AskDefine | Define oxymoron

Dictionary Definition

oxymoron n : conjoining contradictory terms (as in `deafening silence') [also: oxymora (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



From oxymoron, from ὀξύμωρον, from ὀξύς + μωρός


  • (UK): /ɒksɪˈmɔ:rɒn/, /QksI"mO:rQn/
  • (US): , /ɑksɪˈmɔrɑn/, /AksI"mOrAn/


  1. A figure of speech in which two words of opposing meanings are used together to express two contrasting qualities in one concept.
    "Bitter-sweet" is an example of an oxymoron; memories that are bitter-sweet are both painful and pleasant to recall.
  2. In the context of "loosely|nonstandard": A contradiction in terms.
  3. A paradoxical juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory words.

Usage notes

  • The standard meaning of oxymoron is the figure of speech described here, in which the contradiction is deliberate. In a contradiction in terms, the contradiction is unintentional and the person using the word is often unaware of it. Use of oxymoron in the latter sense obscures the standard meaning of the word and so is avoided by careful speakers and writers. (See the Wikipedia article.)


figure of speech
  • Czech: oxymóron
  • French: oxymore
  • German: Oxymoron
  • Greek: οξύμωρο σχήμα (oxýmoro schíma)
  • Greek, Ancient: ὀξύμωρον (oxymōron, n.)
  • Icelandic: refhvörf
  • Italian: ossimoro
  • Latin: oxymorum
  • Portuguese: oxímoro
  • Romanian: oximoron
  • Slovak: oxymorón
  • Spanish: oxímoron
  • Swedish: oxymoron, självmotsägelse
  • Turkish: oksimoron
contradiction in terms See contradiction in terms

External links

  • Online list of oxymorons (most of which are oxymorons in the nonstandard sense of "contradiction in terms", and some being only contradictions in terms by virtue of puns; claimed to be the largest such online list)

Extensive Definition

An oxymoron (plural oxymorons or, more rarely, oxymora) is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms. Oxymoron is a loanword from Greek oxy ("sharp" or "pointed") and moros ("dull"). Thus the word oxymoron is, by definition, an oxymoron.
Oxymorons are a proper subset of the expressions called contradictions in terms. What distinguishes oxymorons from other paradoxes and contradictions is that they are used intentionally, for rhetorical effect, and the contradiction is only apparent, as the combination of terms provides a novel expression of some concept, such as "cruel to be kind".
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"
Oxymorons can also be wooden irons in that they are in violation of the Principle of contradiction which asserts that nothing can be thought if it contains contradictory characteristics, predicates, attributes, or qualities.

Types of Oxymoron

Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymorons in an article in Word Ways in 1990, 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).


Often a writer will use an oxymoron in order to deliberately call attention to a contradiction. Richard Feynman, for example, in his lectures on physics, spends a chapter discussing "dry water" Clearly, he could have used a different phrase, such as perhaps "hydrodynamics of fluids in the limiting case of viscosity approaching zero," but the deliberate contradiction of the phrase "dry water" both adds humor to his otherwise-dry analysis, and also emphasizes the fact that the substance he is discussing is theoretical and not real.
Some examples of deliberate oxymorons include:
Oxymorons are most tellingly employed in injecting a sense of ironic, ostensibly unintended, humor. The effect is to confront the reader or the listener with a sense of ludicrousness so as to render the whole sentence and the idea absurd and funny. It should be remembered that this is a purely subjective line of thinking and presupposes that the reader or listener is already familiar with the intended humor. Examples of such thought-provoking oxymorons include:
  • Orphans of the Living - children in the foster-parent system.
  • "Poet in residence in absentia" - a title granted to a poet, at his own request, by a university.
  • Evolution Sunday/Weekend, a Christian service conducted to celebrate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Popular oxymorons

In popular usage, the term oxymoron is sometimes used more loosely, in the sense of a simple contradiction in terms. Often, it is then applied to expressions which, unlike real oxymorons, are used in full earnest and without any sense of paradox by many speakers in everyday language. Comedian George Carlin brought many of these to popular attention in his album "Toledo Window Box" and in his live comedy routines.
  • "With all deliberate speed" (i.e. "go quickly slowly")
  • Pretty ugly
  • Alone together
  • Icy Hot
  • Start Stopping
  • Agree to Disagree
  • Liberal conservative
  • Same difference
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Random Order
  • Dumb genius
  • Organized Chaos
  • civil war
  • not to mention...
  • bitter sweet
  • expect the unexpected
  • love/hate relationship
  • mini giant
  • freezer burn
Many collected lists of oxymorons are available, for example, at and
Very often the labeling of an expression as a perceived oxymoron is made on the basis of substituting an alternative, non-intended meaning for the meaning normally intended in the context of the expression in question. For instance, in the expression Civil war, the term civil is normally intended to mean "between citizens of the same state". In this sense, the expression is neither paradox nor self-contradictory. However, if civil is construed as 'non-military' or 'reasonable and polite', the expression is a contradiction in terms (as per satirist Richard Armour in It All Started with Columbus, who said the American Civil War was fought politely). Such designations of alleged oxymorons are often made with a humorous purpose. Alternatively, an oxymoron may occur when a word or phrase changes meaning. Few people today pay attention to the inherent contradiction in eating with "plastic silverwear" or drinking from "a plastic glass," because the word "silverware" has come to mean eating utensils of any composition, and "glass" is commonly used to refer to any cup from which one can drink.

Oxymoron use as Opinion

Calling such an expression an oxymoron is sometimes done in order to disparage its use, by drawing attention to a perceived inherent contradiction and thus claiming it to be nonsensical. Often this kind of argument is used in domains of political or ideological dispute, or in order to criticize a perceived nonsensical use of technical terms by lay people who fail to understand their true meanings. Examples of expressions that are used without a sense of paradox by some but have been claimed to be "oxymorons" in this sense by critics include:
A more subtle rhetorical manoeuvre in designating an expression XY as an "oxymoron", often used for either humorous or polemical purposes, is to pick out a perceived or alleged property of objects of type Y, re-construe that property as if it were a defining criterion of Y, and then demonstrate that it is contradicted by X. For instance, to claim "honest politician" is an oxymoron implies politicians are inherently dishonest.
Both the above strategies can be seen combined in an example like military intelligence, one of the many humorous oxymorons popularized by George Carlin; it carries an implies a political judgment, that the military by its nature cannot be intelligent. The term "intelligence" is re-construed as meaning not "information gathering" but "intellectual power." The Thrash Metal band Megadeth commented on the phrase in their highly acclaimed song, Hangar 18: "Military Intelligence, two words combined that can't make sense".
For instance, some oxymorons used in this manner to disparage or arouse humor include:
  • Government organization
  • Military Intelligence
  • Microsoft Works
  • Sane Fangirl
  • Bicycle safety
  • Honest Politician
  • War on Drugs

Use in drama

Oxymorons are used in Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' when Romeo is describing to Benvolio how much he loves Rosaline:
Romeo. 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 uses oxymorons after having found out about her cousin's death at the hands of Romeo she says:
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


  • Greek Grammar
oxymoron in Bulgarian: Оксиморон
oxymoron in Catalan: Oxímoron
oxymoron in Czech: Oxymóron
oxymoron in Danish: Oxymoron
oxymoron in German: Oxymoron
oxymoron in Spanish: Oxímoron
oxymoron in Esperanto: Oksimoro
oxymoron in French: Oxymore
oxymoron in Galician: Oxímoron
oxymoron in Korean: 모순어법
oxymoron in Croatian: Oksimoron
oxymoron in Ido: Oximoro
oxymoron in Italian: Ossimoro
oxymoron in Hebrew: אוקסימורון
oxymoron in Luxembourgish: Oxymoron
oxymoron in Lithuanian: Oksimoronas
oxymoron in Hungarian: Oximoron
oxymoron in Macedonian: Оксиморон
oxymoron in Dutch: Oxymoron (stijlfiguur)
oxymoron in Japanese: 撞着語法
oxymoron in Norwegian: Selvmotsigelse
oxymoron in Occitan (post 1500): Oximoron
oxymoron in Polish: Oksymoron
oxymoron in Portuguese: Oximoro
oxymoron in Russian: Оксюморон
oxymoron in Simple English: Oxymoron
oxymoron in Slovak: Oxymoron
oxymoron in Finnish: Oksymoron
oxymoron in Swedish: Självmotsägelse
oxymoron in Thai: ปฏิพจน์
oxymoron in Turkish: Oksimoron
oxymoron in Ukrainian: Оксюморон

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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