An oxymoron (plural: "oxymora" or incorrectly "oxymorons") is a short phrase (or, on rare occasions, a single word) that produces an apparently self-contradictory effect. They can be used for humour, wit or ironic effect in speech or writing.
The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjective-noun combination ("deafening silence"), although they can be constructed from an adverb-verb, as in "inaccurately verified", or as an adverb-adjective, as in "clearly ambiguous". Certain words can be deemed oxymoronic in context, such as "miscorrection" or "bittersweet".
Oxymora occur most frequently in humourous, sardonic or sarcastic commentary;
- I do here make humbly bold to present them with a short account of themselves... -- Jonathan Swift
- The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head... -- Alexander Pope
- He was now sufficiently composed to order a funeral of modest magnificence... -- Samuel Johnson
Oxymora are often used without any deliberate intent, and may indicate a lack of true consideration about what is being said. Examples include "old news," "extensive briefings," "random order," "detailed summary." There is some debate about the phrase "pretty ugly", as the word "pretty" has acquired a vernacular meaning of "very" in recent decades. Literally it remains oxymoronic.
There is a style of humour where phrases that are not contradictory are nonetheless presented as oxymora, the humour deriving from the allegation that the terms are contradictory. Examples include "government initiative", "military intelligence", "neutral point of view," "female rationality", "male sensitivity", "corporate ethics", et al.