I'm drawing a blank here -- for example, in the sentence "The manager directed that the employee build destruction", the two words "build destruction" do not really make sense together. I'm pretty sure there's a term for this, but I can't remember it -- the only thing that comes to mind is "non sequitur", but that apparently has a slightly different meaning.

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    Some people might try to tell you this is an oxymoron, but I think the broader "contradiction in terms" fits this particular example better if the contradiction is unintentional. If the manager is using the phrase "build destruction" deliberately, in full awareness of the contradiction and in an effort to be clever, then it's an oxymoron. – Nanigashi May 8 '20 at 18:14
  • @Nanigashi, I was about to write 'oxymoron' but you wrote it first. :P – Decapitated Soul May 8 '20 at 18:15
  • Ah, yes! "oxymoron" was what I was trying to think of! If someone wants to put that in an answer I'll check it. – Hot Licks May 8 '20 at 18:17
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    Or a general term could be something like semantic dissonance (I'm borrowing from cognitive dissonance). Although I know the definition of oxymoron is simply the combination of two words that seem to contradict each other, I wouldn't have assumed it covers errors (as mentioned in a previous comment), or one-off uses. Instead, I would say, "Why, that sounds like an oxymoron," rather than saying it is an oxymoron. which I've generally taken to be common phrases. – Jason Bassford May 8 '20 at 18:26
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    If you google “ two words that mean the opposite” you have google.com/… – Gio May 8 '20 at 18:26

I'd say the answer to your question depends on the manager's intention in using the phrase. If the manager is deliberately employing contradiction for rhetorical effect, then this is an oxymoron, as described here. If the contradiction is unintended, then it's merely a contradiction in terms or, if you want to be fancy (as Wikipedia does), a contradictio in terminis.

A good example of an oxymoron comes from the song "Mean Woman Blues," written by Claude Demetrius and recorded by Elvis Presley and others:

She kiss so hard, she bruise my lips

Hurts so good, my heart just flips.

Here, "hurts so good" is an oxymoron, because Demetrius is deliberately using the contradiction inherent in the phrase to produce a particular effect.

Similarly, Truman Capote's famous description of his book In Cold Blood as a "nonfiction novel" was also oxymoronic. Capote was of course well aware that novels are by definition works of fiction; he used the deliberately contradictory term "nonfiction novel" to draw attention to the literary qualities of a book that was (he claimed) a factually accurate work of reportage, and to highlight his contention that he had invented a new genre. As with Demetrius's "hurts so good," the contradiction actually sharpens the intended meaning, rather than obscuring it.

On the other hand, consider the following passage, from a book I'll refrain from naming:

A perfunctory perusal of literature in neuropsychology or the lucid writings of Oliver Sacks, if pressed for time, is all that we need to convince ourselves how sensory experiences can be unarguably real to one person whilst they are not even figments of another’s imagination.

Clearly, this author is not using the self-contradictory phrase "perfunctory perusal" for deliberate rhetorical effect, but is one of those benighted souls who think that "perusal" means the exact opposite of what it actually means. Thus, "perfunctory perusal" is not an oxymoron, but a mere contradiction in terms. The contradiction muddles the meaning, rather than enhancing it.

I should note that many native speakers regard "oxymoron" and "contradiction in terms" as synonyms and use them interchangeably. Personally, though, I find that the distinction between intentional and unintentional contradiction is worth trying to preserve.

  • Thanks, @Decapitated Soul. I agree and have added a few. – Nanigashi May 8 '20 at 23:54

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