Oxymoronic metonymy?

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Robinson Meyer, "Texas Failed Because It Did Not Plan", The Atlantic 2/21/2021:

The Texas grid is named after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency in charge of managing it. (Yes, reliability is in the name—making ERCOT perhaps the sole instance of oxymoronic metonymy in English.) 

In case you're not quite sure what the words mean:

Oxymoron: a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness)
broadly : something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.

Metonymy: a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated (such as "crown" in "lands belonging to the crown")

Mr. Meyer's quip confuses me. ERCOT's name is ironic, since lack of reliability is apparently built in to the decision to cut the state off from the rest of the country's electric grid. But I'm not clear where the oxymoron comes in.

And I'm even less clear why metonymony is involved in the name, unless it's because the council's name is applied to the grid it manages.

No doubt some readers will be able to explain this to me.

But more interestingly, are there (other?) examples of "oxymoronic metonymy" in English or in other languages?

[h/t Robert Shackleton]




  1. Y said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 5:20 pm

    There is a Greek-derived rhetorical term for pointlessly throwing Greek-derived rhetorical terms around. It escapes me at the moment.

  2. Joshua K. said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

    The Electric Reliability Council of Texas may have failed at its mission of reliability, but at least I assume that it actually is supposed to ensure reliability of electricity in the state.

    By contrast, the Railroad Commission of Texas regulates the oil and natural gas industry, surface coal and uranium mining, and certain other industries, but hasn't had anything to do with regulating railroads since 2005.

  3. Tom Ace said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 8:03 pm

    The article says the grid is named after the council (which would be metonymic). Is it though? None of the articles I've been reading on the recent outages call the grid ERCOT. This Atlantic article calls it the Texas grid.

    As to whether ERCOT is oxymoronic, I'm with Joshua K. (just because ERCOT failed in its mission this winter doesn't mean the name is hopelessly inapt). For an example of a more inherently oxymoronic name, consider "United Nations".

  4. Seth said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 9:35 pm

    Is "United Nations" any more inherently oxymoronic than "United States"? (given the historical pressures for secession, maybe the answer is "no, but that's not saying much").

    I think part of the idea is a joke that "Electric Reliability" and "Texas" is the oxymoron aspect.
    Sort of like "Hospitality Industry Council of New York".

  5. John Shutt said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 11:54 pm

    "Electric Reliability Council of Texas" might qualify as doublethink.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 3:08 am

    I read a newspaper article last week which talked about some disagreement between various European governments, including the government of Belgium, and the European Commission. It used Brussels as a metonym and I had to figure out from context which institution was intended. Perhaps an example could be constructed with that as a basis.

  7. AntC said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 5:24 am

    I think the meaning of 'oxymoron' (at least in popular/journalism usage) has drifted from the definition myl gives. The twitterati couldn't resist punning on the last two syllables.

    So it can just mean 'stupid', or 'stupid contradiction in terms'. See wiktionary sense 2, and Usage notes.

    I agree Meyer is stretching the new usage too far in trying to tack on 'metonymy'.

    I can't agree with myl's 'ironic' — that would need at least some self-awareness on the part of the namers; whereas I understand Texas's 'independence' from the national supply is pure politics — maintained in the face of similar large-scale outages ten years ago.

  8. Terry Hunt said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 10:13 am

    For me there's at least some mental dissonance in the use of "Electric" rather than "Electrical" or "Electricity" (with or without "Supply") – it suggests that the Council itself (or themselves) is/are electric, prompting visions of robots or of mad scientists with floating hair surrounded by static discharges.

    "I sing the body electric . . . ", Walt Whitman's line memorably repurposed by Ray Bradbury.

  9. Misha Schutt said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    A few years ago, I pointed out to the subject heading people at the Library of Congress (LCSH) that “Electric engineers” and “Electric engineering” were obsolete terms (the headings having been established in the early 20th century). My joke is to question whether electric engineers are battery-powered or must be plugged in. LC agreed and changed the headlines.

  10. Misha Schutt said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 11:05 am

    Missed edit: last word should be “headings”. DY Autocorrect.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 2:34 pm

    I imagine the author just saw "-onym-" and thought "metonymy" meant "naming" or something similar. Too bad, because "oxymoronic onomastics" has a ring to it (and uses a common metonymy, the study for the thing studied).

  12. Graeme said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 4:33 pm

    I thought the article meant acronym instead of metonym and just got the wrong word.

    The whole paragraph seems to be an example of linguification.

  13. Brett said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 7:03 pm

    @Misha Schutt: You missed the opportunity for an "LC" joke there.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    Tanks, Brett, that comment resonated with me.

  15. D.O. said,

    February 23, 2021 @ 1:11 am

    If sometime in the future a Belgian government (it's a bit of a Heisenbergian, or should I say, Magrittian thing, but let's assume that such thing exists) disagrees with the EU, it can lead to a nice headline like "Brussel rebukes Brussel's attempt [to do something or other]". And next time around the District is at odds with Congress someone should write "DC is fighting with Washington".

  16. Anthony said,

    February 23, 2021 @ 7:24 am

    Many firms have names like this. I once had to deal on a monthly basis with a company called First Service. As you've probably guessed, their service was close to non-existent. I would write the name in quotation marks, or prepend "soi-disant" but they never got the message.

  17. Philip Anderson said,

    February 23, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    "I sing the body electric . . . " reminds me of Milton’s “trip the light fantastic”.

    @D.O. When did Brussels lose its final ‘s’, except sometimes in brussel sprouts?

  18. Rodger C said,

    February 23, 2021 @ 8:21 am

    Milton’s “trip the light fantastic”

    Actually "Come and trip it as you go, / On the light fantastic toe."

  19. D.O. said,

    February 23, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    Philip Anderson, one Brussel is enough for me.

  20. BobW said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 4:56 pm

    "We skipped the light fandango
    Turned cartwheels 'cross the floor"

    A Whiter Shade of Pale – Procol Harum lyric from '60s

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 25, 2021 @ 6:01 pm

    Yesterday's thread on Laws brought to mind Poe's Law, which in turn brought me back here to propose "an obvious Poe" as a candidate for oxymoronic metonymy, since if the satire is obvious, then it can't be an exemplar of Poe's Law.

    Regarding "trip the light fantastic", the phrase in that form goes back (at least) to "The Sidewalks of New York", written in 1894.

  22. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 26, 2021 @ 9:47 am

    The UK Conservative party has a xenophobic-nativist faction, the ERG "European Research Group" and its spawn, the "let COVID run free, as God intended" CRG "Covid Recovery Group."

  23. Joke Kalisvaart said,

    February 28, 2021 @ 2:02 pm

    @Philip Anderson: Brussel doesn't have a final s in Dutch.

    Also, in the Netherlands, when we want to refer to the Belgium govenment, we'd rather say 'the Belgium government', because 'Brussel' = Europe.

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