What is an oxymoron? And what is the difference between an oxymoron and a paradox? Are oxymorons used in common American English?
Learn more in this oxymoron guide and worksheet…
What is an Oxymoron?
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that appears to contradict itself.
It is a rhetorical device used to emphasize a particular point.
Definition of an oxymoron
According to Merriam-Webster, an oxymoron is “a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness).”
An oxymoron is any figure of speech that contains opposing words to create the impression of a contradiction.
It is made up of the Greek words “Oxus,“ meaning “sharp,“ and “moros,“ meaning “foolish,” and or “dull.” This makes the word ”oxymoron” an oxymoron in itself.
|Oxymoron (noun) /ˌäksəˈmôrˌän/||a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (e.g. faith unfaithful kept him falsely true ).|
How are Oxymorons Used in English?
Oxymorons are used in English to grab readers’ attention or for humorous effect.
It is commonly used in literature to bring the reader’s attention to the values of two different concepts.
Famous comedians like George Carlin used them in comedy skits to illustrate the difference between the two concepts. “Civil war” is one such example. “Civil” means “polite”, and “war“ refers to the conflict of two groups on a battlefield.
Individually, the words mean different things, but together, they have another meaning altogether.
Then there are certain kinds of oxymorons that grow out of casual slang, such as calling something “wicked good.”
|A story cannot be untold, if it’s a story.||Untold stories|
|The law is about criminals.||Criminal law|
|Novels are written, not visual.||Graphic novels|
|A classic is older, it cannot be instant.||Instant classics|
What is an Oxymoron in Literature?
An oxymoron carries much of the same connotations in literature as in regular Modern English. In literature, it is a form of figurative language that takes away from the literal meaning to bring attention to the abstract or symbolic concepts that the writer is trying to convey.
Shakespeare commonly used oxymorons to create descriptions for his scenes or to emphasize the emotions a particular character felt in a scene.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the oxymoron “Oh, brawling love, O loving hate” to refer to the conflicting feelings between the respective families of Romeo and Juliet (this example also known as literary devices).
This is done to emphasize how their love is blind and how love between the two was hated because of the conflict and drama it created between the families.
Oxymorons in literature are not just used to point out contradictions but to show how humans themselves are contradictory as well. A single person or character can have great love and hate for the same person.
Both are strong emotions and are often said to be different sides of the same coin. Characters often express one emotion with words while expressing another through body language and gestures.
Since desire is the root of emotions and pulls characters in different directions, literature commonly makes a point of having characters express their contradictory nature.
This is done through dialogue, actions, and narration, all while using oxymorons to make the prose rich and exciting.
For further examples of Shakespeare using oxymorons, read this page.
Types of Oxymorons
Oxymorons can be categorized into the following groups
- Single word oxymorons
- Double word oxymorons
- Dependent morpheme
- Independent morpheme
Single word oxymoron
Single-word oxymorons use two opposite or contrasting ideas pushed inside a single word.
- E.g., Bittersweet.
Double word oxymoron
A double-word oxymoron is made up of two different words standing separate from one another and giving birth to a deeper meaning when considered as a whole.
- E.g., Civil war
A dependent morpheme uses two different morphemes to create a single word.
- E.g., Preposterous
(Pre refers to something before the start, and post refers to something after the end of something.)
An independent morpheme is split into two morphemes that carry opposing meanings together. The morphemes here don’t depend on one another to be complete. They make sense individually and join together to create a more refined meaning.
- E.g., Spendthrift.
(Spend refers to buying something, while thrift refers to not being wasteful)
Examples of Oxymorons
Here are examples of oxymorons.
- Almost exactly
- Act naturally
- Awfully good
- Business ethics
- Barely dressed
- Benevolent despot
- Bright smoke
- Boxing ring
- Controlled chaos
- Cruel kindness
- Civil war
- Climb down
- Criminal justice
- Cruel joke
- Deafening silence
- Dotted line
- Dead man walking
- Freezer burn
- Fine mess
- Fairly dark
- Fairly nasty
- Far closer
- Feathers of lead
- Friendly fire
- Final draft
- Finally begun
- Funny business
- Growing smaller
- Hardly easy
- Industrial park
- Jungle gym
- Least favorite
- Living dead
- Loyal opposition
- Modern history
- Mud bath
- Original copy
- Old news
- Only choice
- Open secret
- Peaceful war
- Perfectly imperfect
- Rising deficit
- Recorded live
- Same difference
- Sanitary sewer
- Silent scream
- Silent alarm
- Small giant
- Strangely familiar
- Sounds of Silence
- True Lies
- Talking pictures
- Terribly nice
- Taped live
- Virtual reality
For more oxymorons, you can refer to this page.
Examples of Oxymorons Used in Sentences
- “The politician gave his deceptively honest opinion.”
- “The comedian was seriously funny.”
- “This is a genuine imitation Rolex watch.”
- “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
- “This is one amazingly fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
- “That rumor is old news.”
- “He is my least favorite actor.”
- “How do you like the wireless cable connection?”
- “Stop being such a big baby.”
- “She has a real passive-aggressive personality.”
- “The story was based on a true myth.”
Oxymorons in Quotes and Sayings
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
— George Orwell
“We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
— Isaac Bashevis
“I am a deeply superficial person.”
— Andy Warhol
“The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it.”
“I can resist everything but temptation.”
“It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
Is “Jumbo Shrimp” an Oxymoron?
Jumbo shrimp is widely considered the most classic example of an oxymoron. The noun and adjective are antonyms or otherwise clearly contradictory in some way.
In the phrase “jumbo shrimp,” the word “jumbo” refers to something big, while “shrimp” refers to something small and the crustacean at the same time. The secondary meaning is what qualifies “jumbo shrimp” as an oxymoron here, and is an effective form of wordplay.
Oxymoron vs. Paradox
Since an oxymoron refers to a statement or figure of speech that contradicts itself, does this mean an oxymoron is also a paradox?
A paradox is a rhetorical device and self-contradictory figure of speech that can be factually and logically true.
An oxymoron is just a statement that pairs two opposing concepts.
The key is understanding the intent and meaning of the words being used.
If Bob tells Alice to act naturally, he is using two different words that have opposing meanings.
But if Bob tells Alice a harsh truth to help her, he is going by the paradox that sometimes you must be cruel to someone to be kind.
A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory at first but turns out to have a nugget of truth contained within.
You can refer to this page for an in-depth look at the differences between a paradox and an oxymoron.
Oxymoron vs. Antonym pairs
If an oxymoron is a statement with opposing concepts, does that mean that statements like “good and evil,” “yin and yang,” and “right and wrong,” are oxymorons?
An oxymoron implies that something has two opposite qualities at the same time. The contradictory nature of one single entity is what makes an oxymoron.
When referring to “right and wrong” and “good and evil,” we see two opposing concepts. We are not suggesting any one entity having both properties at the same time. We are simply referring to two different, antithetical things.
These figures of speech are simply antonym pairs, couples, ranges, and other kinds of extremes. Antonym pairs are not oxymorons because they refer to two different entities rather than one entity with two opposing characteristics.
What’s the Difference Between an Oxymoron and Irony?
Irony is a literary technique that implies the opposite of what the writer is saying.
Since oxymorons have contradictions in them, does that mean oxymorons are irony? No.
Irony is the difference between what your audience is anticipating and what actually happens in a dramatic story. It is the purposeful subversion of expectations to create surprise and shock.
Oxymorons are certainly used to highlight irony, but irony is based on context and situation. It does not refer to the contradiction between the words in a sentence.
If a character steps out of an inn and walks into a soggy street while a thunderstorm looms overhead, he might say, “This is fantastic weather we’re having.”
The contradiction here is between what the character says and what is happening. There are no contradictions between the words that are being used.
Oxymorons might be used to punctuate ironic moments, but they should not be confused with situational irony.
How to Identify an Oxymoron
You can quickly identify an oxymoron by spotting two words in a phrase that logically don’t go together. But they still form a pair because the speaker is trying to communicate a nuance or bring attention to something. This would not be possible without the contradiction necessary to make the oxymoron.
For example: If Alice remarks that Bob’s secret identity is an open secret, she is using a contradiction to bring attention to something. The words “open secret” imply that while someone might think Bob’s identity is secret, everyone knows who he really is. There’s no secret.
For example: If Alice remarks that Bob is being awfully sweet, she is using contradictory words to imply that Bob is being very nice. This oxymoron brings emphasis to the word “sweet.”
Is “Oxymoronic” a word?
Oxymoronic is the adjective form of the word oxymoron. So oxymoronically is the adverb form of the word oxymoron. So yes, oxymoronic is indeed a word.
Can a Person Be an Oxymoron?
An oxymoron is a figure of speech or a statement. It is not the personal characteristic of the person. If someone is “barely dressed,” that implies they are almost naked. It does not imply the person is a walking, talking contradiction.
The confusion in this belief might lie in the word “moron,” which some people infer to refer to the person. But the word “oxymoron” has nothing to do with the word “moron.” It just happens that the word for “foolish” in Greek is “moros.”
You cannot call someone an oxymoron, but you can undoubtedly describe how they act like an oxymoron, such as calling someone “passive-aggressive.”
What Is the Opposite of an Oxymoron?
While an oxymoron is a statement with opposing, self-contradictory concepts, a tautology is a complete opposite.
A tautology is a statement with two words that mean the same thing.
For example: A tiny speck. A true fact. Boys will be boys.
A tautology is a sentence with repeated meaning, making use of redundant phrases to say the same thing to create emphasis. The word tautology is comprised of the words “tautuos” which means “identical,” and “logos,” which means word or idea.
- Difference between oxymoron and paradox
- Huge list of oxymorons
- Romeo and Juliet oxymorons
- Oxymoron examples
What is the definition of an oxymoron?
A rhetorical device where two seemingly contradictory words are used together for effect.
What are some oxymoron examples?
Slow is fast, be quick to be slow, a rich little poor girl, loving hate, pointedly foolish.
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