Mao-Dun: An Etymology

In Chinese, the word for “contradiction” is “mao-dun.” This word has a unique backstory. There is a 3rd century Chinese tale that talks of a particularly hyperbolic (a la loom) merchant who was traveling around China trying to sell his goods. In his stock, he had spears and shields, among other things. One potential customer approached him and asked him about his spears, and the merchant boldly claimed that this spear was the best in the world, and could pierce any shield. A while later another potential customer asked him about the quality of the shields he was selling. The merchant again claimed it was the best in the world, saying that the shield was impervious to any spear. One bystander, hearing both sales pitches, came up to the merchant to troll him and asked what would happen if the spear and shield came into contact. The merchant, of course, couldn’t answer and left the town. From this tale, the concept of contradiction came to be in Chinese language — mao-dun literally translated is “spear-shield.”

Bonus 1: In World of Warcraft, the developers allude to this tale as, in the game, the same vendor sells “The Unstoppable Force” and “The Immovable Object.”

Bonus 2: A similar concept explains the English etymology of the word “oxymoron.” “Oxus” means “sharp” in Greek, while “moros” means “foolish.” So the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

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