Departmental Papers (ASC)

Document Type

Book Chapter

Date of this Version

October 2007

Publication Source

Design Research Now: Essays and Selected Projects

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Why oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two contradictory terms. The word oxymoron is of Greek origin. It combines the word oxy (=sharp) and moron (=dull, stupid, foolish). Thus, oxymoron not only names a contradiction in terms, it is an oxymoron as well. Oxymorons may be used for achieving rhetorical effects, as in working vacation and uninvited guest. They may also result from conceptual sloppiness, as in extremely average, original copy, or same difference. Oxymorons may remain unnoticed when the meanings of the contradictory parts are not distinguished, as in spendthrift, virtual reality, and Artificial Intelligence. Typically, contradictions of this kind are resolved by taking one term as the inferior attribute of a superior concept. For example, unbiased opinion is a kind of opinion, accurate estimate is a kind of estimate, and the reply "no comment" is not taken as a comment.

Oxymorons are not mere linguistic oddities. Words are far from neutral bystanders of what happens in the world. They can shape their users' perceptions and direct their actions. For this very reason, and to enhance its academic respectability, the design community has begun to adopt vocabularies from the more established disciplines, without noticing, I suggest, the implicit importation of paradigms that are essentially alien to it. One aim of this essay is to show that design research is an oxymoron whose contradictions, because they are not obvious to everyone, can lead its naïve users into thinking of it as a kind of research similar to what reputable scientists do.


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Date Posted: 22 January 2008