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What Are the Different Types of Oxymoron?

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An oxymoron is a word, phrase, or sentence that is self-contradictory; that is, it contains words with opposite meanings. A common example is the word “bittersweet.” The different types of oxymorons include humorous ones in jokes and puns, accidental ones used by thoughtless speakers, and deliberate ones employed in marketing or advertising, such as “mandatory option.” Writers often employ literary phrases that contradict themselves to describe something or make a point. Another type grows out of casual slang, sometimes deliberately, such as “wicked good.”

According to some sources, the word "oxymoron" is itself a self-contradictory term, based on Greek words that translate as “sharply stupid.” They can exist in all languages, although word hobbyists in English have a particular love of them; whole books have been written on the subject. Some have passed into such common usage that they are no longer recognized as such, like “bridegroom” and “student teacher.” New ones are constantly being invented, deliberately or otherwise, often by advertisers. “A new classic” is a particularly egregious example from the late 20th century.

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Some of the great writers of the English language have created literary oxymorons, including Shakespeare, who coined the phrase “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The poet Alexander Pope used several, including the now-familiar phrase “damn with faint praise,” in a satirical 1734 poem. Pope was explaining how a friend could insult people by praising their efforts as satisfactory or adequate. Shakespeare’s phrase describes how being deeply in love can offer emotional highs and lows, often at the same time. Rather than contradicting itself, this form offers an apt description of the contradictory nature of human beings.

Comedians and humorists enjoy humorous oxymorons for their own sake, as comedy often originates in paradoxical situations or phrases. Famed stand-up comic George Carlin was fond of presenting familiar phrases in this way, such as “military intelligence” and “civil war.” The former is a joke at the expense of the military, one that even officers can appreciate; the latter is a pun on the dual meaning of the word “civil.” The legendary rock group Led Zeppelin derived its name from the colloquial oxymoron “lead balloon,” meaning an endeavor that is expected to be unsuccessful. This choice of name was itself a sort of contradiction, as the group became one of the most popular rock bands of the 20th century.

Accidental or inadvertent oxymorons are used by speakers who are not clear about the meanings of words. “Objective opinion” is one example; while the phrase is often used in casual conversation and public discourse such as cable news programs, opinion is, by definition, subjective, the opposite of “objective.” When employed deliberately by advertisers or public agencies, this is called “doublespeak.” Doublespeak terms, like “known unknowns” or “genuine imitation,” are often designed to confuse listeners and disguise the speaker’s true meaning. Other times, they are employed so the user can speak without actually saying anything at all.

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kentuckycat
Post 8

I can kind of see where a student teacher isn't exactly an oxymoron depending on how you look at it. They are both a student and teacher at the same time.

I really like the Skittles commercials that have a bunch of oxymoronic scenarios. In the actual commercials I think they call them contradictions, though. My favorite one is a zombie who is the "walking dead." The whole point of the commercials is that Skittles are juicy and solid at the same time, which makes them an oxymoron.

jcraig
Post 7

@feasting - You are very right. Just walking around a college campus for an hour or so will give you plenty of those types of styles. At least they look cool (or think they do at least).

I am willing to guess that a lot of the some people walking around with furry boots and tank tops are the same ones who fall for the marketing oxymorons mentioned in the article.

The article kind of mentions it, but the one I really hate is "instant classic." When you look back at the albums and other things that were called instant classics, they very rarely, if ever, became classics. Probably because the marketers were smart enough to realize their products were no good and had to resort to tricking people.

Izzy78
Post 6

@TreeMan - I remember when I was in English class long ago we had to come up with a list of oxymorons. It does seem like kind of a foolish assignment in retrospect, though. I think once you understand the meaning it's pretty easy to pick one out. I guess it's a brand name, too, but my personal favorite is icy hot. It's sort of the same idea as freezer burn.

I do really like the comedians that are observant enough to come up with oxymorons for their acts. It really makes you stop and think about the act instead of just hearing crass jokes and laughing at nothing.

TreeMan
Post 5

We just learned about oxymorons in my English class this week, and I think they are really neat. I have heard the word used a few times, but never really knew what it meant.

I keep mixing up the words oxymoron and onomatopoeia, though. I guess I'll get them straight eventually.

One of our assignments is to come up with a list of as many oxymorons as we can think of. I already have quite a few, but got a few more here. Thanks guys!

Kristee
Post 4

@kylee07drg – I like reading oxymoron examples, because it sheds light on how many of them we use without thinking on a daily basis. One oxymoron that no one really gives much thought to is “freezer burn.”

When foods have freezer burn, it means that they haven't been wrapped tightly enough, and they dry out. They taste just awful, too. They literally taste like the inside of the freezer smells.

They are still frozen and not actually burned, but it's just an expression. Everyone knows that things can't freeze and burn at the same time.

feasting
Post 3

I have seen some visual oxymorons in my town that just make me shake my head. Most of them involve wardrobe choices.

College kids around here love to jog in sweatshirts and shorts. What is the point of this? You are insulating one half of your body and exposing the other to the cold.

In a similar fashion, they like to wear warm fuzzy boots with very short shorts and t-shirts. Those boots will make you sweat even on a cold day. These kids are wearing clothes that keep their arms and legs cool, but the fuzzy boots insulate the feet so much that they get hot all over!

lighth0se33
Post 2

“Deafening silence” is a poetic oxymoron. It paints a picture of silence so perfect that it makes your ears ring.

Anyone who has ever gone to a rock concert knows what this oxymoron means. After you leave the stadium and go home to your quiet house, the silence there is really deafening. Your ears ring, and you feel like your eardrums might explode from all the pressure of the silence.

kylee07drg
Post 1

I actually sat down with a friend and made up an oxymoron list one time. Out of all the ones we came up with, “small crowd” is the one I hear used most often.

I have friends who play in a band, and they always are disappointed when they don't have a big crowd at their shows. They often say that it was a bad night because they had a small crowd.

I think that this oxymoron originated when people converged the meanings of “audience” and “crowd.” Crowd just doesn't seem to mean a throng of people anymore.

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