Almost every literate person these days knows what an oxymoron is. The most famous example in popular culture would probably be jumbo shrimp. Since shrimp are such small creatures, it seems absurd to use the word jumbo
to describe them. Elephants, yes. And large jet planes as well. But jumbo shrimp? The two words just don't seem to go together. When two incompatible words are yoked together in one expression, it's called an oxymoron. Other popular examples include old news,
pretty ugly, and serious fun.
When you have more than one oxymoron, what do you call them? The typical answer, of course, is oxymorons. But, technically, that would be wrong. The correct plural form of the word is oxymora. Over the years, however, so many people have been saying
oxymorons that—even though technically incorrect—the term is so widespread that it's now considered an acceptable usage by most language scholars. If you want to be precise, oxymora is the word to use.
But linguistic precision can come at a cost. Indeed, the whole matter presents a bit of a dilemma. If you say oxymorons, average people will know exactly what you mean, but language purists will accuse you of a minor linguistic solecism (the technical
word for a language mistake, from a Greek word meaning "to speak incorrectly"). And if you say oxymora, purists will nod approvingly, but average people may think you're a pretentious show-off. It's a judgment call. I use both, depending on the situation.
Below you will find a comprehensive listing of oxymora. As you peruse the list, you may find what you regard as questionable—or even spurious—examples. But remember, an oxymoron, like beauty and a lot of other things, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.
For example, there's nothing inherently contradictory about the words "airline" and "food." But a number of years ago (back when food was actually served in friendly skies) the culinary offerings of the airlines were so bad that almost everyone nodded in
agreement when they heard someone offered the opinion that airline food was a contradiction in terms.
An expression like pretty ugly might be called an "objective oxymoron" because it contains an intrinsic contradiction. The individual words pretty and ugly are clear opposites. When paired together, though, the "marriage of opposites" results in a new
expression that makes perfect sense. This is the central fact that makes an oxymoron so fascinating.
An expression like airline food, on the other hand, is a "subjective oxymoron" because there is no inherent contradiction between the two words. But when people put the words together, they're expressing a value judgment or opinion about the quality of
meals served on airplanes. Whenever people use a subjective oxymoron they are essentially saying that the two words being juxtaposed are "a contradiction in terms." The world of technology has inspired many fascinating examples, like Apple Tech Support,
Microsoft Works, and AOL Help. Other popular examples include government service, committee action, American culture, British cuisine, and, of course, the classic military intelligence. The celebrated verbivore Richard Lederer
aptly coined the term "opinion oxymorons" for such expressions.
Many reference sources give subjective oxymorons a veil of respectability. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says in its oxymoron entry:
The term is often used for social comment, both humorously or cynically (such as calling military intelligence a contradiction in terms) and dramatically, as in "It has become an oxymoron to speak of the Lebanese nation."
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics offers this assessment:
Oxymoron is by no means reserved … for religious experience or even love's contradictions; the modern world abounds in them even for quotidian existence—e.g., "amicable divorce," "free pet," "painless dentistry," "airline food," "life insurance,"
"friendly fire," "boneless ribs," "married life," "sight unseen," "nonworking mother."
The list contains hundreds of subjective oxymora. Many women, for example, believe that male sensitivity is an oxymoron, just as many men would say that feminine logic deserves inclusion. Other wags, with some justification, have suggested
wedded bliss and delightful marriage as candidates. And even though there is such a thing as an amicable divorce and an attentive husband, many people would argue that they're so rare that it would be a major mistake to exclude them from
a comprehensive list. Many frustrated consumers have concluded that customer service is a clear contradiction in terms. And, depending on your musical tastes, you may or may not agree that accordion music, country music, and rap music deserve inclusion.
I've included them all.
The list on the below pages is comprised mainly of two-word expressions, but occasionally I'll present one-word examples, like bittersweet, butthead, warlord, the musical expression pianoforte (which literally means "soft-loud"), and sophomore (which
literally means "wise fool"). I'll also present a few three-word examples (less is more, accidentally on purpose, agree to disagree, and addition by subtraction) that have crept into our cultural vocabulary. Occasionally, to vary the pattern a bit,
I'll present a quotation that uses or illustrates a particular oxymoron.
The list is presented in alphabetical order, but you still may have to search for some expressions (e.g., "A fine mess" is included in the "F" section, not the "A" section). If you have a favorite oxymoron that is not listed, please send it along.
"Socrates says he lives in abundant poverty?" John E. Becker
Accidentally on purpose
Accidentally on Purpose: Reflections on Life, Acting, and the Nine Natural Laws
of Creativity, title of 1998 book by John Strasberg
"What we're doing is creating an achievable fantasy?" Nadler LeWinter,
editor of "Mode" magazine
Acoustic guitar amplifier
Agree to disagree
A little big
A little pregnant
Alone Together, title of 1986 book by Elena Bonner
Among the first
"We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community,
but people wouldn't obey the rules?" Alan Bennett
Angel, the vampire
Anticipating the unanticipated
Apple Tech Support
"(Eric) Hoffer, our resident Peasant Philosopher,
is an example of articulate ignorance?" John Seelye
Artificial Reality, title of 1983 book by Myron Krueger
Aunt Jemima Light
"To me, bad pizza is an oxymoron, like bad sex?" Richard Acello
Beginning Finnish (title of textbook)
Benign neglect, n. A policy or attitude of ignoring a situation
instead of assuming responsibility for managing or improving it.
The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (2000)
"I do desire we may be better strangers."
William Shakespeare, in As You Like It
Better than new
Border Security: An Oxymoron, title of 2002 article by Oliver North
"We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a
nation of brilliant failures, but we are the
greatest talkers since the Greeks?" Oscar Wilde
"Winning children (who appear so guileless) are children who
have discovered how effective charm and modesty and a delicately
calculated spontaneity are in getting what they want?" Thornton Wilder
"There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness
is the true method?" Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick (1851)
"A spotted tie is just the thing when you're wearing stripes!
Tigers have a natural flair for casual chic?" Calvin & Hobbes, March 24, 1995
Central Intelligence Agency
"Good taste and humor are a contradiction in terms,
like a chaste whore?" Malcolm Muggeridge
"An oxymoron is a figure of speech that stands for
a self-contradictory expression like a chaste whore
or an honest politician?" Evan Esar
Chills and fever
"Socialism would gather all power to the supreme party and party leaders,
rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of civil servants,
no longer servants, no longer civil?" Winston Churchill
"How is it possible to have a civil war?" George Carlin
"The civil wilderness of sleep?" Robert Herrick
Classic rock & roll
Clear as mud
"Show me a man or woman who cannot stand mysteries and I will
show you a fool. A clever fool—perhaps—but a fool just the same?"
Coal mine safety
Coca Cola Foods
Cold as hell
"Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health."
William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet
"Let us not be deceived—we are today
in the midst of a cold war?" Bernard Baruch
"Common sense is not so common?" Voltaire
"Tom Landry approached a Super Bowl saying that
his team was confidently scared?" Richard Lederer
"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than
sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity?" Martin Luther King, Jr.
Country club prison
"The passion for destruction is also a creative passion?" Mikhail Bakunin
Criminal justice system
"I must be cruel only to be kind?" William Shakespeare, in Hamlet
Damn with faint praise
"No light, but rather darkness visible?" John Milton, in Paradise Lost
Dead Man Walking
"My near'st and dearest enemy?" Shakespeare, in King Henry IV
"I am a deeply superficial person?" Andy Warhol
"I can give you a definite perhaps?" Samuel Goldwyn
"The delicate assault on the proud stuff of a man's identity (referring
to anti Semitism)?" Laura Z. Hobson, in Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
"Thou art to me a delicious torment?" Ralph Waldo Emerson
Department of the Interior
"I'm a devout atheist?" Paula Poundstone
Diet ice cream
"I can with truth say mine is a situation of dignified slavery."
Andrew Jackson, on the presidency
Doctor of Nursing
"There is an ABC ignorance that precedes knowledge
and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it?" Michel de Montaigne
Earth Angel, title of 1954 song by The Penguins
"The most eloquent silence; that of two mouths meeting in a kiss?" Anonymous
"The Pause; that impressive silence, that eloquent silence, that geometrically
progressive silence which often achieves a desired effect where no
combination of words, however so felicitous, could accomplish it?" Mark Twain
"Revenge leads to an empty fullness, like eating dirt?" Mignon McLaughlin
Environmentalist bumper sticker
E pluribus unum
E pluribus unum ("Out of many, one"), motto of the USA, appearing on the
Great Seal of the United States of America
Equal justice for all
Eschew obfuscation. A "fumblerule," by William Safire
Expect the unexpected
"When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me,
so, of course, I was surprised?" Ludwig Wittgenstein
"Come then, expressive silence, muse His praise."
James Thomson, In "Hymn," (1730)
"Human beings cling to their delicious tyrannies and to their exquisite nonsense,
till death stares them in the face?" Sydney Smith
Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut, title of 1999 Stanley Kubrick film
Fair lending practices
"Life is falling sideways?" Jean Cocteau
Falling Sideways. Tom Holt, title of 2002 comic fantasy book
"His honor rooted in dishonor stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in "Lancelot and Elaine."
Fat-free cream cheese
"They could be content
To visit other places; and come down
With fearful bravery, thinking by this face
To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage;
But 'tis not so.
William Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, Act V, Scene I
Fighting for Peace
"That's a fine mess you've gotten us in, Ollie?" Stan Laurel
A Fine Mess, title of 1986 Blake Edwards' movie, starring Ted Danson
"Free love is too expensive?" Bernadette Devlin
"Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms?" G. K. Chesterton
Free with purchase
Freezer Burn: Oxymorons and Other Contradictions of Everyday Life,
title of 1991 book by Laine Vilensky, David Holmes, & Jeff MacNelly
Fresh dried fruit
Fresh from concentrate
Fresh-frozen jumbo shrimp
Fried ice cream
Frienemy (FREN-uh-mee) n. A friend who acts like an enemy; a fair-weather or
untrustworthy friend. From The Word Spy (www.wordspy.com).
A blend of "friend" and "enemy" coined by singer/songwriter Gregg Alexander
of New Radicals
Fuzzy logic, n. A branch of logic designed to allow degrees of
imprecision in reasoning and knowledge, typified by terms such as 'very',
'quite possibly', and 'unlikely', to be represented in such a way that the
information can be processed by computer. WordReference.com
"Without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman's
education is complete?" G. K. Chesterton
A Gentle Madness, title of 1995 book by Nicholas A. Basbanes
"She's genuinely bogus?" Christopher Hassall, on Dame Edith Sitwell
"Stardom can be a gilded slavery?" Helen Hayes
Go ahead, back up
Going nowhere fast
Gourmet cat food
Gourmet fast food
"The Great Commoner," nickname of William Jennings Bryan
Greater (name your town)
Group of individuals
Gunboat diplomacy, n. Diplomacy involving intimidation by threat
or use of military force. American Heritage Dictionary.
Happily ever after
"Acting is happy agony?" Sir Alec Guinness
A Hard Day's Night
A Hard Day's Night, title of 1964 Beatles song
Hasten slowly. Latin Proverb (in Latin festina lente)
Hazardous waste disposal
"O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!"
William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet
Holy Roman Empire
"This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself
the Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire?" Voltaire
"A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar?" H. L. Mencken
"An honest politician is one who when he's bought stays bought?"
Hot chili (think "chilly")
House ethics committee
Huge market niche
Hurts so Good
Hurts So Good, title of 1982 song, on John Cougar Mellancamp's
"American Fool" Album
Ice cream cake
Icy Hot Patch
Idiot savant (literally, "learned idiot")
Idiot savant, n. A mentally retarded person who exhibits genius in a highly
specialized area, such as mathematics or music (French: idiot, idiot + savant,
learned). American Heritage Dictionary, Third edition.
"We have two incredibly credible witnesses here?" Sen. Joseph Biden,
referring to Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill
Inexpensive girl friend
Inexpensive medical care
Instant folk hero
Instant oil change
Internal Revenue Service
Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America, Richard Schickel,
title of 2000 book
"Held behind an iron curtain?" H. G. Wells, in The Food of the Gods (1904)
"An iron curtain has descended across the Continent?"
Winston Churchill, in 1945 speech
"The jarring harmony of things?" Horace
Jumbo Shrimp, title of 1986 book by Warren S. Blumenfield
"Probably the best-known oxymoron in the United States is one
from comedian George Carlin's record Toledo Window Box, the delightful
jumbo shrimp?" Richard Lederer
Knee-high panty hose
Known covert operation
Kosher Christmas cookies
"A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead
than an ignorant one?" Benjamin Franklin
"A learned fool is one who has read
everything and remembered it?" Josh Billings
"A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one?" Molière
Less is more
"Well, less is more, Lucrezia?" Robert Browning, in "Andrea del Sarto" (1855)
"Less is more?" Motto of architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe
Life after death
Light dark beer
Limited lifetime guarantee
(A) Little big
Little Big Horn
Little Big League
Little Big League, title of 1994 film
Little Big Man
Little Big Man, title of 1965 novel by Thomas Berger
(and 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman)
(A) Little bigger
(A) Little bit big
Little Giant, title of 1946 Abbott & Costello film
"The Little Giant," nickname of Stephen A. Douglas
Little Murders, title of 1967 play by Jules Feiffer
(and 1971 film starring Elliott Gould)
(A) Little pregnant
Live on tape
Living Apart Together
"A needy, hollow-ey'd, sharp-looking wretch,
A living-dead man."
William Shakespeare, in A Comedy of Errors
Night of the Living Dead, title of 1968 movie
"Then had I not been thus exiled from light;
As in the land of darkness yet in light;
To live half dead, a living death,"
John Milton, in Samson Agonistes (lines 98-100)
Local long distance
Lonely Heart's Club
Long Day's Night
A Long Day's Night. Blue Oyster Cult, title of 2002 concert film
Long Island Expressway
Long sleeve t-shirt
The Long, Loud Silence. Wilson Tucker, title of 1952 book
(updated & rewritten in 1969)
Low-fat ice cream
"To you, I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition?" Woody Allen
"Beautiful! Beautiful! Magnificent desolation?" Astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin,
on July 20, 1969 moon walk
"She is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous?" Henry James, \
on George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Major minority group
Make haste slowly
"Make haste slowly?" Augustus Caesar (in Latin, festina lente)
The Male Intellect, An Oxymoron?, title of 1996 play by Robert Dubac
Meaningful Nonsense, title of 1966 book by Charles J. Ping
Meaningful overnight relationship
"For checker'd as is seen our human lot
With good, and bad, and worse, alike prolific
Of melancholy merriment, to quote
Too much of one sort would be soporific."
Lord Byron, in Don Juan, Canto Eight
"The ladies looked one another over with microscopic carelessness?"
Arthur "Bugs" Baer
Middle East peace process
Mild hot sauce
"Military intelligence—a contradiction in terms?" Oswald Garrison Villard,
in 1920 lecture
"Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms?" Groucho Marx
"Military justice is to justice as military music is to music."
Attributed to Groucho Marx, George Clemenceau, and others
"O miserable abundance, O beggarly riches?" John Donne
Monopoly (from two Greek words, meaning "single, alone" and "many")
"He was a politician of monumental littleness?" Theodore Roosevelt,
on John Tyler
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
George Orwell, in Animal Farm (1945)
"The murderous innocence of the sea?" William Butler Yeats,
in "A Prayer for My Daughter"
Never say never
New & Improved
New Antiques Arriving Daily! Sign at Antique Shop.
"Let's have some new cliché's?" Samuel Goldwyn
New used car
Ninety-nine percent pure
"And love's the noblest frailty of the mind?" John Dryden, in 1665
"And wit's the noblest frailty of the mind?" Thomas Shadwell, in 1679
"I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran."
John Dryden, in The Conquest of Granada
No good do-gooder
Non-toxic bug spray
"I just want to be normally insane?" Marlon Brando
Old boys' network
Old girls' network
The Old Girls' Network, title of 2003 book by Sharon Whiteley, et.al.
One hundred and ten percent
One-Man Tango, title of book by Anthony Quinn
One size fits all
Oxymoron (From Gr. words meaning "dull sharpness" or "pointed foolishness)
"And painful pleasure turns to pleasing pain?" Edmund Spenser,
in The Faerie Queene (1590)
"We need to be paranoid optimists?" Robert J. Eaton, Chrysler CEO
The Perfect Husband, title of 1998 novel by Lisa Gardner
The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea.
Sebastian Junger, title of 1997 book (made into a 2000 movie)
"Psychoanalysis is a permanent fad?" Peter de Vries
Permanent guest host
Personalized form letter
Pianoforte (literally "soft-loud")
"And painful pleasure turns to pleasing pain?" Edmund Spenser,
in The Faerie Queene (1590)
"The pleasing punishment that women bear?" William Shakespeare,
in A Comedy of Errors
Poor little rich kid
Poor little rich girl
A Poor Little Rich Girl, title of 1917 Mary Pickford film
The Poor Little Rich Girl, title of 1936 Shirley Temple film
"All her life, Isadora (Duncan) has been a practical idealist?" Truman Capote
Press enter to exit
Pretty sorry looking
Preposterous (literally means "before-behind")
Professional Amateur, title of 1957 book by T. A. Boyd
"A proletarian dictatorship is never proletarian?" Will and Ariel Durant
"Behold how goodly my faire love does ly,
In proud humility!"
Edmund Spenser, in Epithalamion (1597)
Public school education
Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness,
title of 1986 book by Lillian J. Rubin
Quiet Riot, name of heavy metal group
Real imitation leather
Real processed cheese
"Reality TV is mostly about fantasy?" Dr. Mardy Grothe
Reasonable attorney fees
Reasonable medical fees
The Roaring Silence, title of 1976 album by Manfred Mann
The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life (1993) by David Revill
Rules of war
Running in place
Rush hour traffic
Safe and sane fireworks
School cafeteria food
Scottish Danish (a pastry)
Secret FBI files
Senate Ethics Committee
Senate Intelligence Committee
"Harvey Keitel—he's very sexy-ugly."
Heather Juergensen, from the 2001 film, Kissing Jessica Stein
Shorty Long (American entertainer: www.shortylong.com)
"We're shy exhibitionists." Geena Davis, on actors
"I sat screaming silently."
Pauline Kael, on the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs
Silent sound (see sound of silence)
Simple medical procedure
Snow white tan
"Came on so loaded, man, well hung and snow white tan."
David Bowie, lyric from Ziggy Stardust
Sophomore (literally "wise fool')
Sound of silence
"Hello darkness my old friend
I've come to talk to you again.
The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence."
Paul Simon, lyrics from The Sound of Silence (1964)
Specialize in generalities
"A splendid failure."
William Faulkner's characterization of his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury
"The second office of the government is honorable and easy,
the first is but a splendid misery."
Thomas Jefferson, comparing the vice-presidency with the presidency
"Napoleon has commanded that once a week there should be held
something called a Spontaneous Demonstration."
George Orwell, in Animal Farm
"The wheels of justice … they're square wheels."
Barbara Cororan, in The Hideaway (1987)
Squared circle (wrestling term)
The Squaw Man, title of first full-length Hollywood feature film,
by Cecil B. Demille, Samuel Goldwyn, and Jesse Lasky
Spent in a round of strenuous idleness."
William Wordsworth, in "The Prelude"
Strippers dressing room
"Strong people have strong weaknesses." Peter F. Drucker
"Until colleges are tested for the education they are providing
their athletes, the term "student-athlete" will remain
the most tragic oxymoron in the American vocabulary."
Murray Sperber, college professor & author of College Sports, Inc.
"It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is
the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man."
E. M. Forster
Superette (literally "big-small")
Sure fire tip
Sweet and sour
"Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie." John Milton
"A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness."
"Parting is such sweet sorrow."
William Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet
Synthetic natural gas
The Tall Dwarfs (New Zealand rock group)
Temporary government job
Temporary tax increase
Thinking out loud
"That look of threatening benevolence."
Moss Hart, on first-night productions
Tomorrow's headlines today
"(James) Gandolfini plays the compassionate cold-blooded hit man,
a role that sounds as ridiculous as it looks. Gandolfini might as well
stamp 'tough softy' on his forehead. His work on 'The Sopranos'
has dug him a type-cast grave."
J. H. Wyman, in a 2001 review of the "The Mexican"
(first appearance in Edward Bellamy's 1899 book Equality)
Trouble in paradise
"The matters I relate
Are true lies."
Title of 1994 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Turned up missing
Twelve-ounce pound cake
Vacation bible school
Vegetable beef soup
Vices of our virtues
Vices of our Virtues, title of 1996 article by Robert Samuelson
White Noise, title of book by Don DeLillo
Wireless Cable TV
"Wise fool" (the literal meaning of sophomore)
(None right now; suggestions will be welcomed.)