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JACK SMITH

Feint Phrase : From Politics to Taxes, Doublespeak and Oxymorons Litter Our Lives

October 16, 1988|JACK SMITH

IN ANY PRESIDENTIAL election year we are well advised to keep our ears tuned for the felicitous phrase that may not mean what it appears to mean.

As one reader points out, "freedom fighters," as used by the Reagan Administration to describe the Nicaraguan Contras, means "fighters for freedom." Yet in almost every other modern usage one can think of--fire-fighters, crime fighters, germ fighters, illiteracy fighters--the meaning is that something is being fought against .

Perhaps this should not be taken as carelessness, inexactitude or willful deception by the Administration but rather as evidence of the adaptability of English. We know what the words mean, since it is absurd that the Administration would support any group that was fighting against freedom. Isn't it?

"Freedom fighters" is not quite an oxymoron, since it is not in itself contradictory. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory terms or ideas are combined, as in Shakespeare's "sweet sorrow."

An oxymoron differs from a paradox, I think, because it is not a statement, but a phrase. As G. K. Chesterton observed, paradoxically, "It's the little things in life that are colossal." An Irish folk paradox is "I would not object to their noise if they would only keep quiet," which some might say today of hard-rock musicians. Another from the Irish is: "You can't rightly get there from here."

"Eloquent silence" and "delightful bore," on the other hand, are oxymorons. "Campaign promises" is certainly an oxymoron. It is self-contradictory, since a campaign promise, by definition, is not a promise.

"Historical untruth" is an oxymoron that was conceived by presidential adviser Ray Price in a memorandum to Richard Nixon observing that "a historical untruth may be a political reality," a suggestion that Nixon evidently followed to his regret.

Not a true oxymoron but a form of doublespeak is the phrase "involuntarily leisured," which means unemployed. Doublespeak, which is designed to disguise the true nature of disaster or skulduggery, is especially favored by the Department of Defense (formerly the War Department), which gave us "friendly casualties," meaning American troops killed by our own fire.

Doublespeak is not an American device alone. During World War II, when the German army was retreating after the Allied invasion of Europe, Japanese radio reported that the Germans were "successfully advancing inland."

Advertising also is very adept at creating oxymorons and doublespeak. We have, for example, "meatless turkey," and the ubiquitous "free gift"--neither an oxymoron nor doublespeak but an absurd redundancy.

Paul L. Freese, a lawyer, writes to complain that three common phrases are contradictory and, in his view, true oxymorons. They're "military intelligence," "Santa Monica Freeway" and "tax law."

Given the military's tendency to shoot itself in its own foot (e.g. the Vincennes incident), "military intelligence" does seem a contradiction. Freese writes: "Collectively, my friend and I spent many years directly measuring the genius of the military and agree that 'military intelligence' is a top contender."

Freese holds that the Santa Monica Freeway is not a freeway but a parking lot, except maybe at 3 o'clock in the morning. (At 3 a.m. it becomes a race track for reckless drivers.)

"Tax law," he argues, is the purest oxymoron of all. Being a lawyer, Freese is schooled in the legal philosophy that law is designed to promote order and rectitude in society. "Perhaps you are informed of a tax provision which tends to instill feelings of community esprit, promotes honesty and normal dealing, or otherwise enkindles respect for the ways and means of government . . . . In any event, at least you may agree that our compliance with income tax forms and requirements does not generate feelings of 'sweet sorrow.' "

My vote for oxymoron of the year is "tax reform," which means any law or set of laws whose effect is the total confusion of the taxpaying public.

Romeo was speaking of love, not taxes, when he spoke these lines:

"Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms."

But he might well have been speaking about Form 1040.

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