an oxymoronic word: ‘oxymoron’

L'ultimo bacio di Romeo e Giulietta (1823), by Francesco Hayez

L’ultimo bacio di Romeo e Giulietta (1823), by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)
Collezione d’arte del museo di Villa Carlotta
image: Lombardia Beni Culturali



The noun oxymoron denotes a figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms is placed in conjunction for emphasis. For example, the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used sweet sorrow in An excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet (London, 1597):

– Iuliet: Tis almost morning I would haue thee gone,
But yet no further then a wantons bird,
Who lets it hop a little from her hand,
Like a pore prisoner in his twisted giues,
And with a silke thred puls it backe againe,
Too louing iealous of his libertie.
– Romeo: Would I were thy bird.
– Iuliet: Sweet so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherrishing thee.
Good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

The noun oxymoron is an autological word, that is to say, it has the property it denotes: it is from Greek ὀξυ- (= oxy-), combining form of ὀξύς (= oxús), meaning sharp, keen, acute, pungent, acid, and μωρός (= mōrόs), meaning dull, stupid, foolish. It is first recorded in The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d (London, 1657), by the otherwise unknown author John Smith:

Oxymoron, ὀξύμωρον, Acutifatuum aut stulte acutum, subtilly foolish; derived from ὀξὺ, [oxy] acumen, sharpnesse of wit, and μωρὸς, [moros] stultus, a fool.

The combining form oxy- is present in the word oxygen. In 1778, the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-94) proposed for the recently discovered element the name principe oxygine, intended to mean acidifying principle, oxygen being originally supposed to be an essential component of acids. By 1786, this had become principe oxygène, and the French noun oxygène first appeared in Méthode de Nomenclature Chimique (1787), a work prepared by Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau (1737-1816) in collaboration with Lavoisier and other chemists. Method of Chymical Nomenclature, the 1788 translation by a certain James St. John, introduced the noun into English:

Oxygen, or that part of vital air that fixes itself in the bodies which burn, thereby augmenting their weight, and changing their nature, and whose principal property is to form the acids from which property we have derived its appellation.

The neuter of μωρός (= mōrόs) is μωρόν (= mōrόn). In 1910, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded adopted it as a medical term designating a person with mild mental retardation.

The American humorist Robert Charles Benchley (1889-1945) was the first known user of moron in its current general sense of a stupid person in The Passing of the Orthodox Paradox: A Matter for Sincere Congratulation to Lovers of the Drama, published in Vanity Fair (New York) of October 1917:

There was a time, beginning with the Oscar Wilde era, when no unprotected thought was safe. It might be seized at any moment by an English Duke or a Lady Agatha and strangled to death. Even the butlers in the late ’eighties were wits, and served epigrams with cucumber sandwiches; and a person entering one of these drawing-rooms and talking in connected sentences—easily understood by everybody—each with one subject, predicate and meaning, would have been looked upon as a high class moron. One might as well have gone to a dinner at Lady Coventry’s without one’s collar, as without one’s kit of trained paradoxes.

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