Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Great Wordsmiths

by Mardy Grothe

Published by HarperResource

272 pages, 2004

Buy it online



Cleverly Foolish, Awfully Funny, Superficially Profound... What Other Book Can Make Those Claims?

Reviewed by H. V. Cordry


Ever find yourself alone with an oxymoron and wish you could get away without appearing rude?

Actually, most people just don't understand oxymorons, according to Dr. Mardy Grothe, whose first book was Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. If parents bought it for their daughters there was no great harm done. It bulges with nuggets of epigrammatical wisdom and practical advice, each expressed in a rhetorical figure of speech called chiasmus, of which the title itself is an example.

Grothe's new book does for oxymorons (or oxymora) what Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You did for chiasmus. The Greek word (from oxys sharp + moros foolish) is probably best translated as pointedly foolish, in that an oxymoron combines -- for effect -- contradictory or incongruous words. In the wild it is seen most often in its simple two-cell form -- jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, awfully good, for example, and the disputatious military intelligence, of which frequent sightings have been reported over the past several years.

The oxymorons on display in Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Great Wordsmiths are all larger, more complex organisms, most of them reflecting considerable intelligence and wit. For example: "You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap." -- Dolly Parton; "Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything." -- Charles Kuralt; "I knew her [Doris Day] before she was a virgin." -- Oscar Levant; "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made." -- Groucho Marx; "If there is a 50-50 chance that something can go wrong, then nine times out of ten it will." -- Paul Harvey. The inimitable Yogi Berra is represented by what is probably an inadvertent creation: "If people don't want to come out to the ball park, nobody's going to stop them."

In his day job, Grothe is a marriage counselor and management consultant. It may be that his enthusiasm for those endeavors equals his enthusiasm for rhetorical figures of speech, though it seems hardly possible, given the limits of time, stamina and human reason.

One wouldn't want to suggest that the author is a lunatic, but his unflagging enthusiasm and fascinated absorption, his high-spirited sense of fun, his unmitigated joy in collecting and sharing and writing about arcane figures of speech place him at a level just slightly below that of the most obsessed hockey fan. These qualities contribute vastly to the broad appeal of his books and to the popularity of his Web sites. | March 2004


H. V. Cordry is a former professor and veteran journalist, now retired.