Words & Stuff

ooo: A Tautology Is a Tautology Is a Tautology

(18 July 1999)

About seven months ago, an English teacher wrote to ask me if I knew of any lists of oxymorons. I did a little poking around on the Web and in various reference and wordplay books, but found surprisingly little on the subject. For instance, neither the rec.puzzles archive nor the alt.usage.english FAQ mentioned oxymorons at all the last time I looked. As a public service, then, I provide here a list of oxymorons, along with some discussion of both oxymorons and tautologies.

An oxymoron is what columnist Herb Caen used to call a "self-cancelling phrase" -- a phrase which is internally contradictory. An oxymoron usually consists of two words which appear to be opposite in meaning. Often the apparent contradiction is simply due to the words in the phrase having other meanings than the intended ones. For instance, the phrase "even odds" makes perfect sense in its intended meaning, but it's often cited as an oxymoron because other meanings of "even" and "odd" are opposites of each other.

At least as often when someone says something is an oxymoron, they mean, jokingly and usually at least somewhat insultingly, that such a thing doesn't or can't exist. For instance, to say that "California culture" is an oxymoron is to say that there is no culture in California, or that all Californians are uncultured. Taking this approach a step further, saying that "airline food" is an oxymoron means not that there's no such thing as food on an airplane, but that there is no good airline food -- that is, that the stuff served as food on an airline isn't worthy of the name "food." The best-known such "oxymoron" is "military intelligence" -- suggesting that this is an oxymoron indicates that the speaker feels the military doesn't behave intelligently, though it ignores the fact that the word "intelligence" in this context means "information."

Some other so-called oxymorons are simply modifiers attached to precise terms. There's nothing really contradictory about the phrase "almost exactly" -- it merely takes a precise term and makes it more vague. But since precision and vagueness are often opposed to each other, there's a certain tension in the phrase that can be seen as oxymoronic.

Finally, there are some oxymorons that really do mix opposite terms. "Bittersweet," for instance, is a mix of bitter and sweet.

Have I dissected the jokes to the point where they're no longer funny yet? Sorry. The list has plenty more where those came from.

(I'm obliquely reminded of the story about the lecturer telling an audience that although a double negative often cancels itself to become positive, there's no way to use two positive terms to mean something negative. To which a voice in the back of the room called out, in a sarcastic tone, "Yeah, yeah.")

Moving from the contradictory to the repetitive:

My dictionary lists three definitions for "tautology." The first is "needless repetition"; the second is "an instance of tautology"; the third is "a tautologous statement." Hmm. Seems needlessly repetitive to me. Similarly, a "pleonasm" is "the use of more words than those necessary to denote mere sense...: redundancy."

I'm not sure whether Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" is tautologous or just repetitive, but I'm fond of tautologous similes and metaphors in general. Once while riding a motorcycle on the freeway, pleased with how smoothly the machine ran, I caught myself thinking, "This bike runs like a well-oiled engine."

A while back I obtained a Magnetic Proverbs set. It consists of a few dozen proverbs printed on magnetic vinyl (like a magnetic poetry set), with each proverb broken into two pieces (subject and predicate) so you can mix and match halves of proverbs. Unfortunately I don't have ordering information handy, but game stores might have it. Mixing the pieces results in phrases like "Beauty should be seen and not heard" and "A rolling stone killed the cat." Almost any match you make is at least somewhat entertaining.

As I put the mixed proverbs up on my refrigerator, I noticed that the set makes it easy to produce fine semi-tautological proverbs, like these:

Dead men die young.
Children will be boys.
Cleanliness sweeps clean.
Love makes the heart grow fonder.
Absence keeps the doctor away.
Behind every good man is virtue.

There are plenty of redundant phrases in common use: animated cartoon, rakish angle, willing volunteer, and so on. (Dominus suggests that an unwilling volunteer should be called a "nolunteer"; compare "nolens volens," Latin for "unwilling [or] willing," meaning about the same thing as "willy-nilly.") Also in common use are lots of redundant phrases that involve acronyms: ATM machine, PIN number, TWAIN technology. But there are also redundancies we're not aware of most of the time, sometimes because they combine languages. I've had friends refer to hot salsa as "salsa sauce," for instance, unaware that "salsa" means "sauce." Similarly, the dining hall at Swarthmore used to serve "roast beef au jus with sauce," and a friend once ate "chicken pollos" on a visit to Costa Rica. Finally, most people are probably unaware that the word "Tahoe" comes from Washoe da'au, meaning "lake," so "Lake Tahoe," too, is bilingually redundant.


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>