My Favourite Oxymorons (and other “woo”)

And now for something light, because it’s been heavy blogging lately, and there’s more around the corner.

Once Upon A TIme I used to be a newspaper proofreader. And once a proofreader, always a pain in the ass, because I pay attention to the wording of the things I read (and hear). Here are some things that drive me abso-bloomin-lutely-nutz, from the realms of horticulture, entomology, and the exciting intersection, er, catastrophic collision of science and marketing. Disclaimer: these are all my own unbiased opinions.

Some years ago, a student came in and said that she wanted a “carefree garden”, one that bloomed all the time and required virtually no care. I blinked a few times in disbelief and could only reply, “Plastic?”

There’s always good, clean dirt. Although a person can have fumigated soil or “sterile” seedling media (that’s nursery-sterile, not surgically sterile, meaning free of pests and pathogens), but dirt by definition is what gets tracked across the kitchen floor, lodged under your fingernails, or ground into the knees of your pants. “Detoxifying mud bath” should join that for all-around absurdity.

Then there’s trying to explain to my students that there are no such things as “natural gardens”. No matter what style the garden is, if it is a garden, it is inherently un-natural. Gardeners work tirelessly against the entropy of succession by ruderals (profligate weeds) and woody plants. Gardeners interfere with the sex lives of their plants, deadheading them to promote more fresh flowers, and prevent re-seeding. Even gardeners who prefer to limit their horticultural impulses to locally native plants still don’t have “natural gardens”. They set out plants in artificial arrangements, they do things like installing 90% forbs and 10% grasses and call the results “prairies” (which are really grasslands with flowers), and of course, they still prevent succession by ruderals and woody plants.

Ditto “safe pesticides”. Pesticides are poisons — they are designed to kill things. Granted, a few are not toxic to humans, and a few are behavioural (they make the insects want to quit eating, or leave the plant, in which case they are really repellants, rather than insecticides), but even so … “Safe pesticides” is just wishful thinking. Let’s add “non-toxic insecticide” to that.

“Chemical free” is another favourite. “I want my children to be safe! I only feed them chemical-free, natural food.” (note *) A chemical is a substance with its composition defined in a chemical manner, meaning the proportions of the elements. Water is a chemical, because each molecule of water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom bonded together. The only “chemical-free” thing is a perfect vacuum. How about a snack with “all natural artificial flavoring”. WTF?

No, you cannot have the “bigger half”. Parenting tip: have one child cut the highly desired goody in half, and the other child gets to choose first. You’ve never seen such precision slicing! Plus, you no longer have to slice and hand out the halves and then deal with the sibling fallout. What, you have more than two children? How often do three or more people all want the same thing anyway? (Must be really easy to order pizza at your house, if they do!) Maybe they would like some “mini pound cakes”. Pound cake is made with a pound of butter, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and a pound of eggs, hence the name. A pound cake is not meant to be cupcake (fairy cake) size, not even a white chocolate flavored one.

Butterflies are insects. You can’t say you “hate insects but like butterflies”. Get over this entomophobia. While we’re at it, there are too, male ladybugs (also known as ladybird beetles). Coccinellids have sex like other insects. No, those chartreuse spotted beetles on your cucumbers are not “good bugs”, they are pest spotted cucumber beetles.

I used to think that “ringing silence” was an oxymoron until I got tinnitus. Now all of my environmental silences are accompanied by subjective ringing noise.

“Miraculous scientific discovery” Man, I hate marketing nonsense like this. No. No “miracles”. Things may be amazing, timely, unexpected or even fortunate, but I don’t believe in “luck” or “miracles”. Please don’t go calling inventions (new things that people have created) “discoveries”; discoveries are when people find out about something that already exists.

Creation science. Needs no explanation. Ditto homeopathic medicine.

And just for fun, here’s my favourite redundancy: fried chow mein noodles Chow mein means fried noodle, so saying fried chow mein noodles is like saying, “fried fried noodle noodle”.

(What, now you have “fried-fried-noodle-noodle” stuck in your head? You’re welcome; always glad to share. What’s a little echolalia between friends?)

* I cannot remember who, but another blogger also recently mentioned this same bit of nonsense. Those crazy parents are everywhere.


  1. Margaret said,

    19 February 2008 at 17:13

    “Chemical free” — yes! I cringe every time the local NPR affiliate airs the commercial for the local food co-op: “keep chemicals off your plate.”

  2. Betsy said,

    6 February 2008 at 1:50

    I was told once by an Italian that Pizza Pie means Pie Pie.

  3. Mel said,

    1 February 2008 at 16:57

    A friend of mine once referred to a “real plastic egg.”

    Of course, he was correct–the egg certainly wasn’t imaginary.

  4. SKSutton said,

    1 February 2008 at 11:59

    “Space age” metals.
    Perhaps not exactly an oxymoron, but there’s a woo ad running that emphasizes the unique properties of their product since it is made with a “space age metal” and not alloy. Of course, any metal anything since Sputnick is a “space age” metal and most are mixtures of different substances, so REALLY most are also space age alloys.

  5. Efrique said,

    31 January 2008 at 23:50

    fried freid chow fried chow mein noodle mein noodle noodle…

    I’m going to be singing it all day now.

  6. 31 January 2008 at 4:12

    […] Andrea is industriously buzzing about on her blog – she’s also got some favourite oxymorons that has her sighing in bemused exasperation as she does it! Check out a side of language you may not have readily reflected on before with her entry on “My Favourite Oxymorons (and other woo)”. […]

  7. 20 January 2008 at 4:43

    […] January 2008 at 4:43 (Communication, Humor/ Fun Stuff) Since a previous post on My Favourite Oxymorons (and other “woo”) was so well-received, here’s one on redundant repetitions. (Thanks to some of my literate […]

  8. 19 January 2008 at 23:12

    Way back in college, there was an entree in my cafeteria that was labled “queso cheese.” One of the students quickly submitted a comment card to the effect that this was redundant. The cafeteria manager (this was in a cafeteria where management was, at least comparatively speaking, pretty responsive to student feedback even though they were sometimes slow to UNDERSTAND student feedback, this not being the only example) initially missed the point and responded by trying to explain that it was called “queso CHEESE” because it had CHEESE in it. (Comments and responeses were all posted on a centeral bulletin board — the old fashioned kind with thumb tacks, I mean, not on-line.) So that same student wrote back amplifying that “queso” is the Spanish word for “cheese” so in translation they were using the word cheese twice! I believe they did eventually fix it.

  9. joely black said,

    18 January 2008 at 13:57

    I love these. As I was reminded a while ago – the Sahara Desert. You should either call it the Eastern Desert or the Sahara. Calling it the Sahara Desert is basically calling it “the Desert Desert.”

  10. cornerseat said,

    18 January 2008 at 8:25

    hi andrea! incidentally, my last post is about my life being characterized by oxymorons… looks like yours is too!

    you’re funny. hope you don’t mind me linking up your site.

  11. qw88nb88 said,

    18 January 2008 at 4:34

    Jersey, instead of saying, “good luck” I tell people, “I hope you have good results!”

    shrimp scampi: too funny!


  12. Jersey said,

    18 January 2008 at 2:43

    What gets me is the word “luck”. Luck by itself assumes the meaning “good luck”. So why we say “Good luck”?

    And “scampi”. In Italian-American cooking, “scampi” is the menu word for “shrimp”. So “shrimp scampi” would mean “shrimp shrimp”, right?

  13. Rickett said,

    17 January 2008 at 22:50

    How about “for free?” “Free” is short of “free of charge,” so you wouldn’t say, you can have this product “for free of charge.”
    Don’t get me started on the death of the adverb. For instance, Apple previously wanted you to “think different” rather than differently and Subway still wants you to “eat fresh” rather than freshly.

  14. Beau said,

    17 January 2008 at 19:03

    Goodness, these made me laugh out loud (literally!).

    I needed it.

  15. LisaDroesdov said,

    17 January 2008 at 18:28

    Oh! I forgot one!

    My grandmother, bless her heart, used to send family and friends a homemade newsletter of her travels. She once discussed the trip she took on an, “Authentic Viking ship replica!”

  16. LisaDroesdov said,

    17 January 2008 at 18:27

    Great post, Andrea! It hit home for me. My two biggest peeves are:

    PIN Number. The N in PIN stands for number. You do not need to enter your “Personal Identification Number Number.”

    ATM Machine. Similarly, the M is for Machine, and please don’t put your PIN number in the Automatic Teller Machine Machine.

  17. Do'C said,

    17 January 2008 at 6:24

    Disclaimer: these are all my own unbiased opinions.

    This one made me laugh. Great stuff as usual Andrea. Great to see your work in the Skeptics’ Circle too!

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