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!

15 replies
  1. Dan Meyer
    Dan Meyer says:

    Sandbox musings –
    Along the theme of “proactive sloth”, there’s “anticipatory inaction”.
    I too love the sound of many words (and names). A favorite word is the state fish of Hawaii – Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Look it up – a cool-looking fish too.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      They are definitely selective memories. Not sure I could tell you what I had for breakfast this morning! But between the both of us I’ll bet we could reconstruct some pretty fun memories of our teen years and adventures!

      Reply
  2. Allan Ament
    Allan Ament says:

    I recently realized that a sloth, not a bear, was my spirit animal. I love it that it can be a proactive sloth. I love the first three oxymorons you named, not as word play, but as jumbo shrimp, bittersweet (chocolate), and the larger half (of just about anything positive or tasty.) I guess my therapist would have more to say about that than an English teacher. If I wasn’t trying to be civil, and politically correct (is that an oxymoron?) I have a number of current event related ones. I will keep them to myself and just thank you for this fun and engaging post.
    How did the puppet show go?

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      I’m pretty sure that “politically correct” was demolished this year. Like you, I’m yearning for just a few moments of plain ol’ civility. Which, I think, does require that we keep some of our current-event wordplays to ourselves…a pity, that. As for the puppet show, I thought it was award-worthy, with all those great scientific words in the dialogue – I’m quite sure it was gibberish, but it sounded impressive to a classroom of third-graders. I wanted to keep the potato-head puppets forever, but they started sprouting roots and stems and then came the putrid odors, and my mother threw them out when I wasn’t looking. Sigh.

      Reply
  3. Corrine Bayley
    Corrine Bayley says:

    One of my father’s favorites was “genuine spurious”. He also used the word “defunct” for feeling ill. Truthiness was an issue in my youth. Thanks, Cynthia, for the delicious words in your blog and for the memories they’ve stirred.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Oh, thank you for joining me in the sandbox! Let’s all meet here again, just for the SENSIBLE ABSURDITY of it all – and I’ll bring my trusty thesaurus to help us with our play!

      Reply
    • Allan Ament
      Allan Ament says:

      Corrine — I think “truthiness” was the word of the year when Stephen Colbert was using it. During Bush II? It’s a great word.

      Reply
  4. Chris Belding
    Chris Belding says:

    I am not sure it qualifies as an oxymoron but I always liked the Buddhist phrase, “Change is the only constant.”
    Thanks for the fun read on a cold and gray day in west Michigan.

    Reply

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