Think back to your days in English class, and you might remember learning about the oxymoron. But even if those days are long behind you, we still come across these phrases in our everyday language.

Adding oxymorons to your writing is one of the best ways to inject some humor or sarcasm into your work—in fact, it’s a literary tactic that’s been used for hundreds of years. If you can’t quite remember what an oxymoron is, we’re here to give you a quick definition along with a few examples to trigger those literary memories.

What Is an Oxymoron?

First, let’s review a quick oxymoron definition. Simply put, an oxymoron is a phrase that uses two opposite and seemingly contradictory words. Taken literally, the phrases make no real sense. But over years of using them, we’ve come to understand that they shouldn’t be read at face value, so each phrase takes on its own unique meaning.

While any pair of opposite-meaning words can make an oxymoron, the typical structure is an adjective-noun combination. The adjective will usually provide a positive or negative association towards the noun, and the noun itself gives the opposite connotation to the adjective. Phrases like “faint praise” or “deafening silence” are good examples of this construction.

The overall aim is to emphasize the noun with a strong, opposite adjective. The resulting phrase helps to build dramatic effect or create a playful tone within a more complex idea. That’s why oxymorons are often used in speeches to add humor, sarcasm, or irony. 

Writers of all genres have used them for hundreds of years in their plays, poems, and novels to add drama or suspense or to reveal deeper meanings within their work.

For instance, the phrase, “it’s the only choice” is contradictory—only means one, but choice suggests more than one. By using the two words together, writers can ramp up the tension by suggesting that their characters are being backed into a corner.

You’ve probably heard of or seen oxymoron examples everywhere, from media and published works to conversations in your daily life. But because they’re so commonly used, we never really stop to think about them. 

To those who may use English as a second language, oxymorons can be quite confusing. But to native speakers, we accept them as part of our normal pattern of speech and language. 

Phrases like “bittersweet,” “spendthrift,” and “wholesome” are all oxymoronic single words that we use frequently without even noticing that, literally speaking, they’re completely at odds with each other. But instead of thinking about how they’re made up of opposites, these words have come to develop their own definitions and meanings.

Types of Oxymoron

Although there aren’t necessarily “types” of oxymorons, you may see people refer to phrases as part of a collection of oxymoronic terms. For example, “honest politician,” “educational television,” “act naturally,” and “business ethics” may all be considered as comical or comedic oxymorons. 

In each of these phrases, there’s the inherent assumption that, in addition to being opposite, the two words cannot be true at the same time and so are put together to create a humorous effect.

Poetic oxymorons are used in a similar way, expressing emotion and thoughts in ways the noun alone can’t convey. 

Shakespeare was a big fan of using oxymorons in this way. Romeo declares his love for Juliet in a string of oxymoronic phrases in Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet by saying, ”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.”

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Examples of Oxymorons

  • Oxymorons are often used to express emotions or feelings on a deeper level, such as “good grief,” “intense apathy,” “joyful sadness,” or “sad smile.”
  • You may also see oxymorons used to describe personalities or character traits, like “cheerful pessimist,” “deceptively honest,” “militant pacifist,” “pretty ugly,” or even “student teacher.”
  • Famous author J.R.R. Tolkein believed that his own name was an oxymoron—in German, Tolkein translates to “tollkühn” or “foolhardy,” while the etymological translation to English is “dull keen.” How apt for one of the world’s greatest writers!
  • Oxymorons also come up in songwriting more often than you’d think! “New, old-fashioned way” from the Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “All your perfect imperfections” in John Legend’s “All of Me” are just a few.
  • Think back to your days at school. You’ve likely heard the phrase “zero tolerance” uttered a few times when it comes to talking in class or even using your phone!
  • What about oxymorons that you’ve probably used yourself once or twice? You might have once said, “Well, it’s the same difference” when arguing with someone or told a child to “climb down” from a tree.

Oxymorons in Poetry and Literature

  • You can find oxymorons throughout most of Shakespeare’s work, from Juliet’s goodbye to Romeo of “Parting is such sweet sorrow” to “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus / And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • In his work Don Juan, Byron uses the phrase “melancholy merriment” to describe the mixture of feelings between sadness and happiness.
  • Classic literature is full of individuals using oxymoron in dialogue and authors building in oxymoronic phrases to describe their characters. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, the narrator Holden Caulfield says, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.”
  • George Orwell used oxymorons to great effect in his satirical works. His most famous piece, Animal Farm, uses the idea of “more equal” to discuss which animals are worthy of saving over others.
  • Titles of books often feature oxymorons to add intrigue. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Open Secrets by Alice Munro, and Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart are all oxymoronic. 

Oxymorons vs. Paradoxes

While both look similar, it’s important to understand the difference between a paradox and an oxymoron. The former is usually a more open-ended statement or longer compilation of words that express an opposing thought or idea (think Dolly Parton saying, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” Oxymorons, on the other hand, are made up of one or two words next to or near each other to create a single, contradictory phrase.

You’re an Awfully Good Writer! 

Now that you’ve seen a few oxymoron examples, there’s nothing stopping you from working a few into your next poem or short story. 

Whether you’re going for something that’s almost exactly like famous poets Shakespeare and Byron or find that your only choice is to use oxymorons as satire like Orwell, using this literary device can bring a whole new dimension to your writing.

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Written By

Holly Landis

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