What is the term for an incongruous phrase like domestic violence, where the word "domestic" softens or alters the meaning of "violence", or Big Brother, which is not literally an oxymoron but is so in its definition?


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  • In the novel from which it comes, society has descended into a police state with spies and "thought police," where people are taken in the night and executed or publicly hanged for the slightest infraction or indication of disloyalty to the state, of which "Big Brother" is the leader. He is the personification of evil. – Dougor Jul 3 '15 at 16:24
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    Or the contrast in "domestic violence"? I don't see the word "domestic" as soft, or in opposition to violence, I'm afraid. it just means "relating to home" - Merriam webster. So I can't help you with these examples. Sorry – Margana Jul 3 '15 at 16:25
  • In many jurisdictions now yelling at someone is a DV offense, so yes, "domestic" has modified the meaning of violence in this context. On the other hand, "domestic" is seen by some as minimizing physical violence to a spouse. – Dougor Jul 3 '15 at 18:00
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    Might you be thinking of paradox? They are different but often confused. – ermanen Jul 3 '15 at 19:10

You're talking about two or three different things:

A. If you really consider "domestic" to imply peaceful tranquility, "domestic violence" is an oxymoron and you don't need any other word. People confound it with "paradox" but it's really a rhetorical device where markedly opposed or contradictory terms are conjoined for effect.

B. If you only mean that "domestic" modifies the meaning of "domestic violence", that's just called a compound noun and there's nothing contradictory about it. It's just a legal term distinguished from other classes and offenses of violence.

C. The disconnect between the name "Big Brother" and the oppressive reality of the world described in 1984 is textbook irony: the expression of one's meaning through words normally intending the opposite for rhetorical, literary, or humorous effect.


Regarding Oxymorons and Epithets

Oxymoron is an often misunderstood term and it is necessary to thoroughly address what it really means first before I can suggest a synonymous phrase, especially since neither of the examples quite fit. An English Dictionary: Explaining the Difficult Terms that are used in Divinity, Husbandry Physick, philosophy, law, navigation, mathematics and other arts and sciences. by schoolmaster Elisa Coles and published in 1717 has a very simple definition of the word "An Epithet of contrary signification." I would like to take a moment to stress the importance of the word epithet here, as many other dictionaries use the word in their definition.

This definition is significant if not only because it is the earliest recorded instance I can find on Google Books. Although The Online Etymology Dictionary attests the English word back to the 1650s, the Google nGram viewer only gives us traceable usage back to 1778. This is unfortunate since I can't easily trace the word as far back as I would like in this case, but such is life.

I would further like to note that I suspect the word epithet is quite important. Many of the older dictionary definitions make use of the word epithet in their definitions. An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Volume 2 by Nathan Bailey (1738); A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (1755); A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language, written by John Walker (1806) and The American Dictionary of the English Language (A.D.E.L.) by Noah Webster (1st ed. 1828, 2nd ed. 1841; The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia by William Dwight Whitney et al (1889) and probably all of Merriam Webster's unabridged dictionaries up until at least the Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) use the word epithet in their definition, so I figure it is an important word.

Their definitions are slightly different from Elisa Cole's though, in that they are more complete. These are all quite similar, so I will exemplify Noah Webster's:

A rhetorical figure, in which an epithet of a quite contrary signification is added to a word; as cruel kindness. — A.D.E.L.

I would also like to note the word epithet has a very specific meaning to Webster in A.D.E.L:

An adjective expressing some real quality of the thing to which it is applied, or an attributive expressing some quality ascribed to it; as, a verdant lawn; a brilliant appearance; a just man; an accurate description. It is sometimes used for title, name, phrase or expression; but improperly.

I would like to note that Noah Webster in particular is not just a copycat. He is known for criticizing his peers when he believed they were suggesting nonsense, so having taken special note of the word "epithet", it seems to me as if he would have corrected his definition of oxymoron if he thought the word was inapplicable. However the example suggests that he believed it was perfectly suited, as it is not merely a contradiction. It has an element of accuracy to it.

A cruel kindness is used to characterize that an action that might otherwise be considered kind would lead to a cruel result. An example can be found in Chapter VI of Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1818) in a letter from Alphonse Frankenstein to his son:

 My dear Victor,
 You have probably waited impatiently for a letter to fix the date of your return to us; and I was at first tempted to write only a few lines, merely mentioning the day on which I should expect you. But that would be a cruel kindness, and I dare not do it. What would be your surprise, my son, when you expected a happy and gay welcome to behold, on the contrary, tears and wretchedness? Absence cannot have rendered you callous to our and griefs; and how shall I inflict on an absent child? I wish to prepare you for the woful news but I it is impossible; even now your eye skims over the page to seek the which are to convey to you the tidings.

 William is dead!— that sweet child whose smiles delighted and warmed my heart who, was so gentle, yet so gay! Victor he is murdered!
 I will not attempt to console you; but will simply relate the circumstances of the transaction. …

The long tradition of using the word epithet in dictionary definitions of the word seems to end with Merriam-Webster's Second New International Dictionary (1933), as the subsequent unabridged dictionary, The New International Dictionary Second Edition uses a somewhat different definition:

A combination for epigrammatic effect of contradictory or incongruous words (cruel kindness; laborious idleness).

However, The New International Dictionary Second Edition it uses a similar method as the earlier dictionaries, except it uses the word epigrammatic instead of epithet, and given the definitions which came before it I would be willing to bet it references this relatively new meaning:

  1. A bright or witty thought, tersely expressed and often involving an apparent contradiction (Some are too foolish to commit follies); also epigrammatic expression.

These definitions make sense when you consider the greek etymons for the word. These definitions for oxymoron are retained in the Third Edition, first published in 1961, which is the most recent of Merriam-Webster's printed unabridged dictionaries and still in print.

Paradoxes: A Contradiction Come True

The point to take away from this is that a true oxymoron has at least some sort of element of truth to it that distinguishes it from a mere contradiction in terms. Being a sort of true statement that seems to be false makes it more or less a subcategory of "Paradox". Compare it with the definition from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia:

A statement or preposition which at first view seems absurd, or at variance with common sense, or which apparently contradicts some ascertained truth or received opinion, though on investigation or when explained it may appear to be well founded. As a rhetorical figure its use is well exemplified in the first quotation:

As unknown and yet well known; as dying and behold we live; as chastened and not killed; as sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. Cor. vi, 9,10.

The thing to note here, is that appropriately speaking, the oxymoron and the paradox both seem to be rhetorical words describing what seems to be a self-contradiction upon first impression, but as a matter of fact, turn out to have at least some element of truth to them. The main difference is that the oxymoron is more restricted in applicability, mostly just applying to word-pairs.

Indeed, A Common-Sense Method of Writing English by J. Berg Esenwein for Writer's Monthly, Volume 18 in 1921, analogizes the two words directly, and while I would rather side with dictionary definitions for accuracy, these are still useful in showing how close the relationship is:

  1. Oxymoron—the joining of words which are contradictory when taken literally, but which heighten the total effect by their figurative use: D'Artagnan was "a lovable rogue and a pestilent good fellow." Oxymoron is sometimes called epigram by rhetoricians

  2. Paradox—a seeming contradiction, closely allied to oxymoron—with which it is sometimes identified by rhetoricians: Mrs. Wardle was happiest when she was most miserable.

The Dublin Review Volume 116 also refers to "breathing corpse" as both an oxymoron and a paradox in Art. V.—Mr. Swineburne's "Studies in Prose and Poetry:" A Critique on page 352 in the context of describing a dying man who seemed to have already lost his wits.

And the the Brigham Young University's Silva Rhetoricae, which is written by Gideon O. Burton (Ph.D. in Rhetoric), and licensed under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 terms, has these excerpts from its Oxymoron entry:

Placing two ordinarily opposing terms adjacent to one another. A compressed paradox.

And also its paradox entry:

  1. A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless.

    Whosoever loses his life, shall find it.

Some Alternatives

However paradox is a much broader word than oxymoron, so if you are seeking a direct replacement, you need to further restrict it. This can be done with the adjectival form of Paradox which is Paradoxical, by appending it to a noun. I think the closest you can get is paradoxical term, or phrase. Statement might also be considered if you want to restrict the sense to words, without much care for the length.

  • But neither "Big Brother" nor "domestic violence" is paradoxical. Leaving aside the distinction between oxymorons and paradoxes, there is nothing "contrary to received opinion" or "absurd" about either expression. There are hordes of paradoxical statements or expressions you could make, but they would be things like "younger" or "female big brother" and "foreign domestic violence" or "domestic violence in the workplace". – lly Apr 21 '17 at 2:13
  • @Ily Those are not the examples I would've personally chosen if I was asking, although it's probably worth note that the questioner admitted that about Big Brother, and domestic is sometimes taken as a synonym of tame by means of comparison with domestic pets and the word tame has connotations of gentleness which is opposed to violence I trust that the questioner really meant to include examples of oxymorons, and meant to seek a genuine alternative. – Tonepoet Apr 21 '17 at 2:50
  • At which point we return to the fact that "oxymoron" and "paradox" are not synonyms. "Tame violence" is an oxymoron in that each word separately has a meaning opposite from the other and combining them is jarring enough that a reader might be expected to pause and give it extra attention. It is not a paradox since the actual sense of "tame" being used merely modifies the degree of violence being described, occasioning no logical confusion in the manner of "peaceful violence" or "tame beast". – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:47
  • I do understand your point about infelicitous examples but, since the question was in the form what's a word for A and B? it's rather bad form to completely ignore A and B and tell @Dougor what he should have meant to ask about. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 3:49
  • @Ily I suppose the point I was trying to make was not sufficiently obvious. Perhaps the word epithet is a little too abtruse and seemingly negligible. I am not quite characterizing Paradox as a perfect synonym, but rather more of a hypernym. Also, although I was originally trying to keep it brief, but perhaps I should more rigorously prove that point. Also, I had not been trying to tell the questioner what they should ask, but when you put the question like that, you have a good point. It is possible that me and the other answerers have misinterpreted the question based upon the title. Hmm… – Tonepoet Apr 23 '17 at 5:12

The Greek term oxymoron contains two adjectives that are a contradiction: oxys sharp/clever and moros stupid. But oxymoron refers to any phrase/word group that contains a contradiction. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxymoron

  • The was another tern that I stumbled upon a while back that captured the essence of my question, but now i can't recall it. – Dougor Jul 3 '15 at 18:03
  • Perhaps it is in this list examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-rhetorical-devices.html – rogermue Jul 3 '15 at 18:21
  • I don't like the assertion that 'oxymoron refers to any phrase/word group that contains a contradiction'. A compactly stated paradox is a more useful definition; RHK Webster's has 'a figure of speech that uses seeming contradictions, as “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly”'. A true contradiction in terms is in no way acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 3 '15 at 19:09
  • @EdwinAshworth Isn't cruel kindness a true contradiction in words though? A kindness is an act of good will, whereas cruelness signifies malicious intent. I think a kindly cruelness is a better example of what you like Edwin, since the suffix could make "kindly" interpretable as being "like kind" without necessarily being kind. – Tonepoet Jul 3 '15 at 23:28
  • @Tonepoet An oxymoron is defined by ODO as A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (e.g. faith unfaithful kept him falsely true). What appears on the surface to be a contradiction has a meaningful interpretation when thought about more deeply. A statement like 'There were more than three hundred but fewer than two hundred eggs' is just a contradiction in terms, an absurdity. I don't like the assertion that 'oxymoron refers to any phrase/word group that contains a contradiction'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 3 '15 at 23:58

Are you looking for "wooden iron"?

From Wikipedia:

Wooden iron (Ancient Greek: σιδηροξύλον sideroxylon, German: hölzernes Eisen) is a polemical term often used in philosophical rhetoric to describe the impossibility of an opposing argument. The term is a German proverbial oxymoron, which synthesizes the concept of the "wooden", which is organic, with the concept of "iron" which is inorganic. Such a contradictio in adjecto is a logical inconsistency. It occurs when a modifying adjective opposes its noun, as in "square circle," "freezing fire," "boiling snow," or "hard liquid."

  • That's great to learn about (so thank you) but, even if this were a Germanic philosophical discussion, neither "domestic violence" nor "Big Brother" are unthinkable, self-refuting concepts. See my comments at "contradiction in terms" and "paradoxical statements" for examples that would fit. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 2:24

Try contradiction in terms or just contradiction.

  • A phrase or expression in which the component words contradict one another, often unintentionally, or are claimed to do so when seen from a particular point of view.

    • "A miniature giant" is a contradiction in terms.


  • But neither "Big Brother" nor "domestic violence" is a contradiction in terms. Contradictions in terms would be things like "big dwarf", "brother from another mother", "domestic terrorist", and "harmless violence". – lly Apr 21 '17 at 2:08

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