In a Word: An Unorthodox Paradox

This is how being unorthodox leads to a paradox, and how the words are related.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

I love a good paradox, like this oldie but goodie: “If God can do anything, can He create a stone that is too heavy for Him to lift?” The cognitive dissonance it takes to even consider attempting to answer that question sets my mind buzzing.

But paradoxes weren’t always so interesting.

The word paradox traces back to Greek paradoxon. The para- half indicates “against or outside of,” the same way it does in parasol and parachute. And the -doxon comes from doxa, meaning “opinion.” To the ancient Greeks, a paradox was a statement that went against the common opinions of the time, that is, it was an extraordinary claim.

The Greek paradoxon made the journey through Latin (paradoxum) and French (paradoxe) and into English, at the beginning of the 16th century, without changing its meaning much. In the 1530s, a statement like “Clipping just one toenail every morning through the entire month of July can prevent forest fires” would have been considered a paradox simply by dint of it being so unusual or abnormal.

But in the second half of the 16th century, paradox took on the sense “a statement that seems self-contradictory but is still true”: The only constant is change. The only way out is through. If everyone is special, then no one is.

Logicians in the early 20th century applied a more technical definition to it: “a logical argument that derives from accepted premises but that results in a contradiction.” This type of paradox usually results in a conclusion in which something must be simultaneously both true and not true, like this paradox: This sentence is false.

There’s a word that shares a root with paradox that actually leads to one: orthodox.

Orthodox is also Greek: orthos means “straight, true, or correct.” Combined with doxa, we get orthodox, which literally means “true opinion.” For centuries, its meaning could be reduced to “the way we’ve always done things.” In more extreme uses, it means “the right way,” like when it’s attached to a religious group — e.g., Orthodox Judaism, the Greek Orthodox Church — in which they claim not to continue the traditions of the previous generation, which are the result of centuries of slow change, but to honor their religion’s original beliefs and liturgy.

But does the notion of a “true opinion” seem awkward to you? It’s arguably a paradox because the concepts of “the truth” and “an opinion” are contradictory.

These days, orthodoxy is out; being unorthodox is where it’s at. And it can apply to almost any situation. Just in recent news headlines we can find an unorthodox psychic, unorthodox weapons in videogames, an unorthodox route into football, unorthodox offseason training, and an unorthodox oasis (would that be one with no water and no palm trees?). People everywhere are being unorthodox and doing things in unorthodox ways.

But if being unorthodox is becoming the norm, won’t that make it orthodox? To quote a song you’ve probably never heard, “I want to be different, just like everyone else I want to be like.” Bit of a paradox, no?

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  1. Unorthodox is probably my favorite word here, since it was something I heard quite often from both my parents as a kid, mainly in connection with (drum roll please) the Catholic church! “The mass is no longer in Latin! Nuns don’t dress like nuns anymore. This is so unorthodox and terrible. How am I supposed to raise a son under these circumstances?!”

    Maybe their fears weren’t unfounded. Their son is divorced, no longer a Catholic (non-denominational) but is still respectful of the church though. His children are dogs. He’s attended dog weddings. He’s neither Democrat nor Republican seeing them as one horrible corporate party working against the American people at every turn. I guess the sky really is falling down.


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