On August 8, 2020, I wrote a blog about “Oxymorons.” On October 12, 2021, I wrote another blog titled, “Is Political Marketing An Oxymoron?” Just recently, I wrote one titled “Irony.” Today’s blog is openly deceptive and repetitively original. The word, oxymoronica, describes without saying so quotations that contain incompatible congruous elements. Many examples of oxymoronica appear illogically plain deep down on the surface.

Mark Twain said, “It takes a heap of sense to write good nonsense.” I think he had Oxymoronica but didn’t know it. The prompt for this blog is a wonderful book by Dr. Mardy Grothe, titled “Oxymoronica.”[1] The book’s foreword explains the title. “A paradox [is] a statement that seems absurd or self-contradictory but that turns out to be true . . . Paradox was a fact of life long before it became a literary and rhetorical device. Who among us has not experienced something ugly in everything beautiful, something true in everything false, something female in everything male, of as King Claudius says in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage.”[2]

Dr. Grothe’s book is chock full of witty, oxymoronic examples. My personal favorite is something the English playwright, J.M. Barrie said of writers: “We are all failures—at least the best of us are. His point was that writing at a high level is so difficult that even great writers rarely consider themselves truly successful at it. It’s an ancient oxymoronic theme that applies to other disciplines as well. It was first noted by Confucius twenty-five hundred years ago: ‘The superior man is distressed by his lack of ability.’”[3]

One of the many reviewers of Dr. Grothe’s book described it as, “Cleverly Foolish, Awfully Funny, Superficially Profound… What Other Book Can Make Those Claims?”[4] Why, some might ask, is that review perfect? Because the three positive comments are themselves oxymoronic.

Unquestionably, the answer by Publishers Weekly is too long to be so short: “Coining the titular word to describe quotations that contain seemingly self-contradictory elements, psychologist, and amateur wordsmith Grothe (‘Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You’) gathers hundreds of examples–ancient, modern and everything in between–of such sayings. From Confucius’s ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance’ to Yogi Berra’s ‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’  to Adrienne Rich’s ‘Marriage is lonelier than solitude,’ these bon mots offer pithy insights and sometimes clever advice. Grothe’s 14 chapters group the quotations by theme; in ‘Sex, Love, and Romance,’ for example, Louise Colet advises readers to ‘Doubt the man who swears to his devotion,’ while in ‘Oxymoronic Insults (and a Few Compliments),’ Henry James reflects that George Eliot is ‘magnificently ugly…. in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind.’ Potentially useful to public speakers and certainly bound to amuse word mavens, Grothe’s collection is good clean fun–with a bit of an edge: the last section offers ‘Inadvertent Oxymoronica,’ in which George W. Bush is quoted as saying, ‘One of the common denominators I have found is that expectations rise above that which is expected.’”[5]

TEP Books confirmed the obvious. “You won’t find the word Oxymoronica in a dictionary because it didn’t exist before Dr. Grothe used it her book.”[6] Veterinary Advantage encouraged us to be “Comfortable Being Uncomfortable With Oxymoronica,” in its review of Dr. Grothe’s book.[7]

Accomplishing the impossible, Dr. Grothe wrote another book after Oxymoronica was published, titled, “Viva la Repartee.” The publisher gushed, “For most of us, that perfect retort or witty reply often escapes us when we need it most, only to come to mind with perfect clarity when it’s too late to be useful. The twentieth-century writer Heywood Broun described this all-too-common phenomenon when he wrote ‘Repartee is what we wish we’d said.’ In Viva la Repartee, Dr. Mardy Grothe, author of Oxymoronica, has lovingly assembled a collection of masterfully composed — and perfectly timed — replies that have turned the tables on opponents and adversaries. This delightful volume is a celebration of the most impressive retorts, ripostes, rejoinders, comebacks, quips, ad-libs, bon mots, off-the-cuff comments, wisecracks, and other clever remarks ever to come out of the mouths — and from the pens — of people throughout history. Touching on all areas of human endeavor, including politics, the arts, literature, sports, relationships, and even the risqué, the book features contributions from Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Dolly Parton, and scores more.”[8]

As history knows and shows, there is more to oxmoronica than just witty words or tantalizing comebacks. Politics is rife with oxmoronica. Oxymoronica, originally published in hardback in 2004, came out in a new and expanded paperback edition in 2015. “This book is devoted to paradoxical and oxymoronic quotations—those very special observations that use a contradiction in terms or a contradiction in ideas to tantalize our thinking or tickle our funny bones. Examples of oxymoronica have captured the minds of people for centuries, showing up in such popular sayings as: Less is more. Be careful what you wish for, it might come true. The more things change, the more they remain the same. . . Free love is too expensive. —BERNADETTE DEVLIN. I shut my eyes in order to see —PAUL GAUGUIN. Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. —MARGARET MEAD. It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right. —MOLIÉRE. There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe them. —GEORGE ORWELL. A normal adolescent isn’t a normal adolescent if he acts normal. —JUDITH VIORST.”[9]

In writing, as in ethics, precision is critical. A good start at looking at the ethics of writing oxymoronically, we should be careful to explain the difference between a paradox and an oxymoron. “The former is usually a more open-ended statement or longer compilation of words that express an opposing thought or idea. Think Dolly Parton saying, ‘It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!’ Oxymorons, on the other hand, are made up of one or two words next to or near each other to create a single, contradictory phrase.”[10]

Clarity is not just good writing technique, it’s an ethical imperative. There are scores of published pieces connecting politics to oxymoronic writing. “Don’t get me started about politics:  Do you have fun at a political party?  What about moral majority – they took God out of society and must now live with the consequences; moral has never been majority, but rather the discriminated minority, in my unbiased opinion.  And there will never truly be united nations – I’ve lived smack in the middle of Europe for 25 years and have watched the EU decay from idealistic dreams to cooking the books just to stay afloat.  There’s really no such thing as modern history, holy wars, conservative liberals, socialist market economies, humanitarian invasions, peace force,  peace offensive, or peacekeeper missiles, though sometimes I get the impression that criminal justice is more alive and well in America than is common sense.”[11]

Writing ethically is not a science. Not a talent. Not a forced rule. Its building trust with readers. When we write plainly, its straightforward. When we write oxymoronically it tests not just our wordsmithing, but also our ethical standards. Trust is a core ethical imperative. Write so your readers know they are reading your original work. Footnote outside sources. Don’t use oxymorons that are biased, disrespectful, or untrue. There is truth in oxymorons. Think before you say, Political Science, or Progressive Conservative. Is either one truthful? And if not, are you misleading your readers when you imply either to be ethical?

[1] Mandy Grothe, “Oxymoronica” copyright 2004. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-06-053699-3

[2] Ibid at Foreword, page vii.

[3] Ibid at 183.

[4] https://januarymagazine.com/artcult/oxymoronica.html

[5] https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-06-053699-2

[6] https://www.tepbooks.com/product/oxymoronica-9780060536992/

[7] https://fable.co/book/viva-la-repartee-by-dr-mardy-grothe-9780061758447tps://vet-advantage.com/vet_advantage/comfortable-being-uncomfortable-oxymoronica/

[8] https://fable.co/book/viva-la-repartee-by-dr-mardy-grothe-9780061758447tps://vet-advantage.com/vet_advantage/comfortable-being-uncomfortable-oxymoronica/  

[9] https://www.drmardy.com/oxymoronica/book

[10] https://www.skillshare.com/en/blog/the-oxymoron-a-terribly-helpful-literary-device/?via=blog-interhttps:  

[11] https://stephaniehuesler.com/2013/05/27/the-silent-scream-of-oxymorons/

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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