Oxy–  What? Oxymoron

oxymoron literary device

Curiously, the word oxymoron is an oxymoron itself. It is a combination of the Greek words “oxys” (sharp) and “moros” (dull). An oxymoron has historically been called a “paradox with a point” or “pointedly foolish” because the phrase appears paradoxical or absurd. Due to this oddity in phrasing, oxymorons are some of the most fun word combinations in the English language.

What is Oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two words with contradictory meanings to create a new word or phrase. As seen in the following examples, the most common oxymoron is an adjective followed by a noun but can simply be two adjectives combined into one word:  “bittersweet,” “jumbo shrimp,” “living death,” or “open secret.”

How to pronounce Oxymoron?


What are the Benefits of Using Oxymorons in Your Writing?

While there are a variety of reasons that writers use oxymorons, some of the most common include:

  • The creation of new words
  • To highlight a paradox
  • To illuminate conflict
  • Add irony
  • To create a playful tone
  • To add dramatic effect
  • To showcase the writer’s wit.

The use of an oxymoron is always intentional and there is usually a larger purpose, such as making a larger point or drawing attention to some aspect of the bigger picture.

Oxymoron in Literature 📚

An examination of literature yields numerous examples of oxymoron used in practice. Of course, it comes as no surprise that once again, Shakespeare tops the list of mastery. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, over the span of 5 lines, he incorporates a total of 8 oxymorons in Romeo’s dialogue with Benvolio in Act 1.

“Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,

O anything of nothing first created,

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.”

While not as long-winded as Shakespeare, George Orwell uses oxymorons in Animal Farm to highlight change and inequality. The single commandment which replaced the previous seven now read:

All Animals are Equal
But Some Animals are More Equal Than Others

In this case, “more equal” equates to not equal when the context of the entire message is considered. As long as others are “more equal,” true equality cannot exist.

And for our third example, it shall be the untimely love of Guinevere and Lancelot in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idyll’s of the King.

“And peradventure had he seen her first

She might have made this and that other world

Another world for the sick man; but now

The shackles of an old love straitened him,

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

In this example, the full stanza must be examined to see how Tennyson uses oxymorons for poetic effect to fully explain the unfortunate circumstance Lancelot, Arthur’s most trusted knight, finds himself in.

Oxymoron in Children’s Literature🧸

In the world of children’s literature, the use of oxymorons is not quite as common as other mediums. However, there do exist quite a few teaching tools for how to teach children how to use the oxymoron in speech.

One notable example is a children’s book whose title is, in fact, an oxymoron. The book is called, Who Ordered Jumbo Shrimp and Other Oxymorons by Jon Agee.

Examples of Oxymoron in Songs 🎧

It is also prominent in song. One of the most notable songs featuring oxymorons is The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony

And then there is John Legend’s “All of Me. In this song, Legend uses the phrase “perfectly imperfect” to say that he loves this person because they are not perfect.

Oxymorons are also common in the use of Album tiles. One of the most notable album titles in the category is that of Nine Inch Nails and the album Pretty Hate Machine.

And in Poetry ✍🏽

Poetry also offers a multitude of examples to draw from. In fact, it might be argued, that next to simile and metaphor, the oxymoron may be the most overused literary device in the poetic tradition.

In the poem, “Easter 1916,” William Butler Yeats repeats the oxymoron “terrible beauty” to highlight both the terrible violence and the positive beauty and idealism behind the idea of Independence during the The Easter Rising of 1916.

“I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

Keeping with the trend, John Milton uses an oxymoron in Paradise Lost to describe his view of Hell. He writes,

“As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames

No light, but rather, darkness visible

To which, you have to wonder, “How can darkness be visible if no light is emitted from the flames?” The short answer is the flames are emitting darkness and the darkness is visible in that nothing is visible in the dark.

And then we have Thomas Grey and his poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard.” In this poem, the two most notable instances of oxymoron usage occur in two separate stanzas.

“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

         The short and simple annals of the poor.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

         Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,

         And froze the genial current of the soul.”

As may have been noticed after reading these passages, Grey uses the terms “disdainful smile” and “noble rage.” The first is used to describe how the wealthy look down upon the poor through meaningless smiles to hide their disdain while “noble rage” describes how poor dead and buried were denied access to knowledge but because they were dead, their rage remained hidden and unexpressed.

Oxymoron in Film and Pop Culture 🎥

When turning to film and pop culture, the oxymoron soars to new heights in film titles. Abundant in film titles such as:

And the list goes on and on …

Oxymoron in Advertising 📺

Oh! How the list could go on! To note a few big ones,

  • Subway’s meatless meatball marinara sub. ‘Nuf said.
  • A Peacekeeper missile. Seriously? How is a missile going to keep peace? Unless that’s the point.
  • Bureaucratic efficiency. This one’s just plain laughable. Can anyone name an instance where bureaucracy was actually efficient?
  • Soup sandwich. I’m sorry. What? Apparently, it’s a real thing.

Close Relations and a Source of Confusion 👥

  • Paradox – When an author combines two or more contradictory things or situations in such a way that it seems impossible. Example: Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde when Lord Darlington says, “I can resist everything except temptation.”  His statement is paradoxical because it is impossible to resist everything if you give in to something, such as temptation. Truth be told, the real difference between oxymoron and paradox is how their respective contradictions are expressed.
  • Juxtapositionthe act of placing two words, objects, or ideas close or right next to each other to highlight their differences. Example: black and white; hot ice; lost and found; blinding sight


What is an oxymoron in literature?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two contradictory or opposing words to create a paradoxical effect. This literary device is used to add depth, emphasize contrasts, or create an intriguing tension within a phrase, often revealing a deeper or complex truth.

How does an oxymoron enhance a text?

An oxymoron enhances a text by adding dramatic effect, highlighting contradictions in characters or situations, or underscoring the complexity of themes. It can make descriptions more vivid and memorable, and provoke thought by challenging readers to consider how opposing elements can coexist or reveal deeper meanings.

Can an oxymoron be found in both poetry and prose?

Yes, oxymorons can be found in both poetry and prose. In poetry, they contribute to the density of meaning and emotional nuance. In prose, they can add emphasis or depth to character descriptions, settings, or themes, often enriching the narrative with their paradoxical insight.

Why do writers use oxymorons?

Writers use oxymorons to draw attention to the complexities and contradictions of life, to add stylistic flair to their writing, and to evoke a more profound response from the reader. By juxtaposing conflicting words, writers can explore themes of love, conflict, sorrow, and the human condition in nuanced and impactful ways.

How can I identify an oxymoron in a text?

To identify an oxymoron, look for phrases that combine words with opposite or contradictory meanings. These are often used deliberately to create a striking or thought-provoking effect. Recognizing an oxymoron involves paying attention to the context in which the words are used and considering how their juxtaposition enhances the meaning or emotional impact of the text.