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An oxymoron (plural oxymorons or, more rarely, oxymora) is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms. Oxymoron is a loanword from Greek oxy ("sharp" or "pointed") and moros ("dull"). Thus the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron.

Oxymorons are a proper subset of the expressions called contradictions in terms. What distinguishes oxymorons from other paradoxes and contradictions is that they are used intentionally, for rhetorical effect, and the contradiction is only apparent, as the combination of terms provides a novel expression of some concept, such as “cruel to be kind”, “team of mavericks”, or “simply complicated”.

The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjective-noun combination. For example, the following line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King contains two oxymorons:

And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true

Oxymorons can also be wooden irons in that they are in violation of the Principle of contradiction which asserts that nothing can be thought if it contains contradictory characteristics, predicates, attributes, or qualities.


[edit] Oxymorons

Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymorons in an article in Word Ways in 1990[1], running from single-word oxymorons such as "pianoforte" (literally, "soft-loud") through "doublespeak oxymora" (deliberately intended to confuse) and "opinion oxymora" (editorial opinions designed to provoke a laugh). In general, oxymorons can be divided into expression that were deliberately crafted to be contradictory, such as the Tennyson quote above, and those phrases that inadvertently or incidentally contain a contradiction (often as a result of a punning use of one or both words).

Slang terms might be combined with oxymoronic effect; for example "hot ice" implies stolen diamonds in criminal argot, "hot" referring to stolen goods, and "ice" referring to diamonds.

[edit] Deliberate oxymorons

Often a writer will use an oxymoron in order to deliberately call attention to a contradiction. Richard Feynman, for example, in his lectures on physics, spends a chapter discussing "dry water" [2]. Clearly, he could have used a different phrase, such as perhaps "hydrodynamics of fluids in the limiting case of viscosity approaching zero," but the deliberate contradiction of the phrase "dry water" both adds humor to his otherwise-dry analysis, and also emphasizes the fact that the substance he is discussing is theoretical and not real.

Some examples of deliberate oxymorons include:

  • Deafening silence
  • Sweet sorrow
  • Forward retreat
  • Accidentally on Purpose[3]

Oxymorons are most tellingly employed in injecting a sense of ironic, ostensibly unintended, humor. The effect is to confront the reader or the listener with a sense of ludicrousness so as to render the whole sentence and the idea absurd and funny. It should be remembered that this is a purely subjective line of thinking and presupposes that the reader or listener is already familiar with the intended humor. Examples of such thought-provoking oxymorons include:

  • Orphans of the Living - children in the foster-parent system.
  • "Poet in residence in absentia" - a title granted to a poet, at his own request, by a university.

Oxymorons can also be used to construct names of fictional items and places, for instance Hill Valley, California is used as a fictional location as the name is an inherent contradiction.

[edit] Popular oxymorons

In popular usage, the term oxymoron is sometimes used more loosely, in the sense of a simple contradiction in terms. Often, it is then applied to expressions which, unlike real oxymorons, are used in full earnest and without any sense of paradox by many speakers in everyday language. Comedian George Carlin brought many of these to popular attention in his album "Toledo Window Box", in his live comedy routines, and his books.

  • Bittersweet
  • Controlled chaos
  • Icy hot
  • Living dead (i.e. the undead)
  • Open secret
  • Organized mess
  • Plastic glass
  • Same difference

Very often the labeling of an expression as a perceived oxymoron is made on the basis of substituting an alternative, non-intended meaning for the meaning normally intended in the context of the expression in question. For instance, in the expression Civil war, the term civil is normally intended to mean "between citizens of the same state". In this sense, the expression is neither paradox nor self-contradictory. However, if civil is construed as 'non-military' or 'reasonable and polite', the expression is a contradiction in terms (as per satirist Richard Armour in It All Started with Columbus, who said the American Civil War was fought politely). Such designations of alleged oxymorons are often made with a humorous purpose. Alternatively, an oxymoron may occur when a word or phrase changes meaning. Few people today pay attention to the inherent contradiction in eating with "plastic silverware" or drinking from "a plastic glass," because the word "silverware" has come to mean eating utensils of any composition, and "glass" is commonly used to refer to any cup from which one can drink.

[edit] Oxymoron used as an opinion

Calling such an expression an oxymoron is sometimes done in order to disparage its use, by drawing attention to a perceived inherent contradiction and thus claiming it to be nonsensical. Often this kind of argument is used in domains of political or ideological dispute, or in order to criticize a perceived nonsensical use of technical terms by lay people who fail to understand their true meanings.

A more subtle rhetorical maneuver in designating an expression XY as an "oxymoron", often used for either humorous or polemical purposes, is to pick out a perceived or alleged property of objects of type Y, re-construe that property as if it were a defining criterion of Y, and then demonstrate that it is contradicted by X. For instance, to claim "honest politician" is an oxymoron implies politicians are inherently dishonest.

Both the above strategies can be seen combined in an example like military intelligence, one of the many humorous oxymorons popularized by George Carlin; it carries and implies a political judgment, that the military by its nature cannot be intelligent. The term "intelligence" is re-construed as meaning not "information gathering" but "intellectual power."

For instance, some oxymorons used in this manner to disparage or arouse humor include:

  • Thieves' Honour
  • Uniquely Similar

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on fun-with-words.com
  2. ^ http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=scientists-create-dry-wat
  3. ^ according to phrasefinder, the phrase is first used in the Memoires of Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson), 1861; but it is also a 2005 short film and the title of an album by Deep Purple's Ian Gillan and Roger Glover.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0. 
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