oxymorons & tautologies

From post originally published in 2009

From the greek for ‘sharply dull’, oxymorons are when words that contradict each other are combined together in error, to highlight a paradox or to satarise. A few of my usual mistakes:

  • almost exactly
  • simply impossible
  • only choice
  • nearly unique
  • original copy
  • initial conclusion

Much more fun is when we say something is an oxymoron to draw attention to a potential irony:

  • common sense
  • political integrity
  • corporate ethics
  • equal opportunities
  • bureaucratic efficiency
  • sleeping like a baby

And a few media cliches:

  • friendly fire
  • negative growth (recession)
  • found missing
  • small miracle
  • modern classic

Opposites can be weird bedfellow, but combining similar words can be just as strange. A tautology is when two words or phrases that mean the same thing ‘combine together ‘ in ‘close proximity’ to create needless repetition at best and total nonsense at worst. The problem is some are so commonly used that to separate them can sound awkward. Here are a few more:

  • free gift
  • serious danger
  • new innovation
  • mutual cooperation
  • original source

Sometimes a writer will claim something, for instance a lying politician or a greedy banker, is a tautology for satirical effect.

While tautologies are a waste of words they can add emphasis. Oxymorons on the other hand are sometimes used to twist language – clean coal, low-fat cream – juxtaposing opposites to change our emotional response to words.