An oxymoron is a literary or rhetorical device in which two contradictory terms are used together for emphasis or poetic effect or to arrive at a unique meaning. A few of the most commonly cited ones are deafening silence, living dead, open secret, and controlled chaos. The word came to English via Latin from Greek, where it came from an adjective meaning pointedly foolish.

English speakers are free to pluralize oxymoron in the Latin manner—oxymora—and some do, but the word has been in English many centuries and its English plural, oxymorons, is well established and far more common than the Latin one.

An oxymoron is a rhetorical device usually used intentionally, so, strictly speaking, it is not simply a synonym of contradiction, and it shouldn’t refer to a contradictory situation. It also shouldn’t refer to phrases that become unintentionally contradictory when considered a certain way (civil war and government worker, for instance). Yet these uses of the word are widespread and can’t be stopped, so even though we might question how the word is used in the following examples, these writers are just going along with popular usage:

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 a school of thought that “Knicks management” is, in fact, an oxymoron[Guardian]

9 thoughts on “Oxymoron”

  1. Hi not a teacher,
    when two contradictory words are put side by side with good effect it is called an OXYMORON.

    Hence your example of someone being difficult is not an OXYMORON.
    You can see this:
    -He is unkindly kind.
    -Kings too tame are despicably good.
    -The idle busy roll their weary away.
    Keery Lee hope it helps.

        • “The package the scissors came in seemed designed to require scissors to open them – quite the paradox.” would be a colloquial use of paradox.

          “This sentence is untrue.” is a classic logical paradox.

          Paradoxes are often found in science fiction relating to time travel – the classic one is “if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he has had children, therefore you could not have been born. If you had not been born, then you could not have gone back in time to kill your grandfather, therefore you did not kill your grandfather, and you were born.” (As referenced in “Back to the Future” with the “you are responsible for your parents never becoming a couple” storyline.)

          An oxymoron is a purposefully contradictory statement. Generally used humorously. And sometimes referenced humorously for statements that may not technically be an oxymoron, using common secondary meanings to words that cause them to seem to be an oxymoron. (As in “jumbo shrimp” – referencing the secondary meaning of “shrimp” meaning “small”.)

  2. Lists can be found online of humorous oxymora–in the non-poetic sense of “mutually exclusive terms”– including one famously put out by George Carlin. Personal favorites include “military intelligence,” “head-butt,” “marijuana initiative,” and “Microsoft Works.”


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