The English language contains phrases and nuances that writers can use to indicate dramatic effects, colorful tones, and ironic statements in their creations. One of the most popular play on words is the oxymoron, a unique set of words that seem oppositional yet make perfect sense in context.
If you are confused, don’t be. Oxymorons are used in everyday language, and understanding their usage is a great way to begin using them more often. Take a look at our guide to oxymorons and examples of some of these popular contradictory words and phrases.
What is an Oxymoron?
Oxymorons are words that contradict each other but, when placed together, create unique words and phrases that make perfect sense. They are figures of speech used to emphasize conflict or support a lighthearted, colorful, and fun mood or tone. The most common oxymorons place an adjective before a noun or an adverb before an adjective or another adverb.
The Purpose of an Oxymoron
Oxymorons create a juxtaposition of words that can create drama and emotion. Their use can also be used to create symbolism and deeper meanings through the introduction of more complex ideas.
The use of two words or phrases that negate one another is a powerful contrast and creates a strong emphasis on a sentence or passage. The use of an oxymoron is unique and amplifies emotions for dramatic effect.
Create a Lighthearted Tone
The opposing forces found in oxymorons can be used to create a funny, lighthearted tone. The fact that they are made up of two contrasting words yet make sense is a humorous way to involve readers in the playfulness of a written passage.
Oxymorons are an excellent way to introduce irony into speech and writing. There are many ways to create an ironic statement using two opposing words in conjunction with one another. Oxymorons used in an ironic sense don’t have to be evident at first and can use alternate associations more specific to the topic’s content.
Express Complex Ideas
Oxymorons are dichotomous and are often used to showcase deeper meanings concerning specific subjects. It makes an audience pause and think more deeply about the context. Many oxymorons reveal a complex or double-sided meaning within a passage.
The Difference Between Oxymoron and Paradox
Oxymorons are commonly confused with paradoxes or are assumed to be the same. Despite being incredibly similar, they are different.
An oxymoron is a combination of two words that are contradictory or opposite. They are not supposed to make literal sense but instead are used to create a dramatic effect and highlight the tone of a particular sentence.
A paradox is one or more phrases or sentences that appear opposite at first but are actually plausible or true. A paradox involves contradictory ideas or events that are unlikely to exist together but work to create an abstract thought. These work to relate opposing ideas rather than words and highlight opinions about particular matters.
Oxymorons have been used for thousands of years, and, in fact, the term is derived from the Greek oxumoros, meaning “sharply dull”—itself an oxymoron. William Shakspeare sprinkled it throughout his creations, and today we use them regularly to create humor and irony or add a dramatic flair to our writing.
Surprisingly, the plural of oxymoron is oxymora, but the anglicized plural oxymorons work just as well, even if your spell check catches it.
List of Oxymoron Examples
There are many examples of oxymorons, and to list them all would take pages of text! But, we’ve included a list of popular common oxymoron phrases that you may already use without knowing. Use these terms to add humor, irony, and drama in writing.
- Unbiased opinion
- Sure bet
- Old news
- Deliberate mistake
- Cruel kindness
- Hateful love
- Original copy
- Controlled chaos
- Irregular pattern
- Open secret
- Terrible beauty
- Crash landing
- Fine mess
- Usually always
- Heavy lightness
- Random order
- Friendly fire
- Definite possibility
- Loud whisper
- Sweet misery
- Working vacation
- Living dead
- Virtual reality
- Silent scream
- Larger half
- Honest thief
- Increasingly less
- Walking dead
- Exact estimate
- Peaceful war
- Wakeful sleep
- Same difference
- Conspicuous absence
- Perfect imperfections
- Friendly foe
- Even odds
- Deafening silence
- Sweet sorrow
- Organized chaos
- Loving hate
- Foolish wisdom
- Virtuous lie
- Open secret
- True lies
- True myth
- Organized mess
- Student teacher
- Wise fool
- Plastic glasses
- Business ethics
Examples of Oxymorons Used In Classic Literature
Oxymorons are also popularly found throughout classic literature. The effect of their use adds to the tone of the work to engage the reader and create emotion. Look at these timeless examples used by some of the greatest authors of all time.
Jack London, The Call of the Wild
“All the pain he had endured was as nothing compared with the exquisite agony of this.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
“Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
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!”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lancelot and Elaine
“His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”
Earnest Hemmingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
“…he felt her, fresh, new and smooth and young and lovely with the warm, scalding coolness.”
Lord Byron, Don Juan: Canto VIII
“Of melancholy merriment, to quote.”
Oxymorons Used in Modern Publications
I think he’s guilty of perjury and “obstructing Congress” (an oxymoron if ever there’s been one), regardless of the jury’s verdict this week. [Poughkeepsie Journal]
The following game-changers might just warm your view of the season and prove that “winter fun” is no oxymoron. [CNN International]
He was an extraordinary oxymoron of visionary and headkicker, with a sense of mission and an admirably clear way of expressing himself. [The Australian]
A democratic renewal led by people who can’t meet the eyes of their fellow citizens is an oxymoron.[Irish Times]
There is a school of thought that “Knicks management” is, in fact, an oxymoron. [Guardian]
Oxymorons are a pair of contradictory terms but work well together to emphasize a playful tone, emotion, and irony. Authors use these word pairings to help draw attention to specific ideas and create contrast and have been used since the ancient Greeks. They are commonly found in some of the most well-known literary works ever published.
We often use oxymorons in everyday speech without being aware that we are doing so. Knowing how and why they are used can help you use them in more meaningful ways.