Paradox, Oxymoron, and Paraprosdokian
Did "paraprosdokian" make you think, "Whaaaaa?" The word is not listed on Dictionary.com or even in Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary. But have no fear; your WyzAnt tutor is here! This is Wikipedia’s definition:
A paraprosdokian (from Greek meaning "beyond" and "expectation") is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.
My purpose in this blog is to highlight a dramatic example of paraprosdokian and to clarify the difference between a paradox and oxymoron. Here’s how I paraphrase the definitions from AP test prep books and dictionaries:
A paradox is a truth stated in contradictory terms; a statement that should not be taken at face value but that requires scrutiny for the logic to be revealed. It defies conventional wisdom and intuition.
An oxymoron is a contradiction revealed in fewer words than a paradox. It can be one word (“bittersweet”), two words (“going nowhere”), or more (“the silence was deafening”). You can think of "paradox" as the roman numeral-marked topic in an outline and "oxymoron" as a subtopic.
One of my favorite oxymorons is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. He writes about ng-ka-py, a Chinese brandy that tastes like “good rotten apples” or “nice rotten apples.” How can something be both nice and rotten? Steinbeck explores that question in the novel’s theme of good versus evil. The clever oxymoron alludes to Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit and humanity’s resultant struggle against sin. Steinbeck also describes the alcohol as having “a double taste.” That is not an oxymoron, but it reinforces the dual symbolism of good and evil/medicine and poison -- the drink’s main ingredient is wormwood. This herb is medicinal, but the essential oil from it is poisonous.
Another of my favorite quotes from East of Eden is a paraprosdokian. The main characters Samuel, Adam, and Lee are talking about Samuel’s old horse, Doxology. At first, Sam seems to be complaining. He lists almost a dozen of the horse’s physical deformities. Then he says:
"I have never in thirty-three years found one good thing about him. He even has an ugly disposition. He is selfish and quarrelsome and mean and disobedient. To this day I don’t dare walk behind him because he will surely take a kick at me. When I feed him mash he tries to bite my hand. And I love him."
The concluding sentence fragment, “And I love him,” refutes the reader’s preconception. The reader must question why such a malformed, bad-tempered creature is worthy of his master’s care. Anyone familiar with Judeo-Christian beliefs will recognize the parallel between Samuel’s affection for his horse and God’s compassion for people who are “selfish and quarrelsome and mean and disobedient.” (Incidentally, “doxology” means a hymn of praise. Samuel’s reason for naming the horse Doxology is that “so ill endowed a creature deserved ... one grand possession.) Of course, you do not have to agree with Steinbeck’s religious beliefs; just the ability to interpret Biblical allusions will help your analysis of English literature.
It’s unlikely that the AP Literature exam will offer “paradox” and “oxymoron” as two separate answers on the multiple choice section (unless “all of the above” is correct); however, knowing the subtle difference will help you use the appropriate word in your essays. If you can use “paraprosdokian” correctly in an essay that is well-conceived, well-developed, and well-organized, you’re sure to score 8-9!
Note: Quotes about “ng-ka-py” are on pages 165, 268, and 301 of the Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by David Wyatt. The description of Doxology is on page 305 of the same edition.