Ten Common Words That Are Oxymoronic, Enigmatic, or Just Curious

Here is a list that I am now spontaneously creating. If any readers can add some, please do.


  1. Ambulance. The word comes from the Latin verb, ambulare, which means “to walk.” Well, if one needs an ambulance, one is not ambulatory; he cannot walk. So, why call the vehicle that takes a sick or injured person to the hospital an ambulance?
  2. Oxymoron: The word itself is oxymoronic, for it is derived from two incongruous Greek words oxus and moros, i.e., keen (or sharp) and foolish.
  3. Dunce: The English Protestants coined the word in mockery of one of the most brilliant Catholic minds who ever graced Christendom, the Scottish theologian, Blessed Duns Scotus.
  4. Ambidextrous: This word comes from the Latin dextra, which means “right.” But a right-handed man who can use his left hand just as well as his right is called ambidextrous, literally, “both right-handed”. Or, a left-handed man who can use his right hand equally well is called ambidextrous also. Either way, the “rights” win out, and the lefties are just “sinister,” sinister coming from the Latin word sinistra, “left.”
  5. Flammable and inflammable both mean the same thing. So do habitable and inhabitable. And, too, regardless and irregardless mean the same thing. Go figure.
  6. Sophist: This word comes from the Greek sophia, which means “wisdom.” In ancient Greece, however, the sophists abused wisdom, becoming masters of a specious reasoning that employed the tools of logic to manipulate minds into error through their rhetorical skills. Their motive was money.
  7. Buckwheat: No, it is not even a grain. There’s no wheat in buckwheat.
  8. Cemetery: Our English word is taken from the French cimetiere, but the origin of the word is Greek, koimeterion, and it meant “sleeping place.” Or, in Latin, a dormitory, a place to sleep. Spiritually, cemetery is a fine metaphor. Mortuary is literal but hardly poetic. Siesta means the sixth hour, a good time to take a nap, and hospital comes from the Latin hospes which means guest, as in a hospice, wherein a guest or traveler can “sleep.”
  9. Mass comes from the dismissal at the end of the holy sacrifice, Ite Missa Est, literally, “Go, you are sent.” In this sense, all the faithful are apostles, for the Greek word for apostle means “one who is sent.”
  10. Adultery has nothing to do with the word adult. Both words come from distinct Latin words: adolescens, which means, one who has “matured,” and adulterare, which means “to corrupt.”