Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Nothing much

with 13 comments

NYC - Central Park: Romeo and Juliet
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The future perfect I have always regarded as an oxymoron.

Tom Stoppard

The Invention of Love (1997)


An oxymoron is not an unintentional contradiction in terms but a figure of speech in which contradictory terms are deliberately combined, as in bitter-sweet.

The Economist Style Guide



A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (for example, faith unfaithful kept him falsely true*)

Oxford Dictionary of English

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­* Although unattributed in the dictionary, this is from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.


‘Climate science’ is an oxymoron.

Opinion piece heading in The Telegraph


Well, where do we start? Intentional? Unintentional? Either? Contradictory or only apparently so?

You only have to consider the Stoppard line above to realise how hard it would be to come to a meaningful conclusion. (And as Goethe said, to be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.)

So I think it’s much more fun to look at examples of oxymorons than to try to squeeze the word into a definition straitjacket.


The word comes from Greek and Latin: ‘oxus’ meaning ‘sharp’ and ‘mōros’ meaning ‘dull’ or ‘foolish’. So the word itself is an oxymoron. The ‘Greek’ plural is ‘oxymora’.


First of all we have the unthinking everyday oxymorons that many of us use such as:

  • Pretty ugly
  • Same difference
  • Open secret
  • Deliberate mistake

Then there are expressions which we may choose to interpret as oxymorons to express an often unflattering opinion, for example:

  • Military intelligence
  • Adult male
  • Postal service
  • Fast food

Oxymorons are a common literary device often giving rise to some of the most moving and thought-provoking expressions in the English language. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a rich source of oxymorons, including the following extract from a speech by Romeo:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

And this extract from one of Juliet’s balcony scene speeches in which the famous oxymoron ‘sweet sorrow’ is used to encapsulate both the joy and the pain involved in loving someone:

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Technical stuff including nouns, adjectives and verbs


13 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    When I saw the title, I thought we were back with England’s World Cup campaign. . .



    08/07/2010 at 8:48 am

    • Hi, Ron — Yes, it’s also a good oxymoron for the Wimbledon Men’s final. Ms Truss is still banging on about the WC on Radio 4 which is more than enough on that subject in my objective opinion (<—-see what I did there?)


      08/07/2010 at 9:46 am

      • Doh!

        Caught La Truss in the car on the way back from Sainsbury’s – three minutes that were, effectively, a vacuum. With a talent, like that, for talking but saying nothing, can a career in politics be far away?

        By the way – and you can delete this bit if you like, it’s just an aside – I’ve been approached by an academic publisher for permission to republish one of my posts, http://ronsrants.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/mrsa-and-antibiotics-%E2%80%93-an-opinion/ , in a publication entitled Opposing Viewpoints: Antibiotics.

        No money in it, just boasting rights, but it does get me in front of a new audience, which could be useful.


        08/07/2010 at 9:57 am

        • I wouldn’t dream of deleting it — that’s brilliant news. Congratulations!


          08/07/2010 at 10:01 am

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sandra Lee, Lisa B. Lisa B said: RT @tweetmeme Nothing much « Wordwatch http://bit.ly/9FBsXo […]

  3. Very nice! The Economist would say your examples (military intelligence, etc.) are not oxymorons because they’re unintentionally contradictory. They might not even be figures of speech, but mere descriptors. (Garner advises against “unconscious incongruity” such as “increasingly less.”)

    Here are a few others (from Garner): “sophomoric freshmen”; “found missing”; “nonworking mother”; and “legal brief.” I always liked the (pseudo-?) oxymoron “jumbo shrimp.”

    The pedestrian plural “oxymorons” is far more common than the fancy Greek one.

    Michael Farrell

    08/07/2010 at 4:43 pm

    • Hi — I’m glad you liked this post. It’s an interesting topic. Thanks for your examples — I particularly like ‘legal brief’ and ‘found missing’. Also, I like the expression ‘unconscious incongruity’ — it’s always satisfying to have a specific label for Things That Don’t Sound Right.


      08/07/2010 at 5:11 pm

  4. Hot topic – how cool. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. Of course in the world of film oxymorons are aplenty.
    True Lies/Eyes Wide Shut/Urban Cowboy/Little Big Man/Fairy Tale: A True Story

    Lizi B

    09/07/2010 at 2:41 pm

    • Hi, Lizi — they’re good! I hadn’t thought about film titles. Thanks. Also: Slumdog Millionaire.


      09/07/2010 at 2:45 pm

      • And then there are poets like Britney Spears who manage to create oxymorons within similes, with dismal results. To wit: “I’m cold as fire, baby and hot as ice.” The only excuse I can offer for even knowing what Britney Spears is wailing about, is that I have children. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

        Jo-Anne Moore

        09/07/2010 at 4:51 pm

        • Hi Jo-Anne — thanks for that, which made me laugh. Not least because I don’t think I’ve ever seen the words ‘poets like’ and ‘Britney Spears’ in the same sentence before.


          09/07/2010 at 4:55 pm

  5. And thank you, because that made *me* laugh. I’m a little slow on the uptake today – I didn’t realize that I made my own oxymoron within a simile.


    10/07/2010 at 1:17 am

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