An oxymoron (AHX-ee-MORE-ahn), from the Greek for “pointedly foolish” or “dully sharp,” is a contradiction in terms. It seems illogical on its face, as the basic construction is word + antonymic (the opposite of that word) modifier; for example, minor crisis, as the former means “little or insignificant” while the latter can mean “emergency.” As its etymology suggests, oxymorons are often used for humor, especially satire.
Different types of oxymoron are used to produce different effects: sometimes they’re pointed, sometimes they’re funny, and sometimes they’re mean-spirited.
Daria Morgendorffer, the bright but sardonic title character of the hit 1990s teen cartoon, once said to her trendy younger sister, Quinn, “Sometimes, your shallowness is so thorough, it’s almost like depth.” Shallowness means “lacking depth,” thus saying it has depth is oxymoronic.
If a newly painted room is overwhelmingly dreary, one might call it “bright grey.” Grey is an inherently dull color, so to call it bright doesn’t make logical sense.
Oxymorons and “Proxymorons”
Some writers can wield this literary device with intent and success, and some seem to stumble into it. However, not all oxymorons are what they seem.
When asked to cite an oxymoron, many people mention the phrase jumbo shrimp. However, this phrase is not an oxymoron in the strictest sense. While the crustaceans are synonymous with tininess—to the point that shrimp is often used as a pejorative term—a jumbo shrimp is literally twice the size of a standard shrimp, so it’s not an oxymoron.
A supposed oxymoron can be comprised of antonyms, such as pretty ugly. Pretty as an adjective means “attractive,” and ugly is its opposite. In this case, though, pretty is an adverb meaning “quite,” so it’s not a true oxymoron.
A writer or speaker may intentionally tout a non-oxymoron as an oxymoron for the sake of satire. This is common in political commentary. For example, conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr., famously claimed that “an intelligent liberal is an oxymoron,” while stand-up comedian George Carlin claimed the same of “military intelligence.”
Oxymoron vs. Paradox
Where an oxymoron sets up a contradiction for the purpose of satire, a paradox presents an apparent contradiction that is somehow essentially true. A paradox may be longer than an oxymoron, which is typically two contradictory words. Paradoxes can contain a grain of truth, whereas oxymorons don’t make literal sense at all. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” from George Orwell’s 1984, is an example of paradox.
Oxymoron vs. Comparative Devices
Comparisons list two things’ similarities, while oxymorons propose a single hybrid thing that cannot exist. “Flowers and solar panels both love the sun” is a comparison. Literary devices like simile and metaphor are example of comparatives.
In similes, a comparative figure of speech using like or as, the predicate describes the subject: “love is like oxygen.” Similarly, metaphor juxtaposes two seemingly unlike things in an exact comparison: “She’s an angel.” These devices help readers understand a concept by pointing out its similarity to a known entity. Oxymorons, meanwhile, provide little to no clarity or context for the passage or work at large.
Examples of Oxymoron in Literature
1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare often uses oxymorons. For example, when Juliet says, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she is expressing her complex feelings. The affection and intimacy of saying goodbye to someone you love is sweet; leaving them (especially when you don’t know when you’ll meet again) is sorrowful.
The following excerpt is often used as a literary example of oxymoron. But because the contradictions presented are intended to illustrate genuine emotional confusion, the argument isn’t so cut and dry:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen 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.
The phrases loving hate, heavy lightness, bright smoke, cold fire, and sick health are all oxymorons.
2. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
These lines from Tennyson’s poetic cycle about King Arthur and his court are also regularly cited as examples of oxymoron:
The shackles of love straiten’d him
His honour rooted in dishonour stood
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true
Taken at face value and out of context, “honour rooted in dishonour” and “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true” are oxymoronic. But, consider Sir Lancelot’s position in the story here. He cannot remain true to both his best friend, Arthur, and his lover, Guinevere, at the same time; to do right by one is to wrong the other. So, while oxymoronic in nature, this is a fair description of his dilemma.
Further Resources on Oxymorons
For some serious fun, check out 100 Awfully Good Examples of Oxymorons on ThoughtCo.
“Political Oxymorons — the Birthplace of Brilliant” by Peter Paskale touches on the prevalence of oxymoron in political discourse—particularly how its (often accidental) use by one side of the fence is criticized by the other—and defends the device’s value.
“In praise of … the oxymoron” by Gary Nunn also celebrates the device’s use by providing some of the writer’s favorite instances.
- Figurative Language
- Figure of Speech