I’m ordinary enough to be confused most of the time by words that don’t make sense. Usually I suck it up and let silence do my talking for me, hoping it will picture me as a strong silent type with leadership potential. But now and then I can’t resist the urge toward words, especially since I’ve wholly surrendered to my addiction for crossword puzzles. Those puzzles often stick it to me, tempt me to resort to the use of dictionaries. I usually nap until the temptation passes, in part because dictionaries do little but tell me how to properly spell a word, for now, if I almost know how. Dictionaries seem next to useless for making sense of things. “Freedom,” a word that gains favor whenever there’s a war coming on, confused me decades ago, so I looked it up. “Liberty,” is what the good book said, so I looked that one up too, only to find myself at square one, circling from word to word, wondering if dictionaries help us come to terms with anything as real as sticks and stones that break real bones.
Happily I eventually discovered a practical dictionary, The Devil’s Dictionary, written by a grim West Coast journalist named Ambrose Bierce. Bierce, originally from Ohio, was the tenth of thirteen children, all of them having names beginning with “A,” a fact that has prompted some biographers to speculate that his mother’s thirteenth child doomed her to an unlucky death long before she realized even one twenty-sixth of her ambitions and dreams. It’s likely that young Ambrose was an avid reader who burned many a candle as the pages of classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland danced before his eyes. I see his eyes flickering as they zero in on Humpty telling Alice, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.” And innocent Alice’s reply: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many things.” And Humpty’s definitive response: “The question is, who is to be master. That is all.”
Bierce escaped his Ohio home by way of the Civil War, the incivility of which was not lost on him. He eventually took to writing cartoon captions and political slurs while standing guard at the U.S. mint in San Francisco. So little of the bullion inside the mint made its way into his pockets that he was inspired to find his voice as editor and journalist for several Hearst newspapers, as short story writer, and as authority on the true meaning of words. Word by word Bierce compiled his own dictionary, drawing attention to meanings never imagined by Dr. Johnson, Webster and the Oxford scholars. Take, for example, his sense of the meaning of the word “diagnosis”: “A physician’s forecast of disease by way of the patient’s pulse and purse.”
If Heraclitis teaches us that no man steps into the same stream twice, Bierce believed that standard dictionary definitions are all wet. If things change in streams of history, so do the meanings of words in streams of consciousness. Bierce defines the standard dictionary for us: “n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This [his] dictionary, however, is a most useful work.”
Our problem, of course, is that Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary will be celebrating its hundred year birthday in a few months, and that many of its terms have to sink or swim in the murky waters of our troubled times. It behooves us all, if we are to reinvent ourselves, to find the true meanings of at least a few terms we routinely use. I once knew an old professor from the school of hard knocks, a true scientist who spent decades conducting experiments on how the brain sends signals to the heart, who on his deathbed uttered this bottom-line lecture with his last sigh: “Either you control language, or it will control you.”
His message seems especially apt in what one grim historian calls “oxymoronic” times. The term “oxymoronic” conjures pictures of oxen lugging heavy loads, and of oxen owners whose headlights are dim. “Oxymoronic times,” I presume, are the recent troubled months and years that weigh heavily on us because we must bear the burden of unenlightened leadership. Under such circumstances oxymorons result when words that normally clash cozy up to each other and begin to breed hybrid offspring. Jumbo shrimp come to mind, that species of encrusted sea worm whose size swells and shrinks in the eyes of the beholder, depending on whether the beholder is selling or consuming it. If oxymorons seem to be multiplying out of control these days, we wonder if it’s not because opposites attract but because our partisan divisions have become so wide we live in fractured, polarized times. In such times words don’t make sense the way they once did, or words are combined in strange new ways, or they seem to have lost all relationship to real things in a real world.
In an act of desperation I have begun compiling my own dictionary of oxymoronic terms, hoping thereby to set the record straight. But I need help. Please send me your own, so the careful editors of my new dictionary–The Angel’s Dictionary of Oxymoronic Terms–may someday find a respected space next to the Oxford English Dictionary and other fat dull works.
Eight entries from that new dictionary appear here.
DEAFENING SILENCE. n. The ether through which the conversations of married couples pass when their shouting at each other has achieved the quietude that gives them enough space (in kitchens, mainly) to inhabit different planets. One symptom of the ether’s presence is its impish refraction of words. When one says, “Are you going deaf?” for example, the ether translates it to mean, “You think I’m going to listen to you?”
DEER HUNTING: adv. An addiction to the inaction that results when Bambi fails to meander by in time to be blown away. The hunt requires more sportsmanship when the prey finds the hunter unarmed behind the wheel of his swift vehicle on dark country roads.
EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY: adv. A data game whereby humans are paired with mechanical devices with invisible robotic hands geared to get a death grip on their assets. Once the game is begun it is impossible to call off, with the mechanical devices perpetually reinventing clonish new versions of themselves through successive generations until their human partners are too broke or too broken to tear themselves away from the required affection.
HEALTH INSURANCE. n. Payments guaranteed to make working people sick, paid to ensure that insurers can afford the health and welfare provided by their games of golf.
INDEPENDENTLY WEALTHY: adj. An elevated state of mental promiscuity achieved by the few who believe in living free of actual labor, fair taxes, and an elementary understanding of how things work. The devotees who aspire to this state of high-mindedness are convinced that this fictional breed, like certain gods, actually exist, though not one example has ever been seen in real life.
ORIGINAL SIN: n. In sexual matters, any newly discovered old-fashioned way of having fun. As a high-tech activity, any clever invention, military or otherwise, created from the innocent raw materials of unintended consequences.
PARKING LOTS: n. pl. The level encrustation of asymmetrical landscapes by way of alchemical reactions able to increase and multiply the territorial ambitions of inert vehicles going nowhere as they slowly take over the world. The words “parking” and “lots” are not, strictly speaking, oxymoronic, in that the terms do not contradict each other.
RADICAL CONSERVATIVE: n. An angry sphinx, not unlike the hybrid that plagued Thebes in ancient times, constituted of a human head and the body of a beast, with smallish wings. This strange hybrid cloaks its true identity by assuming various faces of the body politic. Hence it appears to be libertarian and anti-liberal, conservative, reactionary, neo-conservative and futuristic. Its mind is wholly determined to be moderate and progressive at once. In a crowd it is hard to distinguish radical conservatives from registered Democrats. Synonym: Republican.
Though I have good reason to believe Humpty didn’t fall but was pushed from his wall, I think we need to be fearless in following his advice. He seemed humorless, but we don’t have to imitate his bad qualities on our way to making sense of things. Here are a half-dozen oxymoronic terms that still puzzle me. I need your help.