The Language Perfectionist: Are You Using This Word Correctly?

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.]