Contradictory terms: Some funny, some not

Phil Castle

Some words just don’t go together. Oh, they might work splendidly all by themselves. But arranging one after the other creates a contradiction.

Consider, for example, only choice or plastic glasses. If you’re afraid of breaking your stemware, your only choice is to use the plastic glasses. Right? Really?

The effects of such figures of speech not only confound, but also entertain. 

Comedian George Carlin was famous — rightfully so — for poking fun at expressions he didn’t believe made any sense. If someone’s legally drunk, then what’s the problem? Leave the poor guy alone. If someone’s an undisputed champion, what’s all the fighting about? And what, exactly, is a jumbo shrimp? Is it a large shrimp or little jumbo?

I’m referring, of course, to oxymorons. Ironically, the word itself is something of an oxymoron, a combination of the Greek terms for sharp and dull that evolved into pointedly foolish.

As is so often the case, my train of thought transported me to business and what oxymorons might arise in that realm. 

After a bit of contemplation and a little research, here are a few that came to mind. Some of these business oxymorons might be funny because, as the word implies, they’re pointedly foolish. But others not so much because they really are contradictory.

Working vacation. Is it work or a vacation? Is it possible to combine the two? That depends on the individual involved. For some, even the prospect of work — however slight — would ruin what’s likely well-deserved time away from work.
For others, a business trip conceivably could include some rest and relaxation.

Friendly takeover. Even if the management at the companies involved in such an arrangement agree to the merits, there could be some who aren’t so happy when the transaction goes through. One of the results of combining operations is cutting costs by eliminating redundancies. That often means people lose jobs.

Job security. There was a time when people worked their entire careers with one company in part because they felt more secure their jobs were safe. That time has passed. As takeovers — see above — and outsourcing increase, job security decreases. Of course, companies face the same sort of challenge given the willingness of their employees to leave if they see what they believe could be greener pastures.

Healthy competition. Most business owners and managers probably would prefer a monopoly to vying for market share. Competition is healthy for consumers, though, in producing better products and services at lower prices.

Business ethics. There are some who believe this is the biggest oxymoron of all, that profitability trumps all other considerations — including ethical ones. It’s been my experience in working more than 20 years as editor of a business journal that’s not at all the case. The businesses that are most successful are those that do things right. They treat employees and customers well and give generously to the community. They’ve built and maintain a reputation for trustworthiness.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at or 424-5133.