask frustrated computer-users to nominate an oxymoron from their daily experience, and many will suggest “Microsoft Works”. Does it work for you?