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So what's with those oxymorons and pleonasms

By DON ADDIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


For a long time, I thought an oxymoron was some kind of large, intellectually impaired bovine ungulate that pulled covered wagons across the great plains; sorta like the vernal equinox, only dumber.

Now I know that an oxymoron is a combination of contradicting words, joined together so they can argue with each other -- like a married couple. "Jumbo shrimp" is the classic example most folks like to cite. Another more snide favorite is "military intelligence."

A fella named Warren S. Blumenfeld put together a couple of books on oxymorons, with the aid of many contributors. He chose Pretty Ugly as his title, and I think "a little big" (as in "I may be a little big for this dress") is in there, too.

Leave us not leave out: good lawyer, creation science, water landing, entertaining sermon, whole half, congressional action, loose tights, near miss, motorcycle safety or Justice Rehnquist.

I have spotted a few myself and, when possible, quoted them in these pages for my adoring public. I believe it was Jerry Falwell who coined "compulsory volunteerism." The TV rating system cautioned us about programs containing "mild violence" and the Bush campaign, of course, gave us "compassionate conservatism."

In the same political vein, colleague Beth Glenn called my attention to Canada's staunch Progressive Conservative Party, no doubt the authors of the quaintly contradictory slogan, "Gradualism NOW!"

Another colleague, Charlotte Holtz, offered "religious tolerance." And still another associate, Cathy Flaherty, who has twin teenage sons, feels "sweet sixteen" is clearly oxymoronic.

Pop quiz: Can you find the oxymoron in the following film title? Night of the Living Dead.

This very newspaper published an unintended oxymoron when a reporter wrote of a "three-wheeled bicycle." But then, maybe none of them are intended.

From television I culled such beauts as "encore premiere" and "genuine psychic." Then there's "unlikely probability," "extremely average" and, speaking for myself, "rap music."

The obverse of the oxymoronic coin is the pleonasm, which I had never heard of until last month, so I didn't have a chance to guess what kind of animal it might be. (Some prehistoric bird, I would have imagined.) It means redundancy, as in, "It's six o'clock a.m. in the morning." Or, "two twins." Or, "That nude lady was as naked as a jaybird in her birthday suit without any clothes on, au naturel in the all-together!"

Examples from Prof. Blumenfeld: free gift, exact same, final conclusion, three-cornered triangle, male rooster, cash money, rural farmer, hot steam. (I've often thought "redundancy" ought to have an extra "dun" or two in it, to make it more self-descriptive. "redundundancy.")

Calling on my own experience, so as not to plagiarize others too obviously, here's the pleonasm that, for some odd reason, I hear most often and frequently, not to mention repeatedly again and again: "Stupid idiot!"

"It was a dark and stormy night." Who isn't familiar with that classic line associated with the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (and made further famous by Snoopy)? That's the contest that rewards writers of the best opening sentences for the worst imaginable novels.

In a Penguin Books collection of exemplary entries, page 92 features this eminently repeatable sentence by Lee DiAngelo of St. Petersburg: "I suggest you stick to painting, Mr. Van Gogh -- you sure don't have an ear for music."

Stick out that chest, Private! Says here the British Army has decided to provide breast-enhancement surgery for female troopers because it will make for a happier regiment. (Is that to make the female soldiers happier or the male soldiers?) At least it will be easier to read their battle ribbons.

Fine thing. When I was in the U.S. Army, they didn't even give me a pair of glasses.

But it sounds like the typical military way of doing things. If the uniform doesn't fit, don't alter the uniform; alter the wearer.

Can other government-paid cosmetic royal treatments be far behind? How long before the Royal Air Force demands nose jobs and chin tucks? Hair transplants for the Horse Guard? Liposuction to improve the outline of the kilt-clad Queen's Black Watch? Will the Royal Navy's main medic be the Chief Bosom's Mate? How long before military history brushes aside the Berlin Airlift for the London Facelift?

For now, as I understand it, it's just 12 female soldiers who are enjoying the Army's flat-out favoritism. Soon, one figures, the platoon will be bustin' out all over.

Not to be outdone, the city of San Francisco voted to foot the bill for sex-change operations for its employees. I suspect a government plot. If they change their male clerks to female clerks, they can pay them less.

Speaking of busts: Busting into the wrong house, Jacksonville police sent in a dog that bit a 10-year-old girl who lived there. A police spokesman said, "Procedurally, I don't know what we could have done differently." Well, for one thing, you could have procedurally learned how to read house numbers.

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