In my third grade class our teacher, Mrs. Cole, assigned a project: we were to create one or two finger puppets, write a few lines of dialogue for them, and each present a short “play” for the class.
I made two “potato head” puppets, one a “student” and one a “scientist.” I didn’t know many “scientific” words, so I asked my brother (he was a junior in high school and really smart) to “give me some big words.” He wrote down words from trigonometry, and some from biology, and then he threw in what would become one of my all-time favorite words: “oxymoron.” I loved how it looked on paper, and how it sounded in my mouth, and how wonderfully smart it made me feel when I said it. “Oxymoron.”
When I asked my brother what it meant, he said, “It’s a fancy way of saying ‘contradiction.'” “What’s ‘contradiction’?” I asked. Patiently he illustrated the concept with jumbo shrimp and bittersweet and larger half, and I tucked those away as the first of a collection of oxymorons that I’d accumulate all my life.
Over the years I’ve also collected a plethora of “big words” and delicious words that warm the tongue and please the ear. There are “prestidigitation,” “peripatetic,” and “tatterdemalian.” When Mary Poppins and Burt the Chimneysweep sang “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in 1964 I was ecstatic. And when I discovered the name of the Welsh city, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch,” it made my Welsh heart rejoice.
But always there was a special place in that heart for “oxymoron.” My very favorite oxymoron is one I heard about 20 years ago: proactive sloth. That one made me laugh out loud, and I smile every time I say it or think it, especially when I’m feeling proactively slothful, like today. So I started yet another list: synonyms for my favorite oxymoron. How about lively languor? Or passionate otiosity? Or peripatetic inertia?
Really, what better use is there for this dull gray October afternoon on the worrisome verge of an historical election, than to let myself smile while playing in the sandbox of words?
Wanna come play with me? We can be alone together!