An oxymoron (plural "oxymora") (noun) is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms (e.g. "deafening silence"). Oxymoron is a Greek term derived from oxy ("sharp") and moros ("dull"). Oxymora are a proper subset of the expressions called contradiction in terms. What distinguishes oxymora 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.

The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjectivenoun combination. For example, the following line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King contains two oxymora:

"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true"


Deliberate Use of Oxymoron

  • "O miserable abundance, O beggarly riches!" John Donne, Devotions on Emergent Occasions
  • "I do here make humbly bold to present them with a short account of themselves... " Jonathan Swift
  • "The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head..." Alexander Pope
  • "He was now sufficiently composed to order a funeral of modest magnificence..." Samuel Johnson
  • "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!" William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene 1
  • "It was the best of times, It was the worst of times." Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Examples of Perceived Oxymoron

There is a class of expressions that are often labeled oxymora but are actually not. Rather, the speaker retrofits the concept of the oxymoron onto the term, often intending humor from the resulting observation. Usually such perceived oxymora depend on substitution of an alternate meaning for the noun in the phrase (e.g. "old news", where the word "news" is interpreted as "new" rather than "information"). Further examples:

  • extensive briefings
  • random order
  • detailed summary
  • jumbo shrimp
  • government initiative
  • corporate responsibility
  • open secret
  • civil war
  • phantom samaritan
  • sharp curves
  • pretty ugly
  • Utah Jazz

Some humorists create jokes around such perceived oxymora; some examples:

  • military intelligence
  • corporate ethics
  • Microsoft Works
  • Creation Science
  • Norwegian Modesty

A well known oxymoron phrase is:

"One long day in the middle of the night,
Two dead men came out to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other"

Indeed, in recent usage it has become fashionable to refer to any contradiction at all as an "oxymoron", especially in this facetious sense. For example, if someone refers to "an honest politician", someone else might respond, "Now there's an oxymoron!" This used to be referred to as a "contradiction in terms". The fashion may have arisen because "oxymoron" sounded more exotic or learned than "contradiction", but its widespread use in this sense is based on a misunderstanding of the original, literary meaning of "oxymoron" which implies an artful use of a contradiction for effect. At the moment, current dictionaries appear to mention only the original sense of "oxymoron", but it is possible that in future the distinction will be blurred, and the original meaning of "oxymoron" will be lost.

The American author Richard Lederer made an extensive list of oxymora in his book Crazy English.

See also

External links

es:Oxmoron fr:Oxymore it:Ossimoro he:אוקסימורון nl:Oxymoron pl:Oksymoron ru:Оксюморон simple:Oxymoron sv:Oxymoron


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