What Is an Oxymoron? | Definition, Meaning & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  January 9, 2024 4 min read
An oxymoron is when two words with opposing meanings are used alongside one another (e.g., “organized mess” or “cool passion”).

This combination of contradictory terms may seem absurd at first, but usually results in a concise expression that conveys a new complex meaning. Due to this, we encounter oxymorons in various contexts, such as literature, everyday language, and advertising.

Oxymoron examples
The officer was struck by friendly fire from a fellow service member.
After a marathon seminar, participants staggered out of the room like the living dead.
There was a small crowd at the rally.
All our requests have been met with deafening silence.

What is an oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that uses two opposite or contradictory ideas together to create a new and often thought-provoking meaning. Oxymorons typically involve an adjective-noun combination, like in “old news” or “alone together.” However, they can also be formed using sentences, such as “the sound of silence,” or phrases like “act naturally.”

While oxymorons can occur naturally in daily language, people also intentionally use them as a rhetorical device to add depth and nuance to language. Because readers or members of the audience need to pause and think about the meaning, oxymorons engage the audience and enhance the impact of the message. The juxtaposition of contradictory words is also used for humor, leading to wordplay and wit.

Note
It is important to keep in mind that putting any two opposing words together, such as “withered flourishing flowers,” does not necessarily produce an oxymoron. For an oxymoron to work, a new meaning must be produced through the juxtaposition of opposing meanings.

What does oxymoron mean?

The word oxymoron is autological, which means that the word itself is an illustration of the thing it describes. It originates from the Greek root words “oxys,” meaning sharp or pointed, and “mōros,” meaning foolish. Together, the two words mean “sharp-dull” or “pointedly foolish.”

Although in everyday speech an oxymoron is used as a synonym for “a contradiction in terms,” some writers consider this meaning to be incorrect. Whereas a contradiction in terms is an inherently illogical or impossible statement, an oxymoron is often used deliberately to make a point.

Oxymoron vs paradox

A paradox, just like an oxymoron, involves seemingly contradictory or opposing elements; however, there is a difference between them.

  • An oxymoron is a linguistic device that involves combining contradictory terms to emphasize a point or idea. For example, in the oxymoron “open secret,” the two words have opposing meanings of “available, unlimited, honest, not secret” and “something that is only known to limited people and should not be told to others.” Although the meanings are contradictory, the words work together to express the idea of something that should be secret but that everyone knows about.
  • A paradox, on the other hand, is a statement or situation that seems illogical at first, but may reveal a deeper truth upon reflection. For example, phrases like “you need to spend money to make money” or “less is more” are paradoxes: the statements involve two opposite pieces of logic that are true nonetheless.
In short, an oxymoron’s contradiction is on a semantic level (i.e., the meaning of words), whereas in a paradox, the contradiction is on a logical or philosophical level.

Note
Phrases like “terribly well” or “awfully good” are often described as oxymorons. However, in these phrases, “terribly” and “awfully” have evolved and lost their initial negative connotation. Instead, they are used to express a heightened degree of the adjective they modify. Due to this, it is more accurate to say that they are idiomatic expressions as there is no inherent contradiction in these phrases in contemporary usage.

Oxymoron examples

Here are some examples of oxymorons you may encounter or use in everyday life.

Oxymoron examples in everyday language

advanced beginner

genuine imitation

alone together

joyful sadness

calculated risk

loud whisper

cheerful pessimist

minor crisis

cruel kindness

only choice

deafening silence

open secret

definite maybe

organized mess

definite possibility

same difference

deliberate mistake

silent scream

eloquent silence

sweet sorrow

exact estimate

terrible beauty

falsely true

true myth

foolish wisdom

working vacation

Oxymoron example in literature

One of the best known examples of an oxymoron in literature can be found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene I):

Oxymoron example in literature
Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created,
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.

Here, the extensive use of oxymorons expresses Romeo’s bewilderment at the opposing emotions and internal contradictions inherent to his experience of love.

Do you want to know more about commas, parts of speech, email, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Verbs

Nouns

Rhetoric

Present participle

Concrete noun

Simile

Linking verb

Common noun

Double entendre

Auxiliary verb

Abstract noun

Sibilance

Simple present tense

Proper noun

Cliché

Modal verb

Appositive

Paraprosdokian


Frequently asked questions about oxymorons

Can an oxymoron be unintentional?

While an oxymoron is typically deliberate, in some cases it can be unintentional. These unintentional oxymorons often arise in everyday language.

For example, when someone says “act natural” without realizing that “natural” implies an unforced state. Although not created for rhetorical effect, unintentional oxymorons can still convey meaning in a way that captures attention or adds humor.

What is the difference between juxtaposition and an oxymoron?

Juxtaposition and oxymorons are both literary devices that involve contrasting elements; however, they differ in scope and function.

  • In juxtaposition, a writer places two or more ideas, characters, or images side by side to highlight the differences and similarities between them. The interpretation of this relationship is up to the audience. A juxtaposition can span one line or an entire story, depending on the contrasted elements.
  • An oxymoron, on the other hand, involves combining two words or ideas with opposing meanings. Unlike juxtaposition, an oxymoron always involves a degree of contradiction within the combination of terms.

In other words, juxtaposition is about placing elements so as to compare them, while an oxymoron involves the deliberate combination of contradictory terms.

What is an example of an oxymoron?

An example of an oxymoron is the phrase “serious joke.” It combines two contradictory words that usually have different meanings.

  • “Serious” typically means having a solemn or serious attitude.
  • A “joke” is meant to be funny or lighthearted and should not be taken seriously.

The oxymoron “serious joke” combines these contrasting terms to create a paradoxical expression. This invites the audience to think about how seriousness and humor can be blended together in one concept.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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