This article is about the contradiction in terms. For the punk band, see Oxymoron (band). For the album by rapper Schoolboy Q, see Oxymoron (album).

An oxymoron (usual plural oxymorons, more rarely oxymora) is a rhetorical device that uses an ostensible self-contradiction to illustrate a rhetorical point or to reveal a paradox.[1] A more general meaning of "contradiction in terms" (not necessarily for rhetoric effect) is recorded by the OED for 1902.

The term is first recorded as latinized Greek oxymōrum, in Maurus Servius Honoratus (c. AD 400);[2] it is derived from the Greek ὀξύς oksús "sharp, keen, pointed" and μωρός mōros "dull, stupid, foolish",[3] as it were "sharp-dull", or "clever-dumb" (or maybe better paraphrased as "pointedly incongruous"[4]), such that the word oxymoron is autological, i.e. it is itself an example of an oxymoron (the Greek compound ὀξύμωρον (oksúmōron) which would correspond to the Latin formation does not appear to have existed prior to the formation of the Latin term[5]).


Types and examplesEdit

Oxymorons in the narrow sense are a rhetorical device used deliberately by the speaker, and intended to be understood as such by the listener. In a more extended sense, the term "oxymoron" has also been applied to inadvertent or incidential contradictions, as in the case of "dead metaphors" ("barely clothed", "terribly good"). Lederer (1990), in the spirit of "recreational linguistics", goes as far as to construct "logological oxymorons" such as reading the word nook as composed of "no" and "ok" or the surname Noyes as composed of "no" plus "yes", or far-fetched punning such as "divorce court" or "press release".[6] There are a number of single-word oxymorons built from "dependent morphemes"[6] (i.e. no longer a productive compound in English, but loaned as a compound from a different language), as with pre-posterous (lit. "with the hinder part before", compare husteron proteron, "upside-down", "head over heels", ass-backwards" etc.)[7] or sopho-more (an artificial Greek compound, lit. "wise-foolish").

The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjectivenoun combination of two words, but they can also be devised in the meaning of sentences or phrases. A classical example of the use of oxymorons in English literature is from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo declares:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Shakespeare heaps up many more oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet in particular ("Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical! Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish-ravening lamb! Despised substance of divinest show!" etc.) and has numerous others in his other plays, e.g. "I must be cruel only to be kind" (Hamlet), "fearful bravery" (Julius Caesar), "good mischief" (The Tempest), and in his sonnets, e.g. "tender churl", "gentle thief". Other examples from English-language literature include: "hateful good" (Chaucer, translating odibile bonum)[8] "proud humility" (Spenser),[9] "darkness visible" (Milton), "beggarly riches" (John Donne),[10] "damn with faint praise" (Pope),[11] "expressive silence" (Thomson, echoing Cicero's cum tacent clamant), "melancholy merriment" (Byron), "faith unfaithful", "falsely true" (Tennyson),[12] "conventionally unconventional", "tortuous spontaneity" (Henry James)[13] "delighted sorrow", "loyal treachery", "scalding coolness" (Hemingway).[14]

In literary contexts, the author does not usually signal the use of an oxymoron, but in rhetorical usage, it has become common practice to advertise the use of an oxymoron explicitly to clarify the argument, as in:

"Voltaire [...] we might call, by an oxymoron which has plenty of truth in it, an 'Epicurean pessimist.'" (Quarterly Review vol. 170 (1890), p. 289)

In this example, "Epicurean pessimist" would be recognized as an oxymoron in any case, as the core tenet of Epicureanism is equanimity (which would preclude any sort of pessimist outlook). However, the explicit advertisement of the use of oxymorons opened up a sliding scale of less than obvious construction, ending in the "opinion oxymorons" such as "business ethics".

J. R. R. Tolkien interpreted his own surname as derived from the Low German equivalent of dull-keen (High German toll-kühn) which would be a literal equivalent of Greek oxy-moron.[15]

"Comical oxymoron"Edit

"Comical oxymoron" is a term for the claim, for comical effect, that a certain phrase or expression is an oxymoron (called "opinion oxymorons" by Lederer (1990)[6]). The humour derives from implying that an assumption (which might otherwise be expected to be controversial or at least non-evident) is so obvious as to be part of the lexicon. An example of such a "comical oxymoron" is "educational television": the humour derives entirely from the claim that it is an oxymoron by the implication that "television" is so trivial as to be inherently incompatible with "education".[16] Garry Wills (2010) accused William F. Buckley of popularising this trend, based on the success of the latter's claim that "an intelligent liberal is an oxymoron"[year needed].[17]

Examples popularized by comedian George Carlin[year needed] include "military intelligence" (a play on the lexical meanings of the term "intelligence", implying that "military" inherently excludes the presence of "intelligence") and "business ethics" (similarly implying that the mutual exclusion of the two terms is evident or commonly understood rather than the partisan anti-corporate position). Similarly, the term "civil war" is sometimes jokingly as an "oxymoron" (punning on the lexical meanings of the word "civil").[18]

Other examples include "healthful Mexican food" (1989),[19] "affordable caviar" (1993)[20], "Microsoft Works" (2000).[21]

Antonym pairsEdit

Further information: Antonym

Listing of antonyms, as in "good and evil", "male and female", "great and small", etc. are not oxymorons, as it is not implied that any given object has the two opposing properties simultaneously. In some languages, it is not necessary to place a conjunction like and between the two antonyms; such compounds (not necessarily of antonyms) are known as dvandvas (a term taken from Sanskrit grammar). For example, in Chinese, compounds like 男女 (man and woman, male and female, gender), 陰陽 (yin and yang), 善悪 (good and evil, morality) are used to indicate couples, ranges, or the trait that these are extremes of. The Italian pianoforte or fortepiano is an example from a Western language; the term is short for gravicembalo col piano e forte, as it were "harpiscord with a range of different volumes", implying that it is possible to play both soft and loud (as well as intermediate) notes, not that the sound produced is somehow simultaneously "soft and loud".

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis" OED
  2. ^ Honoratus on Aeneid 7.295, num capti potuere capi (in the voice of Juno) "Could captured slaves not be enslaved again?" (William 1910): capti potuere capi, cum felle dictum est: nam si hoc removeas, erit oxymorum. "the captured can be captured: said with bitterness, for if you were to remove that, it would be oxymorum." see H. Klingenberg in Birkmann et al. (ed.), FS Werner, de Gruyter (1997), p. 143. Lewis, Charlton T.; Short, Charles (1879). "A Latin Dictionary". Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved 27 October 2015. acutely silly: oxymora verba, expressions which at first sight appear absurd, but which contain a concealed point; so especially of such apparently contradictory assertions as: cum tacent clamant, etc. 
  3. ^ ὀξύς in Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940) A Greek–English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Jones, Sir Henry Stuart, with the assistance of McKenzie, Roderick. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University., μωρός in Liddell and Scott.
  4. ^ "To claim [“sharply foolish” (or “shrewd dumbness”)] as the word’s original meaning would be overly literal. A closer interpretation would be “pointedly incongruous.”" Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, Grammarphobia blog, 9 December 2010.
  5. ^ ὀξύμωρος in Liddell and Scott Retrieved 2013-02-26. "oxymoron |accessdate 26 February 2013". Oxford English Dictionary. 
  6. ^ a b c Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics (1990), online version:
  7. ^ "closely related to hysteron proteron, it should't be ass backward, which is the proper arrangement of one's anatomy, to describe things all turned around. For that state of disarray the expression should be ass frontward." Richard Lederer, Amazing Words (2012), p. 107.
  8. ^ "Poverte is hate[fu]l good", glossed Secundus philosophus: paupertas odibile bonum; the saying is recorded by Vincent of Beauvais as attributed to Secundus the Silent (also referenced in Piers Plowman). Walter William Skeat (ed.), Notes on the Canterbury Tales (Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer vol. 5, 1894), p. 321.
  9. ^ Epithalamion (1595), of feminine virtue, echoed by Milton as "modest pride". Joshua Scodel, Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature (2009), p. 267.
  10. ^ Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, (1624)
  11. ^ Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1734)
  12. ^ Idylls of the King: "And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."
  13. ^ The Lesson of the Master (1888)
  14. ^ Geneviève Hily-Mane , Le style de Ernest Hemingway: la plume et le masque (1983), p. 169.
  15. ^ see e.g. Adam Roberts, ^The Riddles of The Hobbit (2013), p. 164f; J.R. Holmes in J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (2007), p. 53. It has been suggested that the actual etymology of the Tolkien surname is more likely from the village of Tolkynen in Rastenburg, East Prussia. M. Mechow, Deutsche Familiennamen preussischer Herkunft (1994), p. 99.
  16. ^ "Hosted for 33 years by the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., the show [Firing Line taped its final installment [... in 1999.] The show was spawned in the earnest mid-'60s, before popular culture swallowed up the middlebrow and 'educational TV' became a comical oxymoron." Time Volume 154, Issues 18-27 (1999), p. 126.
  17. ^ According to Wills, Buckley has "poisoned the general currency" of the word oxymoron by using it as just a "fancier word for 'contradiction'", when he said that "an intelligent liberal is an oxymoron". Wills argues that use of the term "oxymoron" should remain reserved for the conscious use of contradiction to express something that is "surprisingly true". "Wills watching by Michael McDonald". The New Criterion. Retrieved 2012-03-27.  "Daredevil - Garry Wills". The Atlantic. 2009-07-01. Retrieved 2012-03-27.  However, the usage of "oxymoron" for "contradiction" is recorded by the OED from the year 1902 onward.
  18. ^ discussed by L. Coltheart in Moira Gatens, Alison Mackinnon (eds.), Gender and Institutions: Welfare, Work and Citizenship (1998), p. 131, but already alluded to in 1939 by John Dover Wilson in his edition of William Shakespeare's King Richard II (p. 193), in reference to the line The King of Heaven forbid our lord the king / Should so with civil and uncivil arms Be rushed upon! :"A quibbling oxymoron: 'civil' refers to civil war; 'uncivil' = barbarous".
  19. ^ referenced in the negative: "'Healthful' and 'Mexican food' need not be an oxymoron" (Texas Monthly, 1989)
  20. ^ "This opened up an oxymoron too dreadful to contemplate: affordable caviar" (The Guardian, 1993).
  21. ^ Lisa Marie Meier, A Treasury of Email Humor, Volume 1 (2000), p. 45.
  • Shen, Yeshayahu (1987). "On the structure and understanding of poetic oxymoron". Poetics Today. 8 (1): 105–122. doi:10.2307/1773004. JSTOR 1773004. 

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