Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Our Oxymoronic Language

I have a special 24/7 Phone Policy with friends, family, colleagues, students; that is, they may call me any time, day or night, for any reason. Maybe they have a question about an assignment. Maybe they just want to talk. Maybe they need a ride home from a local bar because they've had too much to drink. Maybe they need a shoulder to cry on. Regardless of the reason, I'll pick up the phone and talk as long as they want or need to. People think I'm crazy, but hey, it works for me.

In fact, my friend Phil likes to call at odd hours to discuss deeply philosophical issues or lesser ones, depending upon his mood. He and I are both night owls by nature, and I always look forward to finding out what his question will be. We've had many interesting discussions, and he challenges me to stretch myself, to think about issues deeply that I might never otherwise consider. No question is too silly to discuss. (He even puts up with questions from me such as "Why, when birds land on a telephone wire, are they all facing the same way?)

The typical call goes something like this: after greeting me, he'll ask a question like "How would you define intelligence?" or "Do you think today's students have a sense of entitlement?" or today's question, "Have you heard of the word asyndetically? Do you know what it means?"

Today's question threw me. I assumed (always dangerous, of course) that the word was an adverb derivative of the noun asyndeton. I seemed to recall that asyndeton was a figure of speech, but darned if I could pull a definition out of my head on such short notice. Since I was sitting at my computer, I headed to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary to refresh my memory.

The first thing that struck me about this word was not the definition, however, but its etymology (word origin). According to M-W, asyndeton derives from "Late Latin, from Greek, from neuter of asyndetos unconnected," but also "from a- + syndetos bound together, from syndein to bind together, from syn- + dein to bind." Dictionary gobbledygook aside, what we have here is an oxymoronic word--a word that means both "unconnected" and "bound together"--a seeming paradox!

Can you see why I love language so?

When I looked at the dictionary definition for asyndeton, though, the oxymoronic family tree for this word began to make sense. M-W defines the word as an "omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses." When conjunctions like and, but, and or are omitted but still implied (usually replaced by a comma), that's an example of asyndeton. M-W provides the following example:

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
In this example, the conjunction and is missing (read: I came [and] I saw [and] I conquered.) Dictionary.com provided me with another example:

  • He has provided the poor with jobs, with opportunity, with self-respect.
Again, the conjunction and is missing at each comma.

Connecting the etymology--asyndeton meaning both "unconnected" and "bound together"--and the definition, the word makes sense, even though it seems to contradict itself. The clauses are "unconnected" because the expected conjunction is missing, but because the ideas are parallel in importance and expressed in parallel form, connected by the commas in place of the conjunctions, the ideas are "bound together."

Cool, huh?

Our language is filled with seeming paradoxes, or oxymorons. Jumbo shrimp, for example--how can they be big (jumbo) while also small (shrimp)? A girlfriend of mine once described me as "calmly aggressive." How can one be calm but aggressive at the same time? (I like to think of it as being assertive rather than aggressive.)

So...what are your favorite oxymorons?


Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Oxymoron: Military Intelligence (or Government Intelligence) . . . :-)


Diane said...

"Same Difference", "Act Natural", "Dull Roar". Here's a great website for the largest list of Oxymorons I have ever seen.


By the way, your friend sounds like a most interesting conversationalist. I find it hard to find people willing to discuss such things as 'why all the birds on a wire face the same way'. However these types of curious wonderings often enter my head too, and I would be thrilled to discuss such things in depth! (I think it's maybe because birds are such copycats!) OOOO! Another oxymoron! HA HA!

Your Cuz

Anonymous said...

Birds land on the wire in the same direction for one reason! Wind direction. Just like an airplane, it is easier for the to fly in to the wind, and land in to the wind. So you can tell which way the wind is blowing, when you look up and see the birds. Now this does not always work, birds like hawks, when they are feeding, and watching a critter, will perch either way, to get the best view. But generally speaking, they are there because of SCIENCE!

Beverly said...

I like the saying "Front End" or "straight angle" It just doesn't make any sense, but it does. Just like that didn't:)

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