Who was it that said, “a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?” I think it might have been attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. But in any case, whoever said it uttered a classic oxymoron. The late President Gerald Ford rivalled him in the observation that If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.
The formal definition is a conjunction of apparently contradictory words joined to achieve an effect. The Greek roots of the word combine two words that mean sharp and dull or keen and stupid. Those roots provide fertile soil for the satirist. Some of the most notable ones of those is the first person to nominate these two: Civil Servant and Great Britain.
Should you suspect that that individual was a native of the Emerald Isle you may be forgiven. Starting with an 18th Century Parliamentarian named Sir Boyle Roche who rose to address an issue of spending money for a project that would only begin delivering benefits to a future generation is reported to have said, “Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”
There is one school of literary criticism that conjectures that Sir Boyle was an inspiration for the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop in his play The Rivals. But that may underestimate him. Consider how deftly he used the construction when he was quoted as saying that anyone opposing freedom of speech should be silenced. (Shades of some recent news reports.) And thus was born the sometimes innocent, often sly verbal construction known as The Irish Bull. And I’m here to testify that the pattern of speech is alive and well. (And I’m not referring to any recent, contentious confrontations of press and politician.) I favor a definition that classifies the Irish Bull as an apparent contradiction used for emphasis.
As the “token American” recruited to the New York staff of the Irish Government’s Export Board (as marketing communication’s liaison), I knew I’d better get myself up to speed when I heard the following exchange between a phone caller and the Director’s highly professional assistant. “This is the phone number you can use to contact Mr. Mulcahy, but he is rarely there.” And I don’t think she was trying to be ironic. My great source of enlightenment was a delightful paperback title called The Irish Book of Bull: Better than all the Udders. (And No, it doesn’t suggest what you may assume it does.) I acquired the slim volume and can testify that I have done so over and over (even now when it is technically out of print) since it remains to this day the most “purloined” volume in my library. But be assured it is worth the search.
Sir Boyle Roche’s worthy contemporary descendants include the mourner said to have gazed into the coffin of the deceased and lamented, “Ah, he’s not the man he used to be, and never was.” And the comedian who got great laughs with the observation, “So I went out to get on my motorcycle, and there it was, gone.” Or the apparently innocent inquirer who asked, “Are you reading that newspaper you’re sitting on?”
If you are drawn to such word play you may also mount a search for Willard R. Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play. This is a feast for the fun-seeker, copyrighted in 1975 and introduced by the late, great Alistair Cooke who said it was to language what a football was to Joe Namath, a golf ball to Arnold Palmer or a male of the species to Zsa Zsa Gabor. To tempt the palate of those who savor words as fun, here are some appetizers from a section focusing on headlines that linger and which uses the headline “Nudists Take Off.” It includes “Papa Passes”, the headline of an Ernest Hemingway obituary, and the obituary of Abdul Ahzis as “Abdul Ahzis as Was.” Espy opined that he doubted the New York Times was trying to be funny when it described an imminent widening of a strike by hotel workers in these words, “Maids all to go out with Hotel Waiters.” By 1981, Espy had added the title Have a Word on Me: a Celebration of Language.
In an era when words too often seem used as weapons, the likes of McHale and Espy are worth the search. What price insight that leads to laughter? And while you’re at it you may want to search for a copy of James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. It’s a collection of examples of venery, the use of a collective noun to describe a group. A gaggle of geese, for example; or a pride of lions. I can predict that people who sample this book together will be moved to turn the practice into a game or contest. One such event I enjoyed with good friends competing for a good laugh came up with such classifications as “an inventory of archivists”; and “a scuffle of little boys,” “a ledger of CPAs.”
With all due respect for the power of 140 characters, it may be more important than ever to let the words, and the laughter flow. And that’s no Bull, Irish or otherwise.