The Puny Grandeur of Oxymorons

updated 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was a new tradition—the First Annual Florida Snowmobilers' Ball. As he gazed across the crowded room, he saw her sitting on the real vinyl banquette. She was a relative stranger, but he was attracted by her seductive innocence. Sophisticated good ole boy that he was, he adopted an air of studied indifference as he mused upon the planned serendipity of their meeting. "What if she is a closet exhibitionist?" he wondered. "What if she thinks my minor surgery is old news?" Still, she was his only choice.

Were Dr. Warren S. Blumenfeld to happen upon such a paragraph, he would surely chortle with delight. It's not that Blumenfeld appreciates bad writing, it's just that as a connoisseur of a singular variety of literary conceit, Blumenfeld knows an oxymoron when he sees one (or, in the above case, 14).

An oxymoron, in case you've forgotten, is a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. Perhaps the best-known oxymoron appears in Romeo and Juliet: "Parting is such sweet sorrow." The word "bittersweet" is an oxymoron unto itself. There are those, of course, who are intensely apathetic on the subject of oxymorons, but Blumenfeld is not among them. He considers the oxymoron an object of serious humor and has made its study a full-time hobby.

The traditional oxymoron consists of two words, like "good loser," "uncommonly typical" or "eloquent silence." Inject a note of sarcasm and the oxymoronic universe suddenly expands to include constructions such as "Amtrak schedule," "military intelligence" and "family vacation." A research professor of management as well as a psychology professor at Georgia State University, Blumenfeld, 51, likes to think of "academic salary" as something of an oxymoron.

Oxymorons, notes Blumenfeld, are ubiquitous. Science has its "standard deviations" and "flat curves." Business has its "countertrends" and "constant variables." Sportscasters are forever saying things like "Count on this team to be unpredictable." And the U.S. Supreme Court coined one of the most memorable oxymorons in 1955, when it urged the federal government to implement school desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

Blumenfeld's fascination with this form of important trivia goes back to 1974. Call it a minor milestone. Blumenfeld had a bout of that most unpleasant of oxymorons, ill health. Afflicted with keratoconus, a disease of the cornea, Blumenfeld was legally blind for a month. To pass the time, the anxious patient began to seek out oxymorons. "Think of me as a frustrated English teacher playing games with myself," he says. Could a war be "civil"? he wondered. Can odds be even? Can an opinion be unbiased? Pondering such imponderables took his mind off his troubles, and by the time corneal transplants restored his eyesight, the professor had become a willing slave to the oxymoron.

Blumenfeld has thought up hundreds of oxymorons himself, but he prefers those he finds "in their natural state." He refuses to indulge in ethnic or off-color oxymorons. Blumenfeld's most faithful contributors are his secretary, Loyce McCarter, his son Josh, 18, and his gracious wife, Esther, a free-lance writer with two humor books coming out by May.

An oddly normal boy, Blumenfeld grew up during the Depression's peak in East Chicago, Ind., where his father was a dentist. "Things were so bad," Blumenfeld says of his childhood, "that we used to go to Gary on vacation." He studied general psychology at Indiana University and got a master's and Ph.D. in industrial psychology at Purdue. He went to Georgia State in 1969. While he'd rather be known for his scholarly pursuits—he has published countless articles on applied behavioral research—Blumenfeld is resigned to the fact that it is the oxymoron that is bringing him renown, of sorts.

Blumenfeld sometimes worries that oxymorons are "threatening to take over my life. I feel like I'm in a science fiction movie." That explains the titles of various columns Blumenfeld has written for a Georgia State publication: "The Curse of the Oxymoron," "Son of the Curse of the Oxymoron," "Bride of the Son of the...." Blumenfeld has given numerous lectures on the subject and figures, "There's got to be a book in this somewhere."

In this world of constant change, near misses and routine emergencies, there is comfort in the subtly obvious art of the oxymoron. But be warned, says Blumenfeld: The insidious oxymoron is addictive. Ask directions to Blumenfeld's three-bedroom house in the Morningside section of Atlanta and one will be told it's "relatively simple" to get there. A visit to the professor's impossibly cluttered cubicle in the Urban Life Center at Georgia State invokes sly references to "office space." Once inside, a bemused Blumenfeld points to a drawer labeled "completed research." An "Anarchists, Unite" button is exhibited on a bookshelf. Blumenfeld's conversation is peppered with puns and self-deprecating gibes, but oxymorons are the professor's passion. Anyone who asks him to list his favorite oxymorons will receive an extensive briefing, making it clear that when it comes to Warren S. Blumenfeld, the ultimate oxymoron is "short answer."

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