Oxymorons are words or word phrases that seem to contradict themselves, such as "giant shrimp." We investigate the origin of three particularly odd oxymorons: "bridegroom," "spendthrift," and "fail-safe."
We recently talked about Janus words, also known as contronyms, which are words that have two opposite meanings.
An example is “dust,” which means “to add a light layer,” as in “I dusted the cake with powdered sugar.” It also means “to remove dust,” as in “I dusted the bookshelf.”
This got us thinking about something we’ll call “oxymoronic words”: words that are compounds formed from two words with opposite meanings. For example, “bittersweet” and “cryocaustic,” which combines a prefix meaning “to freeze” with a root meaning “to burn.”
Another example is the word “oxymoron” itself, which combines parts meaning “sharp” and “dull.”
We decided to explore a few of these oxymoronic words. We started with one that has bugged us for years: “spendthrift.”
How do you know what this word is supposed to mean? The “spend” portion suggests extravagance; that someone is “spending” a lot. But the “thrift” portion says the opposite; that someone is being “thrifty.”
The first choice is correct. A spendthrift is someone who burns through money.
This word makes more sense when you know that an earlier meaning of “thrift” was “savings.” So spendthrifts are spending their savings.
An earlier and more silly-sounding phrase was “dingthrift.” The “ding” part means “to deal heavy blows; to knock, hammer, or thump.” And “thrift,” as we know, can also refer to the cautious spending of money. So people who are “ding thrifts” destroy their budget.
Maybe we need a campaign to bring back “dingthrift” in place of “spendthrift.”
“Fail-safe” is another weird word. Does it refer to something that’s failing? Or something that’s safe?
To understand, it helps to know how the word evolved. The first recorded uses were from the 1950s, in airplane and engineering manuals. The word was used as a verb-adjective combination, as engineers discussed ways to help aircraft to “fail safe” instead of “fail dangerous.”
Would it have been more correct to discuss the aircraft “failing safely”? Of course, but language doesn’t always evolve in correct or logical ways. New ways of speaking often emerge from slang and shortcuts like this.
Over time, the verb phrase “to fail safe” experienced what we call a “functional shift.” It shifted parts of speech and came to be used as a noun. For example, a recent article about a giant female python discovered in the Everglades described how scientists put “two radio transmitters, a GPS device, and a motion-sensing device” on the snake. Apparently, “… the second radio transmitter was a failsafe, ensuring she wouldn’t ‘go wild’ again.”
So when you’re trying to remember what this word means, think of its origin. Picture a plane “failing safe” and gliding to the ground—rather than “failing dangerous” and crashing. A “failsafe” keeps something safe.
Finally, “bridegroom” may be the weirdest oxymoronic word of all. We already have the word “groom,” which refers to a man who’s getting married. Why confuse things by adding the word “bride”?
Just like before, knowing this word’s origin helps us understand. The first version of this word was “brýdguma." This was formed by combining the Old English word “brýd,” which had the sense of “bridal or wedding,” and the word “guma,” meaning “man.” Hence a “brýdguma” was a “wedding man” or the “bride’s man.”
Over time, “brýdguma” evolved into “brýdgome.” But as Old English slowly changed into Middle English, the word “gome” became obsolete. There was, however, a strangely similar word: “grome,” referring to a boy or lad.
Somehow, the word “grome” began to be used in this term, and “bridegrome” was formed. By this time, “bride” was spelled the way we do today, and “groom” is simply short for “bridegroom.” The Oxford English Dictionary has Shakespeare as the first writer to use the shortened form—“groom”— in “Othello” and “Cymbeline” in the early 1600s.
Dent, Susie. Bride. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Spendthrift, dingthrift, fail-safe, bride, bridegroom, groom (subscription required, accessed April 19, 2018).
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