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What is an oxymoron?

Basically, an oxymoron is a phrase or figure of speech that takes two words together that appear to have opposite meanings, i.e., a contradiction in terms.

Oxymoron comes from two words in Greek: oxy, meaning sharp, and moros, meaning dull. These are two opposites - so you could say the word oxymoron is an oxymoron!
The plural for oxymoron is oxymora.

When is it used?
Some oxymorons are found in common day language, such as "white chocolate" (these are two different colours, although the term chocolate is actually meant to be the food chocolate, and not the colour chocolate), or "pianoforte" (this means soft-loud). Writers often use oxymorons intended to create an ironic sense of humour or to create puns. They can also use oxymorons to emphasize certain qualities or ideas, or even to confuse the reader.

Some common examples of oxymorons

They may not seem contradictory - in fact, they will make sense if you understand the context of the expression. However, when taken at face value in terms of each word's separate definition, you will be able to notice the contradiction.

  • a deafening silence

  • the living dead

  • "start stopping"

  • resident alien

  • small crowd

  • silent alarm

  • mercy killing

  • friendly fire

  • holy war

  • plastic glass

  • black light

  • act naturally

  • same difference

  • constant change

Oxymorons used for humour

Often words will be put together and used as oxymorons for editorial comments, whether for political or ideological purposes. For example, if you say the phrase "honest politician" is an oxymoron, then you are implying that politicans are inherently dishonest. This is intended to be humorous, yet it still makes a political comment.

There are other similar oxymorons which are used in this way. See if you can understand the editorial comment they are trying to convey:

  • government organization

  • responsible government

  • military intelligence

  • Microsoft Works

  • honest lawyer

Uses in Literature

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Romeo makes many oxymorons when describing his love of Rosaline to Benvolio:

"Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything of nothing first create,
A heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead…"

Juliet also makes some oxymorons when she finds about Romeo killing her cousin.

"O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical'
Dove-feathered raven, wolfish ravening lamb'
A damned saint, an honourable villain"

A popular English poet, Alfred Tennyson, makes has two oxymorons within this line of his poem Idylls of the King:

"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true"

You see here the ability of oxymorons to emphasis meaning in literature. What other oxymorons can you think of?


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    May LSat, 13 Sep 2008 05:21:26 -0000

    My personal best is, "pretty ugly".

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    runningfish7Wed, 19 Oct 2011 05:30:37 -0000

    Pretty ugly isnt an oxymoron. In that sense, pretty is referring to a word like kind of, or a bit, or really, its not referring to looks . So the words don't contradict eachother.

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Last Updated At Dec 07, 2012

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