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The Scream of a Dying Word Is an Awful Sound

Peter Garrison is a columnist for Flying magazine.

Like stars in the heavens and characters in melodramatic movies, dying words may undergo a spasm of hyperactivity before they succumb once and for all.

Take oxymoron. It wasn’t that long ago that oxymoron was just a stray scrap of technical terminology from the arid world of textual analysis, a sibling of metonymy and litotes. Then suddenly, horribly, oxymoron began to wriggle and writhe, thrusting itself at us from every side.

For a while there, you could have made a living betting that it would turn up during any given hour of late-night TV.

Now the term “beg the question” -- a phrase, not a word, but the same principle appears to apply -- is in the midst of doing something similar. Ten, 20 years ago, the expression never even came up in polite conversation. Now people can’t wait to say it.

But the odd thing about those two examples -- and they are just two currently conspicuous representatives of a much larger class -- is that they don’t really mean what most people think they mean. At least, they didn’t a while ago.

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Oxymoron, which has come to be synonymous with “contradiction in terms” -- and so is the preferred vehicle for sarcastic references to, for instance, “military intelligence” -- used to have a more nuanced and interesting meaning. It referred specifically to expressions that at first glance appeared contradictory or senseless, but concealed a deeper truth. Military intelligence is, thus, the opposite of an oxymoron. My old Random House dictionary gives “thunderous silence” as an example, and it’s a good one.

Another classic oxymoron is a Latin phrase from the Roman Catholic Missal: O felix culpa -- O happy fault -- which refers to the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden. The idea is that the eating of the forbidden fruit was ultimately fortunate because it brought the blessing of redemption -- a roundabout way to get where you already were, but whatever.

Why was the term oxymoron singled out to have its meaning perverted? Perhaps because it contained a common word -- moron -- that seemed somehow to harmonize with a certain misunderstanding of its meaning.

Something similar seems to have befallen “begs the question.” It sounds as though it means “prompts one to ask,” and that is how it has now come to be used. But question-begging is actually something quite different.

The term belongs to what is learnedly called dialectic: the logical analysis of argument. To beg the question is to use an argument or proof that assumes -- presumably without it being clear that it does so -- the conclusion that is to be proven.

An example of a question-begging utterance might be, “I know telepathy is possible because I have just received a mental message telling me so”; but that is not a very good example because it is so transparent. The beauty of good question-begging is that it is subtle and hard to spot; the circularity of the argument is deeply concealed, and the distance from the question-begging assertion to the assumed conclusion may be very great.

Now, none of this would matter if it were just a question of the natural instability of usage. Language is, we often hear, a living thing. Thus, the fact that your 15-year-old daughter may use “random” to mean bizarre rather than haphazard, and “sketchy” to mean the same thing, or that your son uses “fat,” “bad” and “sick” interchangeably to mean what you mean by good, need not be taken to indicate that the end is near. Once you’re clued in, you know what’s being said.

But the loss of meaning of expressions like “oxymoron” and “beg the question” is something else: It’s the extinction of a thought.

Far more often than not, we’re aware of things because we have words for them. Words outline, frame and illuminate elements of what would otherwise be a vast, undifferentiated and nearly incomprehensible continuum. They enable us to appreciate the delicate shades of things and make it possible for a subtlety first detected by a few to be apparent to many. Without oxymoron -- the old oxymoron -- would we even have noticed the difference between “sweet sorrow” and “military intelligence”? Without “beg the question,” will we perhaps fail, sometimes or always, to notice that a question is being begged?

Let us pause briefly to mourn the passing of old meanings, which, like Amazonian herbs burned out for corn, might have provided us with something that will now be lost forever. Let us recall that a world without meaning would be intolerable. Let us shudder at the misuse of “oxymoron: and “beg the question” and their kin as we would before the walking dead. Or better, let us cling to the meanings that those words once enshrined, and, at the appropriate moment, use the words correctly. They’re circling the drain, but we may yet keep them alive.


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