It’s been refreshing to see Mexico in the news of late, and for its internal politics rather than drug/gang violence. It has also been interesting to contemplate the name of the long-ruling Mexican political party, the PRI—en espagnol: El Partido Revolucionario Institucional—and to wonder how many people have noticed the oxymoron embedded therein. The “Institutional Revolutionary Party”? How does one go about institutionalizing a revolution?
Rather than answer, I’d prefer to open the flood-gates to oxymorons generally. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Now, then …”
There’s also another category that approximates oxymoron-hood, but for which to my knowledge, no descriptive word or phrase exists: namely, well-known sayings that are downright ridiculous if taken literally. For example, wanting to “have your cake and eat it too,” which refers to someone’s desires being unreasonable and/or unrealistic. But wait! Why would anyone want to have her cake if she was not hoping to eat it? Because she plans to give it to someone else? Or maybe out of a desire to reduce the obesity epidemic by sequestering high-carbohydrate deserts, thereby helpfully keeping them out of the public trough?
More suitable as a citicism, I should think, would be precisely the opposite: to note that someone wants to “eat her cake and have it too.” That, at least, is an unreasonable expectation, worthy of logical censure. It’s worse than wanting to “have it all,” since it implies wanting to have it all and then somehow still have more … to consume later.
Then there is the brilliant observation that something is “the exception that proves the rule.” Huh? Suppose you wanted to test the proposition that all cows are brown. Each brown cow you encounter would slightly increase your confidence in this “rule,” until you meet one that is black and white, whereupon would you announce triumphantly “Aha, here is the exception that proves the rule”? Seems to my humble self that exceptions disprove rules! (As a—mostly—good Popperian, I grant that most things, even in science, aren’t so much proven as disproven, although as supportive evidence grows, so does our confidence in the legitimacy of the hypothesis under test.) But doesn’t it take only one exception to disprove a purported rule?
Actually, I had occasion to refer to this absurd saying last month when lecturing about the biology of male-female differences in animal courtship strategies; specifically, the well established correlation between low “parental investment” (a traditionally male characteristic) and low sexual choosiness, as well as the inverse: the widespread correlation between high “parental investment” (traditionally female) and a high level of choosiness. It turns out that there are some intriguing exceptions to the choosiness “rule,” including, for example, the Mormon cricket (which, by the way, is neither a cricket—it’s a katydid—nor, so far as I can determine, a devotee of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).
In this critter, males produce a large spermatophylax, a highly nutritious and therefore expensive-to-produce mass of protoplasmic glop that is consumed by the female as part of mating. As a result, male Mormon crickets actually generate more parental investment per reproductive bout than do females, and sure enough, in this species, the males—not the females—are sexually choosy.
“The exception that proves the rule”? No way! More like, “The apparent exception, which, when examined further, turns out to be in fact consistent with the rule after all.” Even in these cases, rules aren’t literally “proven.” But they certainly emerge fortified, and not oxymoronic after all.