What Is a Verbal Paradox?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A verbal paradox is a figure of speech in which a seemingly self-contradictory statement is found—in some sense—to be true. This can also be called a paradoxical statement. In "A Dictionary of Literary Devices," Bernard Marie Dupriez defines a verbal paradox as an "assertion which runs counter to received opinion, and whose very formulation contradicts current ideas." 

Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a master of the verbal paradox. In "The Picture of Dorian Gray," he wrote: "Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them."

Definition

Your Dictionary defines a verbal paradox as "... a statement that may seem contradictory but can be true (or at least make sense). This makes them stand out and play an important role in literature and everyday life." Ezra Brainerd provides the following example of a verbal paradox in "The Blackberries of New England":

"The old verbal paradox still holds good, that blackberries are green when they are red."

Many of us would accept this verbal paradox at face value without a second thought, while others would be confused by this clear statement of contradiction. However, when you know that blackberries are red before ripening and taking on a blackish-purple hue, the phrase makes more sense. Although the color green is in stark contrast to red, the word "green" indicates that blackberries appear red when they are underripe. He does not mean that they are green in a literal sense, but in a figurative one.

How to Use

A verbal paradox does not always have to be a seeming contradiction. David Michie, in "The Dalai Lama's Cat," provides another context for paradoxes:

"It is the wonderful paradox ... that the best way to achieve happiness for oneself is to give happiness to others.”

The verbal paradox here is that we gain happiness by giving it away. This does not seem contradictory when used in this manner but might if you consider the "give-get" exchange in another context. You would not, for example, gain more money by giving it away; you gain more money by gaining (or earning or accumulating) it.

G.K. Chesterton in "The Case for the Ephemeral" explained verbal paradoxes in another way:

"These articles have another disadvantage arising from the scurry in which they were written; they are too long-winded and elaborate. One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time."

The verbal paradox here is that you lose time by hurrying, you don't gain it.

Using Paradoxes to Persuade

A verbal paradox is most effective when used to make or emphasize a point. Or, as Hugh Kenner wrote in "Paradox in Chesterton" in 1948:

"The object of verbal paradox, then, is persuasion, and its principle is the inadequacy of words to thoughts, unless they be very carefully chosen words."

In a sense, a verbal paradox points to the irony—often sad or tragic—of a situation. Possibly one of the most famous examples of a verbal paradox is the one used by Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in "The Social Contract":

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

In this seminal work, Rousseau was examining the state of political affairs in the 1700s when he observed that so many humans were enslaved and in bondage to others. He explained that the only reason humans (who are theoretically "born free") would choose to come together to form a society would be if that union would benefit them and that government exist only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power. Yet, despite that truth, many people, who are said to be born "naturally free," are enslaved—the ultimate verbal paradox.

A Means to Make You Think

Historian Arnold Toynbee is generally credited with the saying, "[N]othing fails like success." He was referring to the rise and fall of civilizations. That is, a civilization will unite, become successful and powerful, and try to hold on to power and success by continually relying on methods and strategies that worked in the past. The problem is that by failing to adapt to new conditions, the society ultimately dooms itself to failure. Think of the rise and fall of the once-mighty Roman Empire as an example, a classic example: a society fails because it succeeds.

American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in "Walden" in 1854:

"Much is published, but little printed."

That would seem to be a glaring verbal paradox: If much is printed, then it stands to reason, that much is printed. Donald Harrington, quoted in "Henry David Thoreau: Studies," explains:

"Of course, what [Thoreau is] saying here is that with all of the flood of publishing, virtually none of it is ever imprinted—none of it ever makes a difference."

More Examples in Context

The verbal paradox can be used in a variety of ways. Consider first how Oscar Wilde employed it in "An Ideal Husband" in 1895:

"Lord Arthur Goring: I love talking about nothing, Father. It's the only thing I know anything about.
Lord Caversham: That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes."

Here, Wilde is making a profound point about humankind. Now take the following example:

“I'm an atheist, thank God."

This statement is attributed to the late filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Of course, if you are an atheist, then you don't believe in God and wouldn't be thanking him. Finally, another verbal paradox in context:

"This statement is false."

Greek philosopher Eubulides made this statement centuries ago. Because a statement is an assertion, this is a somewhat mind-boggling verbal paradox. If you are stating that something is not true, or not as stated, then you are seemingly contradicting yourself.

Sources

  • Brainerd, Ezra, and A. K. Peitersen. Blackberries of New England: Their Classification. S.n., 1920.
  • Dupriez, Bernard, and Albert W. Halsall. Dictionary of Literary Devices. Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
  • Examples of Paradox in Life and Literature.” Example Articles & Resources, yourdictionary.com.
  • Festival, Thoreau, et al. Henry David Thoreau: Studies and Commentaries. Edited by Walter Harding, George Brenner, and Paul A. Doyle. (Second Printing.). Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.
  • Michie, David. The Dalai Lamas Cat. Hay House India, 2017.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, et al. Discourse on Political Economy ; and, the Social Contract. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Sorensen, Roy A. A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Arcturus, 2020.
  • Wilde, Oscar. An Ideal Husband. Mint Editions, 2021.
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Verbal Paradox?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2021, thoughtco.com/verbal-paradox-1692583. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 14). What Is a Verbal Paradox? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/verbal-paradox-1692583 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Verbal Paradox?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/verbal-paradox-1692583 (accessed August 2, 2021).

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