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An oxymoron (plural oxymorons, or sometimes the Greek plural oxymora) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharply dull") is a figure of speech that combines normally contradictory terms. They appear in a range of contexts, from inadvertent errors such as extremely average, to deliberate puns like same difference, to literary oxymorons that have been carefully crafted to reveal a paradox.

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

"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."

Less often seen is noun-verb combinations such as the line

"The silence whistles"

from Nathan Alterman's Summer Night.

Some more examples of the more commonly seen "adjective-noun" oxymoron are shown below:

Dark Sunshine, Happy Depression, Amazing Dullness, Cold Sun



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

Inadvertent oxymorons

Oxymorons are sometimes inadvertently created by errors or sloppiness in conversation; common examples include extremely average, objective opinion, and original copy.

In some cases an inadvertent oxymoron ends up being widely adopted as the name for some concept, in which case it may cease to be recognised as an oxymoron. Cases where this has occurred include bittersweet, virtual reality, constant variable, and living dead.

Oxymorons as puns

A great 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, jumbo shrimp, alone in a crowd and accidentally on purpose.

There are also many examples where terms that are superficially contradictory are juxtaposed in such a way that there is no contradiction. Examples include same difference, pretty ugly (in which context pretty means rather, not attractive) and hot ice (hot and ice mean "stolen" and "diamonds", respectively, in criminal argot). Whether or not these may legitimately be called oxymorons is debatable.

Oxymorons as paradoxes

Often a writer will use an oxymoron in order to deliberately call attention to a contradiction. For example Wilfred Owen, in his poem The Send-off refers to soldiers leaving for the front line, who "lined the train with faces grimly gay." In this case the oxymoron grimly gay highlights the contradiction between how the soldiers feel and how they act: though putting on a brave face and acting cheerful, they actually feel grim.

One case where many oxymorons are used 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 that become clichés:

Terms falsely labeled as oxymorons for rhetorical effect

Although a true oxymoron is “something that is surprisingly true, a paradox”, modern usage has brought a common misunderstanding as being near synonymous with a contradiction. The introduction of this usage, the opposite of its true meaning, has been credited to William F. Buckley.[3]

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, 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", and "gay marriage."


Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymorons in an article in Word Ways in 1990,[4] 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 expression that were deliberately crafted to be contradictory, such as the Tennyson quote above, and those phrases that inadvertently or incidentally contain a contradiction (often as a result of a punning use of one or both words).

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 adjectiνe, and the thing itself (or thing represented) takes the place of the noun."[5]

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:."[6]

  • plastic lemons
  • electric candles
  • rubber bones for dogs
  • floating soap
  • china eggs to persuade hens to lay
  • solid water (ice)
  • brιcked-up windows
  • artificial grass
  • wax fruit
  • invisible ink
  • glass hammers
  • joke rubber coat hooks
  • solid wooden bottle molds

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on
  5. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 47. ISBN 0-224-02246-6.  According to Hughes' website the book is currently out of print, but while it remains so is available to download here: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
  6. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 72. ISBN 0-224-02246-6. 
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0. 

Further reading

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


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also oxymoron


German Wikipedia has an article on:

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Oxymoron n.

  1. oxymoron (figure of speech)

Simple English

An oxymoron is made up of two or more words that seem to be opposite to each other, or actually are opposite.

For example, the words "Wise fool", "Warm freezer", "Legal murder" all have two words. In each one, the one word looks like the opposite of the other word.

You can have words that look opposite, but are right. For example, a "warm freezer" could be right. A freezer could be warm if it was turned off or left open.

The word oxymoron is an oxymoron; 'oxy' comes from the Greek word that means 'sharp', while 'moron' comes from the Greek word that means 'dull'.

Words that really are opposite to each other, would be words that just cannot be put together. For example, a "round square" could not happen because squares are not round.

Oxymorons sometimes appear in jokes. Sometimes, the joke is just to say that a pair of words are an oxymoron. For example, a joke that says that "honest politician" is an oxymoron. This means that politicians are dishonest, if the word 'politician' is opposite to 'honest'.

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