Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

A couple whom I know tooled down to a local car emporium to look over the latest products. Attracted to the low sticker price on the basic model, they told the salesman that they were considering buying an unadorned automobile and had no inclination to purchase any of the long list of options affixed to the side window of the vehicle they were inspecting.

“You’ll have to pay $168 for the rear window wiper,” the salesman explained.

“But we don’t want the rear wiper,” my friends protested.

And the salesman said: “We want to keep the sticker price low, but every car comes with the rear window wiper. So you have to buy it. It’s a mandatory option.”

Mandatory option is a telling example of the kind of pushme-pullyou doublespeak that pervades the language of business and politics these days. It is also a striking instance of an oxymoron.

“Good grief!” you exclaim. “What’s an oxymoron?”

An oxymoron (I reply) is not a big, dumb cow. Rather, an oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two incongruous, contradictory terms are yoked together in a small space. As a matter of fact, good grief is an oxymoron.

Appropriately, the word oxymoron is itself oxymoronic because it is formed from two Greek roots of opposite meaning — oxys, “sharp, keen,” and moros, “foolish,” the same root that gives us the word moron. Two other examples of foreign word parts oxymoronically drawn to each other are pianoforte, “soft-loud,” and sophomore, “wise fool.” If you know any sophomoric sophomores, you know how apt that oxymoron is.

Perhaps the best known oxymoron in the United States is one from comedian George Carlin’s record “Toledo Window Box,” the delightful jumbo shrimp. Expand the expression to fresh frozen jumbo shrimp, and you have a double oxymoron. In a dazzling triple oxymoron, another comedian, Jay Leno, was temporarily named a permanent guest host for the Tonight Show.

Once you start collecting oxymorons these compact two-word paradoxes start popping up everywhere you look. Among the prize specimens in my trophy case are these 50 minor miracles:

awful good, baby grand, benevolent despot, benign neglect, cardinal sin, conspicuously absent, constructive criticism, criminal justice, deafening silence, genuine imitation, death benefit, deliberate speed, divorce court, dry beer, a dull roar, even odds, elevated subway, final draft, flat busted, freezer burn genuine imitation, growing small, half naked, indoor bleachers, industrial park, inside out, light heavyweight, living dead, living end, loose tights, loyal opposition, metal woods, mobile home, negative growth, old news, open secret, original copy, plastic silverware (or glasses), pretty ugly, random order, recorded live, same difference, seriously funny, sight unseen, small fortune, standard deviation, steel wool, student teacher, white chocolate (or gold), working vacation.

Literary oxymorons, created accidentally on purpose, include Geoffrey Chaucer’s hateful good , Edmund Spenser’s proud humility, John Milton’s darkness visible, Alexander Pope’s “damn with faint praise,” Lord Byron’s melancholy merriment, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s falsely true, Ernest Hemingway’s scalding coolness and, the most quoted of all, William Shakespeare’s “parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Now, if you are willing to stretch the oxymoronic concept and editorialize unabashedly, you will expand your oxymoronic list considerably. Thus, we can observe natural oxmorons, literary oxymorons and opinion oxymorons, three categories that are not always mutually exclusive:

Amtrak schedule, business ethics, civil engineer, civil war, designer jeans, educational television, Greater (your choice of scapegoat city), Microsoft Works, military intelligence, nonworking mother, peace offensive, Peacekeeper Missile, political science, postal service, safe sex, President (your choice of scapegoat president), rock music, student athlete, United Nations, war games

Oxymorons lurk even in place names, like Little Big Horn, Old New York, Fork Union and Connecticut (“connect” + “I cut”). They also hide in single words, like bittersweet, firewater, preposterous, semiboneless, spendthrift, superette, wholesome and Noyes. If you have trouble understanding that last one, examine its first two and then its last three letters.