July 7 2004
Dan Buck sent me an article about how cable tv’s Bravo network is looking for a broad niche. While this is understandable, and we are trying to do much the same thing at True West, isn’t that an oxymoron? A “broad niche”? Like “jumbo shrimp” or “military intelligence”?
Last Sunday night, all the Radina’s gathered at Betty’s home to discuss shifts for taking care of her while she recuperates from her broken hip. While there I got into a discussion with 10-year-old EJ and the difference between conundrum, oxymoron and non-sequiter. Not only could EJ spell these words correctly but he had a decent idea what they meant. We got grandma’s dictionary out and looked up all three words and while the definitions were helpful they didn’t give very good examples of each.
So, yesterday I went to an expert wordsmith, Dan Buck. Here’s his take on these three similiar, yet distinctive words and their meaning:
“The following was culled from several dictionaries and style books on my desk. Conundrum has two different meanings, the first of which was unknown to me until I looked the word up: (1) a riddle in which a fanciful question is answered by a pun, e.g., what is black and white and red all over? A newspaper. (I always thought that was called a riddle.) (2) The more common meaning, and the only one I knew off-hand: a difficult and complicated problem. Speaking of unknown, the origin of the word ‘conundrum’ is a mystery. One source said it was 16th century, "possibly originating in some long-lost university joke." I was unaware that any university jokes had ever been lost.
“Non sequiter, from the Latin ‘it does not follow’ (hey, a great name for a balky dog), means an inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premise or evidence, in other words, whatever your spouse just said.
“Oxymoron, from the Greek, 'sharp + foolish,' is a rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined. “Jumbo shrimp” is the usual example. 'Military music,’ ‘harmonious discord,’ ‘madly sane,’ ‘interesting Canadian,’ ‘falsely true,’ and ‘deafening silence’ are others. ‘Broad niche’ would be an oxymoron, especially since niche comes from Latin ‘nest.’ A broad nest?
“Paradox, distant kin to oxymoron, from the Latin/Greek ‘conflicting with expectation’ or ‘beyond belief,’ has several meanings: a seeming contradiction that may nonetheless be true; an assertion that is essentially self-contradictory; a statement contrary to received opinion. The first two meanings are, I think, the most common. The third one sounds to me more like ‘unconventional wisdom,’ or in its new garb, ‘a counter-intuitive statement.’ Conundrum and paradox are both forms of riddles. This is great: riddle comes from the Middle English, ‘to give counsel.’ As in, he talks like a Chinese fortune cooky.”
If I understand this correctly, “Billy the Kid was an All-American boy and a cold-blooded killer” would be a conundrum? Correct?
And, as a selective perception example, this morning’s Arizona Republic had a column by Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, in which she writes, “[Conservative’s] disgust with the ‘60s spurs oxymoronic—and moronic—behavior, as anti-big-government types conjure up audacious social engineering schemes to turn back the clock.” A conundrum if I ever heard one.
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