Wordsleuth (2002, volume 35, 2): Never Say Never to an Oxymoron

Sheila Sanders
(Terminology Update, Volume 35, Number 2, 2002, page 28)

Never say never. Press enter to exit. Do these sayings not contradict themselves? Well, yes they do. They are oxymorons, expressions that combine contradictory or incongruous ideas. Interestingly, oxymoron translates from the Greek as pointedly foolish.

Foolish or not, oxymorons are intriguing. You may have noticed that writers employ them as literary devices to catch their readers’ attention. For example:

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.
—Mark Twain

If he were alive today, he’d turn over in his grave.
—Samuel Goldwyn

Twain’s "impromptu" speech takes "three weeks to prepare": hardly spontaneous or unrehearsed. Goldwyn would have the man alive, yet in his grave. Both writers surprise and amuse us by connecting paradoxical ideas.

Indeed, some expressions have become such a part of our language that we no longer recognize them as oxymorons: found missing, industrial park, and legally drunk. And every profession has produced its fair share of "pointedly foolish" word combinations, the armed forces being no exception. Though military intelligence is often offered tongue-in-cheek as an oxymoron, there are other more credible examples, many of which were taken from government sources:

We wear the poppy, which was adopted for symbolic purposes after the First World War, as a reminder of those who died fighting for peace.

Fighting for peace is like making love for virginity.
—David NobbsFootnote 1

Here the contradictory ideas of fighting and peace are paired to create an oxymoron. In the same vein, here is a coupling of military, suggesting armed conflict, with peace, connoting harmony:

  • Like military peacekeepers, these officers have a primary objective to preserve life and social order.

The next examples are similar. Though force can be used to achieve results, can peace be enforced, or is that as unrealistic as forcing people to have a good time?

  • The Ad Hoc Committee decided that Canada should participate . . . "for the duration of the UN military peace enforcement operation with a properly supported battalion . . . ."
  • Establishment of a small, permanent peace force, or the machinery for one, could be the first step on the long road toward order and stability.

An equally bizarre word combination is friendly fire, the euphemism for accidentally killing one’s own soldiers instead of enemy troops:

  • To deal with the risk of friendly fire, the lieutenant colonel said that the soldiers could always hide in the trenches to defend themselves.

"Friendly" indeed. Would you say that the concept of heavily armed boats being linked to the idea of diplomacy makes an incongruous combination? Here is a pairing of those images:

  • The result was an impasse Canada decided to settle with gunboat diplomacy.

Another oxymoronic phrase deals with nuclear weapons. Such armaments can be considered offensive weapons, but how can they be detonated defensively?

  • Furthermore, our participation would include encouragement for other initiatives . . . to enhance their security and remove the cause of nuclear defence.

And if war breaks out despite such a "defence," will there be a cease-fire? What about a partial cease-fire? Does that mean shooting at every second or third enemy soldier, or attacking on alternate days? In this case, not everyone decided to participate:

  • The partial cease-fire soon proved one-sided and temporary as the enemy continued to shell and to send out patrols.

Perhaps this idea of a partial cease-fire is just a game, in other words, an enjoyable activity where no one gets hurt. As a matter of fact, a game is the most contradictory thing I can think of in relation to war, and yet:

  • If Canada is going to play a meaningful role in high-level war games, then the level of participation called for in the game instructions must be provided.

When games become a synonym for war, it’s time to find shelter, away from the violence and the bombs. Here are those two apparently contradictory ideas, shelter and bombs, combined to form an oxymoron:

  • [The summary provided all the documents] regarding the now abandoned bomb shelter located east of former CFB Penhold, Alberta.

Now would that be a place to shelter bombs, or to shelter us from bombs?

It certainly is a strange world we live in. To conclude the theme of oxymorons in the military, let me quote Ashleigh Brilliant:

  • Inform all the troops that communications have completely broken down.Footnote 2


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