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This article is about the contradiction in terms. For the punk band, see Oxymoron (band). For the album by rapper Schoolboy Q, see Oxymoron (album).

An oxymoron (plural oxymora or oxymorons) is a figure of speech that juxtaposes elements that appear to be contradictory. Oxymora 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 adjectivenoun 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 include:

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 song title like Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence".

Oxymora 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, keen" and μωρός mōros "dull, stupid", making the word itself an oxymoron.[1] However, the combined Greek form ὀξύμωρον (oxumōron) does not in fact appear in the extant Greek sources.[2]


Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymora in an article in Word Ways in 1990,[3] running from single-word oxymora 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, oxymora 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.

Apparent oxymora

Many oxymora have been popularised in vernacular speech. Examples include "controlled chaos","an honourable death", "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", and "hot ice" (where "hot" means "stolen" and "ice" means "diamonds", in criminal argot).[citation needed]

Oxymora 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 cheerfully, they feel grim.

Similarly, in Henry James' novella The Lesson of the Master, a character is described as dressed in a manner "conventionally unconventional, suggesting a tortuous spontaneity." In this way James highlights the contradiction between the character's desire to appear spontaneous, and the efforts she makes to appear so.

One case where many oxymora 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 oxymora become clichés:

  • Deafening silence
  • Dry drunk
  • Forward retreat
  • Irregular pattern
  • Serious joke
  • Sweet sorrow
  • Lead from behind

Terms falsely called oxymora 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 misuse, 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. Comedian George Carlin popularized many examples, such as "military intelligence", "freedom fighters", and "business ethics". 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 oxymora

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]

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:[7]

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

Other languages

Oxymora, in the sense of "single-word oxymora" such as "pianoforte", are very common in Chinese and neighboring languages such as Japanese, and consist of two opposing Chinese characters. Archetypal examples include 男女 (man and woman, male and female, gender), 陰陽 (yin and yang), 善悪 (good and evil, morality), and are used to indicate couples, ranges, or the trait that these are extremes of.

See also


  1. ^ ὀξύμωρος in Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940) A Greek–English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Jones, Sir Henry Stuart, with the assistance of McKenzie, Roderick. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
  2. ^ "oxymoron |accessdate 26 February 2013". Oxford English Dictionary. 
  3. ^ Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on
  4. ^ "Wills watching by Michael McDonald". The New Criterion. Retrieved 2012-03-27. 
  5. ^ "Daredevil - Garry Wills". The Atlantic. 2009-07-01. Retrieved 2012-03-27. 
  6. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron (PDF). Jonathan Cape Ltd. p. 47. ISBN 0-224-02246-6.  (This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.) According to Hughes' website"Books authored or co-authored by Patrick Hughes". Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  7. ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. p. 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. JSTOR 1773004. doi:10.2307/1773004. 

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