Oxymoron (Figures of Speech)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

green stop sign
Consider why a green stop sign might be regarded as a visual oxymoron. Todd Arbini/Getty Images

An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which incongruous or seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side; a compressed paradox. Plural: oxymora or oxymorons. Adjective: oxymoronic or oxymoric.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines oxymoron as "an expression [that] in its superficial or literal meaning [is] self-contradictory or absurd, but involving a point."

Common oxymoronic expressions include the following: act naturally, random order, original copy, conspicuous absence, found missing, alone together, criminal justice, old news, peace force, even odds, sight unseen, awful good, student teacher, deafening silence, definite possibility, definite maybe, terribly pleased, ill health, turn up missing, fresh-frozen jumbo shrimp, loose tights, small crowd, working vacation, and clearly misunderstood.

"There are manifold reasons to love the oxymoron," says language blogger Gary Nunn. "The word itself is so unusual-sounding that it's a pleasure to simply say it; especially when it rolls off the tongue as you spot one. . . . In terms of linguistic devices, it sits above alliteration: it's rarer and trickier to use and identify" ( The Guardian, June 29, 2012).

Also see:

Etymology

From the Greek, "sharp-dull

Examples and Observations

  • "Ralph, if you're gonna be a phony, you might as well be a real phony."
    (Richard Yates, "Saying Goodbye to Sally." The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. Picador, 2002)
     
  • "Consider that when you pick up 'natural' pancake syrup from the grocery store, chances are that one of the listed ingredients will be 'natural flavoring'—an oxymoron."
    (Brian X. Chen, "Choosing the Best Smartphone Plan for You." The New York Times, September 2, 2015)
     
  • "That building is a little bit big and pretty ugly."
    (attributed to James Thurber)
     
  • "How is it possible to have a civil war?"
    (George Carlin)
     
  • "No light but rather darkness visible."
    (John Milton, Paradise Lost)
     
  • " . . . that great modern oxymoron 'eco-tourism,' suggesting a four-wheel drive hurrying north up the motorway with three mountain bikes bolted to the back."
    (Ian Jack, "Yours for £1.4m--and You Won't Pay a Penny." The Guardian, February 20, 2010)
     
  • "O brawling love! O loving hate! . . .
    O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
    Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
    Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
    Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
    This love feel I, that feel no love in this."
    (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)
     
  • "A yawn may be defined as a silent yell."
    (G.K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, 1909)
     
  • "The reader has the urge to blow a Flann O'Brien-size raspberry at Auster's laughable seriousness."
    (James Wood, "Paul Auster's Shallowness." The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
     
  • "His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
    And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."
    (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King)
     
  • "O miserable abundance, O beggarly riches!"
    (John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions)
     
  • "It happens to be true that health food makes me sick."
    (Calvin Trillin, "Unhealth Food." Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2011)
     
  • "We have to believe in free will. We have no choice."
    (Isaac Bashevis Singer, quoted by Willard R. Espy in The Garden of Eloquence, 1983)
     
  • "'I want to move with all deliberate haste,' said President-elect Barack Obama at his first, brief press conference after his election, 'but I emphasize "deliberate" as well as "haste."'

    "It’s not easy to be both deliberate and hasty at the same time unless you are consciously embracing an oxymoron—from the Greek word meaning 'pointedly foolish'—and it is a jarring juxtaposition of contradictory words like 'cruel kindness' and 'thunderous silence.'"
    (William Safire, "Frugalista." The New York Times, November 21, 2008)
     
  • "The phrase 'domestic cat' is an oxymoron."
    (attributed to George Will)
     
  • "I want to die young at a ripe old age."
    (Ashley Montagu, quoted by Mardy Grothe in Oxymoronica, HarperCollins, 2004)
     
  • "An oxymoron is formed when two words that don't normally go together are conjoined, creating a compressed paradox. A paradox is interesting because it is false and true at the same time. Paradoxical observations are often extraordinarily thought provoking, helping us see old realities in new ways. Somebody once said—quite wisely—that a paradox is a truth standing on its head to get our attention."
    (Mardy Grothe, Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits and Wordsmiths. HarperCollins, 2005)
     
  • Direct and Indirect Oxymora
    "Following a proposal made in [Yeshayahu] Shen (1987), a distinction can be drawn between two types of semantic structures which can count as types of oxymora, namely, 'direct oxymoron' vs. 'indirect oxymoron.' The 'direct oxymoron' consists of two terms which are direct antonyms, such as 'silent sound.' (Other examples are 'a feminine man,' 'living death.') The 'indirect oxymoron' consists of what might be called 'indirect antonyms,' such as 'sweet sorrow' or 'cold fire.' This type of oxymoron consists of terms that can only indirectly be regarded as contradictory, via their associations . . .."
    (Yeshayahu Shen, "Cognitive Constraints on Verbal Creativity." Cognitive Stylistics: Language and Cognition in Text Analysis, ed. by Elana Semino and Jonathan Culpeper. John Benjamins, 2002)
     
  • "A log palace is an architectural as well as a verbal oxymoron; so is a short skyscraper, or an urban villa."
    (J. F. O'Gorman and Dennis E. McGrath, ABC of Architecture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)
     
  • Oxymoronic Humor
    "Oxymoronic humor, which is more cerebral than visceral, can be deliciously tasteful. Stand-up comics have always recognized this:
    Life is full of misery, loneliness, and sufferingand it's all over much too soon.
    Woody Allen

    We sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations. We're doing everything we can to keep our marriage together.
    Rodney Dangerfield

    Last month I blew $5,000 on a reincarnation seminar. I figured, hey, you only live once.
    Randy Shakes
    As you can see from these examples, oxymoronic humor is sophisticated humor. It's directed at the most important organ in the human body—the brain. The self-contradictory aspects of oxymoronic humor appeal to a special part of our mental apparatus, a part that enjoys thinking about some of life's most intriguing contradictions and paradoxes."
    (Mardy Grothe, Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. HarperCollins, 2004)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Oxymorons
    Porky Pig: That's an oxymoron, sir.
    Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers: What did you call me?
    Porky Pig: An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which contradictory terms are combined, like "free trade" or "compassionate conservatism."
    Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers: That attitude of yours is killing us in the fly-over states.
    ("Diva Delivery/Castle High." Duck Dodgers, 2005)

Pronunciation: ox-see-MOR-on

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Nordquist, Richard. "Oxymoron (Figures of Speech)." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/oxymoron-figures-of-speech-1691467. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, May 2). Oxymoron (Figures of Speech). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oxymoron-figures-of-speech-1691467 Nordquist, Richard. "Oxymoron (Figures of Speech)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oxymoron-figures-of-speech-1691467 (accessed October 22, 2017).