One of the most fascinating aspects of my research in the past ten years or so was discovering the frequency with which oxymoronic phrases have been used as titles of books, plays, movies, articles,
and even songs.
A well-known example of an Oxymoronica title in the intellectual domain is the title of a classic 1950 book by the eminent sociologist David Riesman:
The film world abounds with oxymoronic titles, including such films as:
Back to the Future (1985),
starring Michael J. Fox
Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999),
starring Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman
Mr. Mom (1983),
starring Michael Keaton
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
True Lies (1994),
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
Urban Cowboy (1980)
starring John Travolta
Wrong is Right (1982)
starring Sean Connery
When writers or creative artists craft an oxymoronic title, their purpose is twofold: (1) to encompass the essence of a complete work in a single title; and (2) to give their work a title that is
attention-getting or even compelling. All of the examples we've just seen achieve both goals.
A fabulous oxymoronic title from the theatrical world appears in the title of a 1967 play by Jules Feiffer:
Little Murders is black comedy about the effect of random and senseless violence on a New York City family. The play was made into a 1971 film starring Elliott Gould. The play was critically
acclaimed (an Obie and a London Theatre Critics Award). Reviewing the play in the New York Times, Clive Barnes even managed to insert a lovely oxymoronic phrase in his review:
"(Feiffer) muses on urban man, the cesspool of urban man's mind, the beauty of his neurosis (italics mine), and the inevitability of his wilting disappointment."
I've taken the concept of little murders and adapted it to the world I work in as a psychologist and management consultant. In my leadership seminars, I say that a little murder is an assault on
a person's sense of self or feeling of well-being. Many of these offenses are committed—usually unintentionally—by business owners, CEOs, and other top executives, who often walk by employees without
saying hello or even acknowledging their existence. These slights—or little murders, as I like to call them—can cause employees a lot of pain. A saying from the Talmud perfectly captures this
phenomenon: "A small sin committed by a great person becomes a great sin." For more on my leadership seminars, see the seminars page.
The use of oxymoronic titles is hardly a recent phenomenon. Indeed, it goes back many centuries. In 1603, a London theatrical group first performed a play by a promising young playwright named Thomas Heywood.
The title of Heywood's play was clearly designed to arouse the curiosity of theater-goers of the day:
A Woman Killed With Kindness
The titles of articles in magazines and newspapers are also occasionally graced with inspired oxymoronic titles. On January 9, 1994, The Boston Globe ran a fascinating article written by the African-American
lawyer and law professor Lani Guinier. As I opened the paper, the title got my attention:
Life as a Female Gentleman
The article, as I recall, described many of the difficulties Guinier had encountered as a young black woman trying to break into an established power structure controlled mainly by older white men. The title was inspired by Guinier's
experiences as a law student at Yale in the mid-1970s. In one course, a professor would enter the classroom each morning and, even though there were a number of women in the room, would always say, "Good morning, gentlemen." Guinier,
you may recall, was nominated by President Clinton for a federal judgeship. Her liberal leanings aroused the opposition of many conservative lawmakers, ultimately leading Clinton to withdraw her nomination.
Some wonderful oxymoronic titles come about by accident. In my Oxymoronica book, I devote an entire chapter to a phenomenon I've been calling "Inadvertent Oxymoronica." These are oxymoronic phrases that are not created
deliberately, but by accident—sometimes as result of ignorance and sometimes as a result of a slip of the tongue. You are undoubtedly familiar with many examples already, coming from the likes of people like Samuel Goldwyn
and Yogi Berra. But here's one I bet you've never seen before. It's the title of an Asian textbook for students of English:
Correctly English in 100 Days
Below, I will present several dozen more oxymoronic titles for your reading pleasure. Occasionally, I'll offer some brief commentary to explain the title or help you deepen your appreciation of it. If you have a favorite that is
not included or if you come across a new one, please send it along. By passing along great oxymoronic titles to me, I'll be able to share them with language lovers all around the globe.
Lionel Abel, title of 1986 book
A Gentle Madness:
Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books
Nicholas A. Basbanes, title of 1995 book
A Gentle Madness is the oxymoronic term Basbanes gives to the obsessive passion to collect books. A finalist for the 1995 National Book Critics award, this book is a richly anecdotal celebration of the magic of books
and the people who have fallen under their spell.
Too Much Is Not Enough
Orson Bean, title of his 1988 autobiography
A Hard Day's Night
The Beatles, title of 1964 song
Jessie Belvin, title of 1954 song
I had just entered my teenage years when the song Earth Angel exploded on the pop music scene. Smitten with the beauty of my first love—a lovely creature by the name of Patricia Beauchamp—I can still recall how perfectly the song
described my feelings for her ("Earth Angel, Earth Angel, will you be mine?"). Written by Jesse Belvin, a member of the group The Penguins, the song is routinely described by music aficionados as one of the greatest songs of
the fifties. The Penguins' version of the song climbed to Number 1 on the R&B charts and Number 8 on the pop charts. A Canadian group called The Crew Cuts came out with their rendition of the song at around the same time, and their
version went to Number 3 on the pop charts.
Little Big Man
Thomas Berger, title of 1965 novel,
made into 1970 film starring Dustin Hoffman
Elena Bonner, title of 1986 book
Bonner, the widow of Russian physicist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Andrei Sakharov, is herself a longtime human rights activist and the Chair of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation in Moscow. The title of the book refers to the years that
she spent in exile with her husband.
T. A. Boyd, title of 1957 biography
of inventor Charles F. Kettering
We're All Together Again for the First Time
Dave Brubeck, title of 1972 album
(with Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond),
re-issued as a CD in 1990
A Long Day's Night
Blue Oyster Cult, title of 2002 concert film
The Dead Voted in Alphabetical Order
Jimmy Carter, title of chapter in
his 1992 book Turning Point
The full title of Carter's book was Turning Point: A Candidate, A State, and A Nation Come of Age. This particular chapter described voting irregularities in Georgia early in Carter's political career—a form of fraud against the
public that fueled the former president's determination to succeed in the political arena.
G. K. Chesterton, title of 1909 book
My Favorite Mistake
Sheryl Crow, title of song,
on 1998 album "The Globe Sessions"
The lyrics to "My Favorite Mistake" include:
"Did you know when you go
It's the perfect ending
To the bad day I was just beginning?
When you go all I know is
You're my favorite mistake."
Crazy as a Soup Sandwich
Harlan Ellison, title of a 1991 short story
Ellison's story, which was made into a 1991 "Twilight Zone" episode, is a darkly comic tale about a petty con man who sells his soul to the devil and then enlists the help of a slick mobster to get it back. It was also adapted into comic book
form in the 1990s. The story re-appeared in Ellison's 1997 book Slippage, a volume of his previously published stories.
The Best Awful
Carrie Fisher, title of 2004 book
The title of the book refers to pleasure-seeking but ultimately self-destructive activities (e.g., shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, and drug use) that often occur when people are in the "manic" phase of a manic-depressive illness.
Lent: The Slow Fast
title of 1990 book of short stories
Wanted, Fanatical Moderates
Thomas L. Friedman, title of article in
the New York Times (Nov. 16, 2003)
In the article, the Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist of the New York Times argued that the Middle East needs moderates who are as committed to moderation as extremists are committed to extremism. The article closes with a
great chiastic line:
"So moderates of the world unite!
We have nothing to lose but our pessimism.
Either we make the future bury the past,
or the bad guys will ensure that the past buries the future."
Tyranny of Kindness:
Dismantling the Welfare System to End Poverty in America
Theresa Funiciello, title of 1993 book
William Golding, title of 1979 novel
(expression originally in Milton's Paradise Lost)
An Accidental Autobiography
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, title of 1996 book
If you leave me, can I come too?
Cynthia Heimel, title of 1995 book
I loved this line when I first saw it, believing it captured one of the most intriguing pathologies of love. Heimel is a terrific writer who has a penchant for clever titles (two previous books were titled Get Your Tongue Out
of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye and If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?). I discovered in my research, however, that this "leave me" line is not original with Heimel. In the 1991 album Waking Up the
Neighbors, rocker Bryan Adams has a song titled, If You Wanna Leave Me (Can I Come Too?). As I got deeper into my research, I further discovered that Adams was not the first author of the line. In their 1981 album Rocks On,
the group "Mental as Anything" has a song titled, If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? The song contains these lyrics:
"Words were exchanged last ni-ight
You could call it a fi-ight
I-i-it's such a sha-ame, I never thought we would
Wouldn't be so ba-ad, if it weren't so good
I've had enough of that
With other loves in days gone by-y
It wasn't much I know
Mmm just enou-ou-ou-ough, enough to make me cry
If you leave me-ee, can I come too?
We can always stay
But if you leave me, can I come too?
And if you go-o, can I come too-OO-oo-OO-oo-oo-oooo?"
Tom Holt, title of 2002 comic fantasy book
The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea
Sebastian Junger, title of 1997 book (made into a 2000 movie)
Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness
Bob Kaufman, title of a 1965 book
Myron Krueger, title of 1983 book
Faith of an Atheist
Rev. Darcey Laine, title of 2002 sermon
Rev. Laine is a Unitarian-Universalist minister in Palo Alto, California. Her sermon also contained the popular oxymoron devout atheist, which I recall stand-up comic Paula Poundstone saying in one of her very early routines (probably
in the early 1980s). In the following passage from Rev Laine's sermon, she explains what she means by her provocative title:
"A devout atheist would say, take your attention out of the unknown, out of the heavens. Turn it instead with full concentration on your own life, your own experience. The faith of an atheist is the remarkable notion that this is enough.
What we see with our eyes, and touch with our skin, and know with our minds, and live with our lives must be enough. This human existence must redeem itself, must bless itself, must create itself. The faith of an atheist is not a faith
in god, but in life itself. That is faith."
Memoirs of an Amnesiac
Oscar Levant, title of a 1965 book
Hurts So Good
John Cougar Mellancamp, title of song,
on "American Fool" album (1982)
My Authentic Negro Experience
Jill Nelson, title of 1993 book describing
her years at the Washington Post
The Golden Ghetto:
The Psychology of Affluence
Jessie H. O'Neill, title of 1996 book
In her book, psychologist O'Neill writes about people who are struggling with "affluenza", a term she coined to describe obsession with wealth and the dysfunctional relationships that often occur among people with lots of money.
"Good Bad Books"
George Orwell, title of chapter in his
1950 book Shooting an Elephant
This famous article by Orwell also contains a well-known oxymoronic quote, in which he expands on the theme:
"The existence of good bad literature—the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously—is a reminder that art is not the same thing as celebration."
Buck Owens, title of 1963 song
This is a true "country classic," written and sung by a legendary country & western performer. The song enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years when it showed up on the soundtrack of the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans.
The song begins with these lyrics:
"They're gonna put me in the movies
They're gonna make a big star out of me
We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely
And all I have to do is act naturally."
The Joy of Suffering:
Psychoanalytic Theory and Therapy of Masochism
Shirley Panken, Ph.D., title of 1993 book
Dead Man Walking:
An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States
Sister Helen Prejean, title of 1994 book
A Catholic nun and spiritual advisor at Louisiana State Penitentiary, Prejean's book was the result of her many visits with death-row inmates. Her indictment of capital punishment was made into a powerful 1995 film starring Susan
Sarandon as Prejean (for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress) and Sean Penn as inmate Matthew Poncelet (for which he was nominated as Best Actor).
Anthony Quinn, title of 1955 autobiography
The expression one-man tango shows up in Robert Hendrickson's Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, describing "Someone supremely self-confident, who looks like he could dance the grand tango all alone." One-man tango is the
nickname Orson Welles gave to Quinn, and for those of you who remember Quinn in his prime, it does seem to fit. Welles probably invented the expression, but it has not been formally documented.
The Vices of our Virtues
Robert J. Samuelson, title of a 1996 Washington Post article
Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America
Richard Schickel, title of 2000 book
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less
Barry Schwartz, title of 2004 book
A professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, Schwartz argues that people have more choices available to them than at any other time in history. Paradoxically, though, this overabundance of choice, has not led to more happiness, but less.
The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon, title of 1964 song
Many people of my generation thrilled to this great Simon and Garfunkel song. Nowadays, it's considered one of the classic songs of the era, written by one of the greatest songwriters in history. Check out these great oxymoronic lyrics:
"And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence."
The notion that there can be a sound of silence is an ancient oxymoronic theme, and one that has been explored by many people over the centuries. For more, see grand oxymoronic themes.
A Resounding Tinkle
N. F. Simpson, title of a 1958 play
One Way Pendulum
N. F. Simpson, title of 1960 play
Incompatibility: Grounds for a Great Marriage
Charles and Barbara Snyder, title of 1989 book
In this primer for Christian couples, the Snyders (who describe themselves as "the world's most opposite couple") take the position that differences between couples are part of God's plan for marriage and should be viewed as assets to be
appreciated, not liabilities to be endured. They produced a 2nd edition of the book in 1999, adding the word Still at the beginning of the subtitle.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness
William Styron, title of 1992 book
Borrowing the oxymoron darkness visible from Milton's Paradise Lost, this is the story of Styron's 1985 descent—at age 60—into a debilitating and almost suicidal depression.
Liberty by Oppression
Thomas Szasz, title of 2002 book
This book, subtitled A Comparative Study of Slavery and Psychiatry, draws parallels between historical justifications for slavery and the rationale behind modern-day psychiatric practice. Szasz is one of the most original and radical
thinkers in modern psychology, first coming into prominence decades ago with a book titled the Myth of Mental Illness. He continues to warn about the dangers inherent in viewing mental disorders as medical diseases. Doing so, he argues,
too easily leads to forced drugging and other forms of psychiatric coercion that are ostensibly "in the best interests of the patient" but are in truth a modern from of tyranny and a powerful threat to personal liberty.
Thomas Szasz, title of 1998 book
In this book, subtitled Psychiatric Control of Society's Unwanted, Szasz argues that millions of Americans, who are diagnosed as mentally ill, are drugged and confined by doctors for noncriminal conduct. He deplores this loss of
liberty, maintaining that our constitutional republic is replacing criminal-punitive sentences with civil-therapeutic "programs," resulting in a coercive "Therapeutic State" that is not constrained by the rule of law.
The Long, Loud Silence
Wilson Tucker, title of 1952 book
(updated & rewritten in 1969)
Rising Up and Rising Down
William T. Vollmann, title of 2004 book
The Corporate Shaman
Richard Whiteley, title of 2002 book
Whiteley, a good friend of mine, is a wonderful corporate speaker and an excellent business writer. In this book, which he calls "a business fable," he shows how ancient shamanic wisdom can be applied to many of today's most pressing business problems.
Inventing the Truth:
The Art and Craft of Memoir
William Zinsser, title of 1987 book he edited