I was driving home last week when I saw a sign that made me turn my car around.  (If you are a language nerd like me, you probably like to take pictures of signs.) At this housing complex, the owners are asking you to sign a twelve-month rental agreement, and the first month is free. What is funny about the combination of these two words—free rent—is that “free” means you don’t pay money and “rent” means you pay money. In English, we have a word for such mixed expressions.  They’re called oxymorons. The word comes from the Greek: oxy meaning sharp, and moron meaning dull.

Some oxymorons are famous.  JUMBO SHRIMP is one of them.  These are large shrimp we get from the seafood department.  It’s funny to think about because jumbo means large and a shrimp is a slang word for a very small person.  Fancy restaurants are criticized for their shrimpy—but expensive—portions. 

Here are some oxymorons that people say all the time.
•    pretty ugly (Now, is it pretty or is it ugly?)
•    a minor catastrophe (Is it small, or is it a major problem?) 
•    freezer burn (Is it frozen or is it burning?) 

Now, there is a second group of expressions that people CALL oxymorons, but I think they are just saying that to be cynical.  What do you think? 
•    student organization  (I think the person who put this on the list wanted to imply that students are not usually organized.) 
•    country music  (I think the wise-guy who included this expression doesn’t think this is a valid form of music.) 
•    airline cuisine  (Cuisine is a fancy word for cooking, but many flyers believe that food on an airplane is not very fresh or tasty.) 

We have many more oxymorons below.  And if you have a favorite one to add, please share it in our comment section.  The feedback we get from our viewers is...awfully good.  ;-) 
•    jumbo shrimp 
•    sanitary sewer 
•    a brief wait 
•    home office 
•    same difference 
•    free rent 
•    metal woods (golf) 
•    pretty ugly 
•    real fake               
•    awfully good 
•    terribly funny 
•    mighty weak 
•    conventional wisdom 
•    minor crisis 
•    painless dentistry 
•    limited success  
•    artificial intelligence 
•    grow smaller 
•    "I have something I'm looking for."   
•    plastic glasses 
•    only choice 
•    civil war 
•    constant variable 
•    act naturally 
•    freezer burn 

Are these true oxymorons or just cynical judgments? 
•    military intelligence 
•    student organization 
•    country music 
•    professional wrestling 
•    postal service 
•    honest lawyer 
•    a happy marriage 
•    consulting ethics 
•    airline cuisine 
•    Reagan's memoirs 
•    Obamacare 

Please share your favorite oxymoron with us!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.