I was reading the History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon, 1776) when I encountered the phrase 'prudent vigour'. Prudent means carefulness and showing forethought while vigour means energy and enthusiasm. Aren't these two things incompatible? And hence the phrase is an oxymoron.

The experience of Augustus added weight to these salutary reflections, and effectually convinced him that, by the prudent vigor of his counsels, it would be easy to secure every concession which the safety or the dignity of Rome might require from the most formidable barbarians.

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    I don't see prudence and vigour as being particularly oxymoronic. Most likely prudent hotheadedness and languorous vigour would be. – Zebrafish Sep 30 '18 at 10:13

Yes, it is an oxymoron, but note the definition:

Rhetoric. A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.


The two terms need to be read together: they are both apposite. In this case, the counsels were vigorous and prudent, presumably arguing strongly for a course of action which was careful or perceived to be wise.

Properly used as here, oxymoron does not introduce error into writing.

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