Oxymoron

Oxymoron is a combination of two words (mostly an adjective and a noun or an adverb with an adjective) in which the meanings of the two clash, being opposite in sense, for example:

'low skyscraper', 'sweet sorrow', 'nice rascal', 'pleasantly ugly face', 'horribly beautiful', 'a deafening silence',

If the primary meaning of the qualifying word changes or weakens, the stylistic effect of oxymoron is lost. This is the case with what were once oxymoronic combinations, for example, 'awfully nice', 'awfully glad', 'terribly sorry' and the like, where the words awfully and terribly have lost their primary logical meaning and are now used with emotive meaning only, as intensifies. The essence of oxymoron consists in the capacity of the primary meaning of the adjective or adverb to resist for some time the overwhelming power of semantic change which words undergo in combination. The forcible combination of non-combinative words seems to develop what may be called a kind of centrifugal force


which keeps them apart, in contrast to ordinary word-combinations where centripetal force is in action.

We have already pointed out that there are different ratios of emotive-logical relations in epithets. In some of them the logical meaning is hardly perceived, in others the two meanings co-exist. In oxymoron the logical meaning holds fast because there is no true word-combination, only the juxtaposition of two non-combinative words.

But still we may notice a peculiar change in the meaning of the qualifying word. It assumes a new life in oxymoron, definitely indicative of the assessing tendency in the writer's mind.

Let us take the following example from O. Henry's story "The Duel" in which one of the heroes thus describes his attitude towards New York.

"I despise its very vastness and power. It has the poorest millionaires, the littlest great men, the haughtiest beggars, the plainest beauties, the lowest skyscrapers, the dolefulest pleasures of any town I ever saw."

Even the superlative degree of the adjectives fails to extinguish the primary meaning of the adjectives: poor, little, haughty, etc. But by some inner law of word-combinations they also show the attitude of the speaker, reinforced, of course, by the preceding sentence: "I despise its very vastness and power."

It will not come amiss to express this language phenomenon in terms of the theory of information, which states that though the general tendency of entropy is to enlarge, the encoding tendency in the language, which strives for an organized system of language symbols, reduces entropy. Perhaps, this is due to the organizing spirit of the language, i.e. the striving after a system (which in its very essence is an organized whole) that oxymoronic groups, if repeated frequently, lose their stylistic quality and gradually fall into the group of acknowledged word-combinations which consist of an intensifier and the concept intensified.



Oxymoron has one main structural model: adjeсtive + noиn. It is in this structural model that the resistance of the two component parts to fusion into one unit manifests itself most strongly. In the adverb + adjective model the change of meaning in the first element, the adverb, is more rapid, resistance to the unifying process not being so strong.

Sometimes the tendency to use oxymoron is the mark of certain literary trends and tastes. There are poets in search of new shades of meaning in existing words, who make a point of joining together words of contradictory meaning. "Two ordinary words may become almost new," writes V. V. Vinogradov, "if they are joined for the first time or used in an unexpected context."1

Thus, 'peopled desert', 'populous solitude', 'proud humility' are oxymoronic.

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1 Виноградов В. В. Русский язык. М., 1938, т. 1, с. 121—122.


Sometimes, however, the tendency to combine the uncombinative is revealed in structurally different forms, not in adjective-noun models. Gorki criticizes his own sentence: “I suffered then from the fanaticism of knowledge,” and called it “a blunder”. He points out that the acquiring of knowledge is not blind as fanaticism is. The syntactic relations here are not oxymoronic. But combinations of this kind can be likened to oxymoron. The same can be said of the following lines from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":

"Fair Greece! sad relic of departed Worth!

Immortal, though no more, though fallen, great!"

Oxymoronic relations in the italicized part can scarcely be felt, but still the contrary signification is clearly perceived. Such structures may be looked upon as intermediate between oxymoron and antithesis (see p. 222).


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