I can recall when hardly anyone knew the word oxymoron. Now everyone knows it — but few people use it correctly.

The word’s popularity can probably be attributed to the late comedian George Carlin, who loved language and wordplay. In one of his most memorable routines, he described phrases such as “jumbo shrimp” and “non-dairy creamer” as oxymorons.

But are they? No. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which incongruous, paradoxical, or contradictory elements are combined in a literary or metaphorical way. Examples: “deafening silence,” “cruel kindness,” “living death,” “serious fun.” William F. Buckley Jr. once cited “the fine art of murder.”

Oxymoron is derived from the Greek for “pointedly foolish.” So a true oxymoron must pithily convey a lesson or moral or irony, almost the way an aphorism or proverb does. The expressions made famous by Carlin and other wags are really just punch lines.

So if you’re ever tempted to call something oxymoronic, ask yourself if it’s a literary or metaphorical device or trope. If not, it’s most likely a contradiction in terms — or a joke.

If genuine oxymorons interest you, order a copy of Oxymoronica, by Mardy Grothe. Among the hundreds of quotations in this impressive anthology: “Less is more.” “Deep down, he’s shallow.” “To lead the people, walk behind them.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.