NTNU - Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet
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Teknisk ansvarlig:
Erik Prytz Reitan

Stewart's corner


An oxymoron is a word like firewater that is self-contradictory. Frequently, oxymoronic terms like old news are used without us thinking about what we are really saying. A double classic is fresh frozen, jumbo shrimp, where apart from its dubious freshness we have the problem of size when «jumbo» means very large, and «shrimp» is both a shellfish (Norw. reke) and also something very small. Appropriately, the term oxymoron is itself oxymoronic because it is formed from two Greek roots with opposite meanings (adj. -oxy, which is «pointed and keen», and moros «foolish», the same root as the word «moron»). Oxymoron is the singular form and oxymora is the plural form, not «oxymorons».

Oxymora are not necessarily mistakes or errors in speech or writing. They make effective titles and phrases as in Shakespeare's «parting is such sweet sorrow» and Malcolm Muggeridge's comment that «Good taste and humour are a contradiction in terms, like a chaste whore». Some combinations may be the basis of satire, such as the story of the British officer who innocently called to his men in the heat of battle: «Its all right chaps, according to intelligence we are under friendly fire». The term military intelligence is probably a good way to remember what an oxymoron is all about.

Oxymora are the basis of cliches like: half naked, small fortune, open secret, working holiday and living dead. Even some foreign loan words are oxymoronic: pianoforte (soft-loud), monopoly (one many) and sophomore (wise fool).

Perhaps the greatest problem with oxymora for careful writers is avoiding them. Here are some prize specimens from trade names and elsewhere:

Microsoft Works - Advanced Basic - Diet Coke - elevated subway - new classic - plastic glass - silent scream - exact estimate - tight slacks - slack tights - original copy - bittersweet

Journalists often relish in satirical oxymora like «the Senator's popularity soared like a lead balloon». Here are some choice examples from The Financial Times' own database:

English cuisine - pleasant villain - colourful accountant - poor bookmaker- vegetarian haggis - French queue

Tricky words

index, indexes, indices

Index (Norw. register) means both an alphabetic listing at the end of a report or textbook and a scale used for measuring changes in prices and the like (Norw. indeks).

Indexes is one of the plurals of index. It means both alphabetical lists and the stock market indexes: «The FT and Dow Jones indexes are both down again». The ending rhymes with «siz».

Indices is another plural of index. It is used in mathematics and also means evidence, usually of a criminal kind: «The police had a number of indices to work on» (Norw. indisiebevis). The ending rhymes with «seas».



Impracticable (Norw. ugjennomførlig) means not feasible or impossible to carry out: «Fifty years ago it was considered impracticable to get a man on the moon».

Impractical (Norw. upraktisk) means not practical: «He is probably an excellent pilot, but as he is both short sighted and obese, it is completely impractical for him to think of applying for such a career». Though there is a difference, impractical is moving into the impracticable sphere. If you have to make a clear distinction, impractical can be replaced by useless or notsensible.

rare, scarce

Rare (Norw. sjelden) is used for uncommon, but valuable objects: «She collects rare British stamps from the 19th century».

Scarce (Norw. knapphet) is used for common objects that people are short of (often for a limited period): «Wheat may be scarce in Russia this winter».

decimate, exterminate

Decimate (Norw. desimere, redusere sterkt) originally meant «kill one in ten». Now, it usually means kill a large proportion: «The people in the village were decimated in the war», which means that many died.

Exterminate (Norw. utrydde) means to kill everyone or wipe out: «The people in the village were exterminated in the war», which means they all died.

Enlightening English

In a Bangkok temple: It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man.

Spanish Hotel Ad: The provision of a large French widow in every room adds to the visitors comfort.

French Swimming Pool: Swimming is forbidden in absence of the Savior.