Getting Smart About Oxymorons

1 min read

Who are you calling an oxymoron?? OK, now that we've gotten the obvious joke out of the way, let's talk about this useful linguistic tool. Despite the name, an oxymoron isn't an insult — it's a figure of speech that uses opposing words for emphasis.

Think: act naturally, proud humility, deafening silence. These contradictions serve to make someone pause and think about the effect of the words. Other times, they add a little drama for listeners or readers. Instead of creating conflict, the oddity of an oxymoronic pair of words just works.

Why Use Oxymorons?

A true oxymoron is created deliberately. The creator intends to produce a rhetorical effect, or they want to uncover a deeper meaning for the reader or listener. A well-chosen oxymoron expresses contradiction to show the push-pull of emotions. Finally, it might add a touch of humor to your words.

Examples of Oxymorons

Oxymorons aren't limited to certain parts of speech. An oxymoron can be a single word, or it can be an adjective-noun pairing, or an adverb-verb selection. Maybe even two adjectives working together. Try to spice up your writing with a few of our favorite oxymorons:

  • Alone together
  • Amazingly awful
  • Clearly confused
  • Bittersweet
  • Definitely, maybe (Yeah, no)
  • Dim light
  • Farewell reception
  • Growing smaller
  • Jumbo shrimp
  • Only choice
  • Open secret
  • Original copy
  • Painfully beautiful
  • Passive aggressive
  • Random order
  • Small crowd
  • Sweet sorrow
  • True myth
  • Walking dead
  • Weirdly normal

Some Famous Oxymorons

Classic literature is also chock full of this opposing figure of speech:

From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“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!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.”

From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Lancelot and Elaine”:

“The shackles of an old love straitened him,
His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

Photo credit: Jackson Douglas/ Unsplash

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