Verbal Paradox

Verbal Paradox


A verbal paradox is a figure of speech in which a seemingly self-contradictory statement is nevertheless found--in some sense--to be true. Also called a paradoxical statement.

In A Dictionary of Literary Devices (1991), Bernard Marie Dupriez defines 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. He once said, "Life is much too important to be taken seriously."

See Examples and Observations below. also:

  • Paradox
  • Contradictory Premises
  • Enantiosis
  • Oxymoron

Examples and Observations

  • "The old verbal paradox still holds tree, that blackberries are green when they are red."
    (Ezra Brainerd, "The Blackberries of New England." Rhodora, Feb. 1900)
  • "It is the wonderful paradox… that the best way to achieve happiness for oneself is to give happiness to others.”
    (David Michie, The Dalai Lama's Cat. Hay House, 2012)
  • Paradoxes of G.K. Chesterton
    - "It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous…
    "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."
    (G.K. Chesterton, "The Case for the Ephemeral." All Things Considered, 1908)
    - "There is nothing that fails like success."
    (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905)
    - "It is of the new things that men tire--of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young."
    (G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904)
    - "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."
    (Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton. Sheed, 1948)
  • Paradoxes of Oscar Wilde
    - Lord Caversham: I don't know how you stand society. A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.
    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.
    (Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband, 1895)
    - "If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out."
    (Oscar Wilde, The Chameleon, 1894)
    - Cyril: But you don't mean to say that you seriously believe that Life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality?
    Vivian: Certainly I do. Paradox though it may seem--and paradoxes are always dangerous things--it is nonetheless true that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.
    (Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying." Intentions, 1891)

More Verbal Paradoxes

  • "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."
    (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762)
  • “I'm an atheist, thank God.”
    (Luis Buñuel)
  • - "Much is published, but little printed."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)
    - "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."
    (Donald Harrington, quoted by Paul A. Doyle in Henry David Thoreau: Studies and Commentaries. Associated University Presses, 1972)
  • "Whereas a world rises to fall, a spirit descends to ascend."
    (E. E. Cummings, I: Six Nonlectures. Harvard Univ. Press, 1953)
  • "Most marriages recognize this paradox: Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want."
    (attributed to John Fowles)
  • "This statement is false."
    (Greek philosopher Eubulides, The Liar Paradox or pseudomenon)
  • "Paradox itself is paradoxical; that is what makes it paradox. It cannot be reduced to 'lowest terms,' only deferred. But neither is it ever present before our eyes; it is always in a state of deferral…
    "Paradox is the form taken within the world of representation by the conflict that representation was created to avoid."
    (Eric L. Gans, Signs of Paradox: Irony, Resentment, and Other Mimetic Structures. Stanford University Press, 1997)