Words: Obsession

THERE WAS a time when anyone who got further than elementary school was required to learn all the figures of speech - zeugma, hypallage, litotes, prolepsis, anacoluthon and the rest - as part of the English curriculum. It was really only a vestigial throwback to the medieval education system with its quadrivium and its trivium, the trivium being a mixture of grammar, logic and, of course, rhetoric. It all came back to me the other day when I was reading an item in the Express about Tony Blair, and came across a lovely oxymoron.

Mr Blair, it said in what seemed to be an editorial comment, "is driven by an obsession for peace". I was about to say "Tell that to the Serbs" when I realised that the article was about Northern Ireland. But the oxymoron? Well, an oxymoron (from the Greek words for "sharp" and "dull") is surely any statement that carries within it a contradiction in terms, or two mutually exclusive ideas, as in "He's a cheerful pessimist"; Oscar Wilde's "A man can't be too careful in the choice of his enemies" comes close to being one. In Mr Blair's case, the paradox is obvious: though peace is a virtue, isn't obsession a vice?

Our ancestors certainly thought so. In its original meaning an obsession was a siege, or a military occupation, because the word came from the Latin obsidere which meant just those things (literally, to sit in front of, or obstruct). Then we used it in a figurative sense about people who were possessed, probably by the devil or by some evil spirit. This was not so very much different from what the psychologists meant by it when they jumped on it, with cries of glee, about 100 years ago. The OED puts it rather well: "An idea or image that repeatedly intrudes upon the mind of a person against his will, and is usually distressing."

Some may think this rather too harsh. They may point out that plenty of people are actually proud of their obsessions, which could reflect high aspirations and admirable ideals. I'm not too sure about that. Consider, for example, a newspaper editor who proudly admits that he or she is obsessed with accuracy. Plainly accuracy is one of the first aims of any responsible journalist, and this obsession must be a noble thing. But supposing someone else, a member of the staff probably, says of the editor "She's obsessed with accuracy", we get a different picture. The woman is a pain in the neck, a nitpicking maniac.

So it's all right for Mr Blair to say he's obsessed with peace, but it's a touch oxymoronic when the Express says so. Not that one should make too much of this. On the same page the paper's political correspondent was writing of the Prime Minister's "frantic bid" to end the killing in Northern Ireland. Frantic's historical connotations are with mindless panic, but frantic is what bids usually are in popular newspaper language, except for those which are last-minute and desperate. And if the bid succeeds, aren't we all deliriously happy?