Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Words In Strange Rows

Several weeks ago I self-consciously observed myself using a phrase that raised a question of verbal ethics. I almost paused in the middle of a gripping story post to muse:
Now there’s a strange phrase. How exactly does something “turn up missing?” Is using these three words in the same breath akin to committing intellectual suicide?

Instead, I saved my query for a footnote. But the issue has bothered me ever since. The question isn’t precisely one of vocabulary. If I used different words, “emerge absent” for example, the original dilemma would be lost—exchanged for a case of imprecision, which has a ready enough answer. (Although if I said, “she appears to be absent” the problem would be similar.) The issue seems to be one of principled usage.

What are the ethical implications of tacking words together in a meaning-laden phrase that apparently ridicules the actual meaning of the words? If the issue was sarcasm, the problem would be peripheral, because the sting of sarcasm relies on the true gist of the words involved (I.e., “I’m so glad you could join us” is meaningful because we apply the inverse of the meaning.) But clearly, a statement like “turn up missing” is meant to be taken at face value—and there’s the rub. The face value seems to deface language. I’m slapping together a phrase at the expense of words. Like building a bouquet at the expense of flowers.

My concern is acute. By attributing meaning to a phrase like “turn up missing,” am I subverting the import of the implicated words? Am I eroding their inherent value? That would, of course, make me feel awful.

There must be a conclusive answer to this question.


Blogger martin said...

it's called an oxymoron (pronounced occ-ZIMMER-on)-I wrote a long comment but blogger ate it.

8:34 AM  
Blogger martin said...

No, it didn't, it just stuck it on the previous post!

8:35 AM  
Blogger Andrew Simone said...

Here is another strange expression, although not oxymoronic: "enjoy yourself."

Taken literally it is rather strange (disturbing?)

10:24 AM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Martin wrote:
Interestingly I can tie this to the earlier discussion of pronunciation, having at University asked someone "What's an oxymoron (pronouncing it like it's a skin treatment for stupidity)?" To be told 1. it's occ-ZIMMER-on, and 2. an internally paradoxical or inconsistent phrase: 'plastic china' (crockery)... most of the examples cited by grammar pages on the Net seem dubious to me (best I could see was 'deafening silence'), but it's a valid concept. If used intentionally, they can demonstrate an enjoyment of lively language; I am sure that there a re a lot on Chesterton, since he's so keen on paradoxes of all sorts.

I took the liberty of pasting Martin's comment in so it can be enjoyed in its full glory.

However (and I precede with fear and trembling, because of Martin's high rightness factor), I think I'm about to differ. Yes, I have decided. Differ I shall.

If we write off incongruous phrases (such as "turned up missing") as plain oxymoron, then I think we will have to discard them in good conscience. In my experience, 1) an "oxymoron" is virtually always seen as a negative incident, and 2) in cases where apparent contradiction is deliberately created (Chesterton), a better word would be paradox.

So, when we unthinkingly use contradictory language, it seems we're leaning more toward oxymoron than paradox, and should repent accordingly.

So I'm still doubting the legitimacy of that troubling phrase, "turned up missing." Maybe if I said it with a knowing wink and a twinkle in my eye... But then, who would get the joke?

8:39 PM  
Blogger Belinda said...

I think "turning up missing" must be akin to "waking up dead."

6:15 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I think "waking up dead" is a morbid use of paradox when used in the context of, "play with grenades like that again and you'll be waking up dead," but properly pegged as "occ-ZIMMER-on" when in the context of, "we had so little sleep that by the next morning we were waking up dead." It is completely possible, however that I am suffering from distinction without point, AND overly long sentences.

9:38 PM  

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