An oxymoron (plural oxymorons or oxymora) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharp dull") is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. Oxymorons appear in a variety of contexts, including inadvertent errors such as ground pilot and literary oxymorons crafted to reveal a paradox.



The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjective-noun combination of two words. For example, the following line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King contains two oxymora:

"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."

Other examples of oxymora of this kind are:

Less often seen are noun-verb combinations of two words, such as the line"The silence whistles" from Nathan Alterman's Summer Night, or in a record album title like Sounds of Silence.

Oxymorons are not always a pair of words; they can also be devised in the meaning of sentences or phrases.


Oxymoron is derived from the 5th century Latin "oxymoron", which is derived from the Ancient Greek "ὀξύς" (oxus, sharp) + "μωρός" (mōros, dull).[1] The Greek "ὀξύμωρον" (oxumōron) is not found in the extant Greek sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.[2]


Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymorons in an article in Word Ways in 1990,[3] running from single-word oxymorons such as "pianoforte" (literally, "soft-loud") through "doublespeak oxymora" (deliberately intended to confuse) and "opinion oxymora" (editorial opinions designed to provoke a laugh). In general, oxymorons can be divided into expressions that were deliberately crafted to be contradictory and those phrases that inadvertently or incidentally contain a contradiction, often as a result of a punning use of one or both words.

Inadvertent oxymorons

Oxymorons are sometimes inadvertently created by errors or sloppiness in conversation; common examples include extremely average, objective opinion, and instant classic. In some cases an inadvertent oxymoron ends up being widely adopted as the name for some concept and ceases to be recognised as an oxymoron. Cases where this has occurred include bittersweet, virtual reality, constant variable, and living dead.[citation needed]

Apparent oxymorons

Many oxymorons have been popularised in vernacular speech. Unlike literary oxymorons, many of these are not intended to construct a paradox; they are simply puns. Examples include controlled chaos, open secret, organized mess, alone in a crowd, and accidentally on purpose.[citation needed]

There are also examples in which terms that are superficially contradictory are juxtaposed in such a way that there is no contradiction. Examples include same difference, jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, and hot ice (where hot means stolen and ice means diamonds, respectively, in criminal argot).[citation needed]

Oxymorons as paradoxes

Writers often use an oxymoron to call attention to an apparent contradiction. For example, Wilfred Owen's poem The Send-off refers to soldiers leaving for the front line, who "lined the train with faces grimly gay." The oxymoron grimly gay highlights the contradiction between how the soldiers feel and how they act: though they put on a brave face and act cheerful, they feel grim.

One case where many oxymorons are strung together can be found in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo declares:

"O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!"

Some paradoxical oxymorons become clichés:

  • Irregular pattern
  • Bitter sweet
  • Deafening silence
  • Forward retreat
  • Noisy silence
  • Quiet riot
  • Serious joke
  • Silent Scream
  • Sweet sorrow

Terms falsely called oxymorons for rhetorical effect

Although a true oxymoron is "something that is surprisingly true, a paradox," Garry Wills has argued that modern usage has brought a common misunderstanding[4] that oxymoron is nearly synonymous with contradiction. The introduction of this usage, the opposite of its true meaning, has been credited to William F. Buckley.[5]

Sometimes a pair of terms is claimed to be an oxymoron by those who hold the opinion that the two are mutually exclusive. That is, although there is no inherent contradiction between the terms, the speaker expresses the opinion that the two terms imply properties or characteristics that cannot occur together. Such claims may be made purely for humorous effect; many examples, such as military intelligence, freedom fighters, business ethics were popularized by comedian George Carlin. Another example is the term civil war, which is not an oxymoron, but can be claimed to be so for humorous effect, if civil is construed as meaning polite rather than between citizens of the same state. Alternatively, such claims may reflect a genuinely held opinion or ideological position. Well-known examples include claims made against "government worker", "honest broker", "educational television," "Microsoft Works" and "working from home".

Visual and physical oxymorons

In his book More on Oxymoron, the artist Patrick Hughes discusses and gives examples of visual oxymorons. He writes:

"In the visual version of oxymoron, the material of which a thing is made (or appears to be made) takes the place of the adjective, and the thing itself (or thing represented) takes the place of the noun."[6] The book is currently out of print, but while it remains so is available to download.[7]

Examples include waves in the sand, a fossil tree and topiary representing something solid like an ocean liner. Hughes lists further examples of oxymoronic objects including:[8]

  • Plastic lemons
  • Electric candles
  • Rubber bones for dogs
  • Floating soap
  • China eggs to persuade hens to lay
  • Solid water (ice)
  • Bricked-up windows
  • Artificial grass
  • Wax fruit
  • Invisible ink
  • Joke rubber coat hooks
  • Solid wooden bottle moulds

See also


  1. ^ Tufts.edu
  2. ^ OED.com
  3. ^ Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on fun-with-words.com
  4. ^ http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Wills-watching-7069
  5. ^ TheAtlantic.com
  6. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 47. ISBN 0-224-02246-6.  According to Hughes' website"Books authored or co-authored by Patrick Hughes". http://www.patrickhughes.co.uk/books.htm. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  7. ^ "The Unfindable (Marcel Mariën)". http://www.patrickhughes.co.uk/papers/more_on_oxymoron_patrick_hughes.pdf. Retrieved 7 October 2010.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
  8. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 72. ISBN 0-224-02246-6. 

Further reading

  • Shen, Yeshayahu (1987). "On the structure and understanding of poetic oxymoron". Poetics Today 8 (1): 105–122. doi:10.2307/1773004. JSTOR 1773004. 

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • oxymoron — [ ɔksimɔrɔ̃ ] n. m. • 1765; gr. oxumôron, de oxus « aigu » et môros « sot, fou » ♦ Rhét. Figure qui consiste à allier deux mots de sens contradictoires pour leur donner plus de force expressive (ex. Une douce violence; hâte toi lentement). On dit …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • oxymoron — is derived from two Greek words opposed in meaning, oxus ‘sharp’ and moros ‘dull’ or ‘stupid’. It is a figure of speech in which two words of opposite meaning are brought together for special effect, e.g. a cheerful pessimist and harmonious… …   Modern English usage

  • oxymoron — (n.) 1650s, from Gk. oxymoron, noun use of neuter of oxymoros (adj.) pointedly foolish, from oxys sharp (see ACRID (Cf. acrid)) + moros stupid (see MORON (Cf. moron)). Rhetorical figure by which contradictory terms are conjoined so as to give… …   Etymology dictionary

  • oxymoron — [äk΄si môr′än΄] n. pl. oxymora [äk΄si mô′rə] [LGr oxymōron < neut. of oxymōros, acutely silly: see OXY 2 & MORON] a figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory ideas or terms are combined (Ex.: thunderous silence, sweet sorrow)… …   English World dictionary

  • Oxymoron — Ox y*mo ron, n. [NL., fr. Gr. ???, fr. ??? pointedly foolish; oxy s sharp + mwro s foolish.] (Rhet.) A figure in which an epithet of a contrary signification is added to a word; e. g., cruel kindness; laborious idleness. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Oxymōron — (gr.), ein scharfsinniger od. witziger Gedanke, der dem ersten Ansehen nach albern scheint, z.B. du schweigst, aber redest laut; od. ein witziger Contrast von widersprechenden Begriffen, z.B. süßer Schmerz, bitteres Vergnügen, eile mit Weile …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Oxymōron — (griech., »witzig dumm«), rhetorische Figur, bestehend in der sinnreichen Verbindung zweier sich scheinbar widersprechender Begriffe, z. B. ein beredtes Schweigen, geschäftiger Müßiggang …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Oxymoron — Oxymōron (grch.), spitzfindige Zusammenstellung von zwei sich scheinbar widersprechenden Begriffen (z.B. geschäftiger Müßiggang) …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • oxymoron — ► NOUN ▪ a figure of speech or expressed idea in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (e.g. bittersweet). DERIVATIVES oxymoronic adjective. ORIGIN from Greek oxum ros pointedly foolish …   English terms dictionary

  • Oxymoron — Ein Oxymoron (griechisch οξύμωρος oxys ‚scharf(sinnig)‘ und moros ‚dumm‘; Mehrzahl: Oxymora) ist eine rhetorische Figur, bei der eine Formulierung aus zwei gegensätzlichen, einander (scheinbar) widersprechenden oder sich gegenseitig… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.