Etymology Usage

Is a “concrete boardwalk” an oxymoron?

Q: The NYC parks commissioner considers a “concrete boardwalk” an oxymoron, but he argues that the usage is OK because the word “boardwalk” had become eponymous. As I see it, he’s using the words “oxymoron” and “eponymous” incorrectly. If I’m wrong, you can bet I won’t tell anyone I consulted you!

A: Thanks for sending that New York Times article about the fight to keep the boards in the boardwalk at Coney Island.

In the article, Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, is quoted as saying last year that a concrete boardwalk is an “oxymoron.”

He’s also quoted as saying  that “boardwalk has become eponymous, in the way Kleenex is for paper tissue. It is a generic term for an elevated oceanfront walkway, and other communities use concrete.”

We think the parks commissioner is being a little loose with his terms, misusing both “oxymoron” and “eponymous.”

The phrase “concrete boardwalk” may be a misnomer, though that’s debatable, but it’s not an oxymoron.

The word “oxymoron,” as we’ve said before on our blog, is a figure of speech with a pair of opposite or markedly contradictory terms. Wood and concrete are different building materials, but they aren’t opposites or markedly contradictory.

And it may be true that “boardwalk” is now a generic term, as the parks commissioner says, but it’s definitely not eponymous.

The adjective “eponymous,” which we’ve also written about on the blog, refers to the person something is named for. For example, Hamlet is the eponymous hero of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Perhaps the parks commissioner meant that “boardwalk” is ubiquitous—that is, found everywhere. Many people confuse the words “eponymous” and “ubiquitous,” but as we’ve also pointed out on the blog, they’re not synonymous.

One thing we can say for “boardwalk” is that it’s an all-American word. We associate it with Coney Island, Atlantic City, and similar American vacation spots, and as it turns out the word was born in the USA.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “boardwalk” is from a letter written in 1872 by Frances M. A. Roe, author of Army Letters From an Officer’s Wife:

“We reached a narrow board-walk that was supposed to run along by her side fence.”

Notice that the word wasn’t originally associated with waterfronts. But a 1906 citation from a story by Abby Meguire Roach in Harper’s Magazine has a whiff of salt air:

“A few days later, on the board walk at the seashore, she came face to face with Hugh Wilberding.” (A later version of Roach’s story, collected in a book, has “on the board-walk at Atlantic City.”)

As for what a boardwalk should be made of, the word was—and still is—defined by the OED as “a footway or walking-path constructed of boarding.”

Though the OED doesn’t say so, boardwalks these days are sometimes built of things other than wooden boards.

Perhaps if Coney Island’s boarding continues to be replaced with concrete, the OED will revise its definition.

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