I’ve been struck over the years I’ve been working with the English language, with phrases of (usually) two words which together produce an unusual “click” or sound in my mind that isn’t simply the result of the sum of the individual meanings of the words.  A few are below, and perhaps you, as the reader of this blog, may have run across a couple of your own.  These are not oxymorons.  The unusual or even ironic meaning of the phrase is not the result of two seemingly contradictory words, like cruel joke.  In these phrases, which I’ve started calling juxtapositions for a lack of any better name, the two words are independent, but result in a phrase that just doesn’t work.  The meaning of the phrase doesn’t derive from the meanings of the two words.  Try these:

Vacuum cleaner – a common tool around the house, but to me it sounds like a device for cleaning vacuums.  But how can you clean a vacuum?  By definition, a vacuum is free of all matter (a few neutrinos or Higgs bosons notwithstanding), so how can you have a device for cleaning something that is already clean?

Observation blind – I saw this on a sign at a wildlife refuge.  If you are blind, how can you observe?  That is, how can you observe the ducks landing on the pond?  Or, if you are observing, how can you be blind?

Sergeant major – Coming from a military background, this has always intrigued me.  How can a sergeant be a major?  Or, can a major be a sergeant?

These are a few juxtapositions I’ve run across lately, and I’ll try and add a few more over the next several years as I update this blog on a regular basis.  They don’t occur very often, however, and many may not exist in English.  I may not be able to come up with many more.

  1. #1 by Fred Aiken on January 1, 2013 - 12:20 PM

    Have you considered one word sayings. If a baker is someone who bakes and a writer is someone who writes, what does a drawer do?

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