Consequential strangers. From the moment I saw the term Karen coined to describe people on the periphery of our close social circles, I loved it. And so did most people. They declared it “intriguing” or said “what a great oxymoron.” But a few were confused. After I’d described the kind of people we meant–coworkers, neighbors, a favorite waitress, their mailman, their mechanic–they’d inevitably come back with, “But they’re not strangers.”
No, they’re consequential strangers, which is a different word entirely. Recently, I asked my Facebook friends (most are actually CS) for examples of similar phrases in which the meaning of the second word is completely changed by the presence of the first.
They came up with many suggestions in which the first word modified the second, but does it completely change the meaning of the word? A final curtain is still a curtain; a silent prayer still a prayer. Others in that group included heavy duty, dual diagnosis, bind date, jump shot, bathing suit, and sponge bath. (I came up with will power, which is still a power of sorts.)
They also offered other oxymorons, like jumbo shrimp (suggested by two people), along with civil war, invisible ink, and amicable divorce. But in each of those cases, the meaning of the second word is really just modified. However ironcially, they’re still shrimp, ink, and divorce. Granted, consequential strangers start out as strangers–all relationships do–but then they become something altogether different.
The best suggestions, I think, were friendly fire, jazz fiend, smart cookie, trail blazer, military intelligence, and, when meant as an exclamation, good grief! In each case, the second word takes on an entirely different meaning than if it stood alone.
Is there a name for such phrases? I’d really love William Safire to weigh in here. Consequential stranger is an oxymoron, but these relationships–in scholarly circles, “weak ties” and in everyday parlance “acquaintances”–are people we know. So if you’re listening, Mr. Safire or any other experts in our language, your input would be greatly appreciated.
In the meantime, just remember: Consequential strangers are not strangers!
And if you’re wondering whether a particular person in your everyday comings and goings is a friend or consequential stranger, take this test.