An oxymoron is a word, phrase, or sentence that is self-contradictory; that is, it contains words with opposite meanings. A common example is the word “bittersweet.” The different types of oxymorons include humorous ones in jokes and puns, accidental ones used by thoughtless speakers, and deliberate ones employed in marketing or advertising, such as “mandatory option.” Writers often employ literary phrases that contradict themselves to describe something or make a point. Another type grows out of casual slang, sometimes deliberately, such as “wicked good.”
According to some sources, the word "oxymoron" is itself a self-contradictory term, based on Greek words that translate as “sharply stupid.” They can exist in all languages, although word hobbyists in English have a particular love of them; whole books have been written on the subject. Some have passed into such common usage that they are no longer recognized as such, like “bridegroom” and “student teacher.” New ones are constantly being invented, deliberately or otherwise, often by advertisers. “A new classic” is a particularly egregious example from the late 20th century.
Some of the great writers of the English language have created literary oxymorons, including Shakespeare, who coined the phrase “parting is such sweet sorrow.” The poet Alexander Pope used several, including the now-familiar phrase “damn with faint praise,” in a satirical 1734 poem. Pope was explaining how a friend could insult people by praising their efforts as satisfactory or adequate. Shakespeare’s phrase describes how being deeply in love can offer emotional highs and lows, often at the same time. Rather than contradicting itself, this form offers an apt description of the contradictory nature of human beings.
Comedians and humorists enjoy humorous oxymorons for their own sake, as comedy often originates in paradoxical situations or phrases. Famed stand-up comic George Carlin was fond of presenting familiar phrases in this way, such as “military intelligence” and “civil war.” The former is a joke at the expense of the military, one that even officers can appreciate; the latter is a pun on the dual meaning of the word “civil.” The legendary rock group Led Zeppelin derived its name from the colloquial oxymoron “lead balloon,” meaning an endeavor that is expected to be unsuccessful. This choice of name was itself a sort of contradiction, as the group became one of the most popular rock bands of the 20th century.
Accidental or inadvertent oxymorons are used by speakers who are not clear about the meanings of words. “Objective opinion” is one example; while the phrase is often used in casual conversation and public discourse such as cable news programs, opinion is, by definition, subjective, the opposite of “objective.” When employed deliberately by advertisers or public agencies, this is called “doublespeak.” Doublespeak terms, like “known unknowns” or “genuine imitation,” are often designed to confuse listeners and disguise the speaker’s true meaning. Other times, they are employed so the user can speak without actually saying anything at all.