The Grammarphobia Blog

War of the words: Buckley vs. Wills

Q: I heard Garry Wills say on the radio that “oxymoron” got its present meaning (a pair of contradictory words) because William F. Buckley misunderstood its actual meaning (sharply foolish) and used it incorrectly in the National Review. Can you clear this up for me?

A: We didn’t hear Wills on the radio, but he did write in The Atlantic last year that Buckley liked to use “big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning.”

“One of his most famous usages,” Wills wrote, “poisoned the general currency, especially among young conservatives trying to imitate him.”

These conservatives began using “oxymoron” in the sense Buckley gave it, he said, “though that was the opposite of its true meaning.”

Here’s how Wills explained Buckley’s thinking about “oxymoron”:

“He thought it was a fancier word for ‘contradiction,’ so young imitators would say that ‘an intelligent liberal’ was an oxymoron. But the Greek word means ‘something that is surprisingly true, a paradox,’ as in a shrewd dumbness.”

What do we think? We’re with Buckley on this and we’d say Wills’s etymology here is an example of dumb shrewdness.

To begin with, the word apparently didn’t exist in Greek, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though English writers coined an ersatz Greek version of it (using Greek letters) in the 17th century.  

The Romans coined oxymorum in the 5th century from the Greek roots oxus (sharp, keen, or pointed) and moros (foolish).

But the word never meant “sharply foolish” (or “shrewd dumbness”) either in Latin or in English.

To claim that as the word’s original meaning would be overly literal. A closer interpretation would be “pointedly incongruous.”

In modern English “oxymoron” has two meanings. The first is the one it’s had since it entered English in 1640, quite a few years before Buckley used it in the National Review.

Here’s how the OED defines this traditional sense of the word: “A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.” (This is also the definition in Latin.)

Here’s an example from the Quarterly Review of 1890: “Voltaire … we might call, by an oxymoron which has plenty of truth in it, an ‘Epicurean pessimist.’ ”

And that’s pretty much how Buckley uses the word in Miles Gone By: A Literary Biography (2004), when he refers to “martial Quakerism” as an oxymoron.

A newer, more general meaning is “a contradiction in terms,” which the OED says originated in 1902.

A couple of quotations from food writing are good illustrations of this looser usage:

“ ‘Healthful’ and ‘Mexican food’ need not be an oxymoron” (Texas Monthly, 1989);

“This opened up an oxymoron too dreadful to contemplate: affordable caviar” (The Guardian, 1993).

You can see the difference. In the newer usage, the contradictory terms aren’t deliberately juxtaposed for emphasis; they’re merely contradictory. And sometimes the contrariness is humorous, as in “jumbo shrimp.”

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