Writing

Writing 101: What Is an Oxymoron? Learn About the Differences Between Oxymoron and Paradox With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 23, 2019 • 3 min read

An oxymoron is a figure of speech: a creative approach to language that plays with meaning and the use of words in a non-literal sense. This literary device combines words with contradictory definitions to coin a new word or phrase. The incongruity of the resulting statement allows writers to play with language and meaning.


What Is an Oxymoron?

Oxymorons are oppositional words joined to create a unique word or phrase. An oxymoron can seem absurd yet make perfect sense at the same time. For example, the phrase “virtual reality” is formed from contrasting words. The word “oxymoron” is an oxymoron itself, derived from the Greek words “oxys” (meaning “sharp”) and “moros” (meaning “dull”).

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What Is the Purpose of Oxymoron in Literature?

Oxymorons can support a lighthearted mood or tone, as well as emphasize conflict. The juxtaposition of two opposing words can also:

  • Add dramatic effect. Oxymorons are unique. At first glance they seem to be self-defeating, with words that negate one another. As a complete thought, an oxymoron amplifies the meaning of the second word. For example, the phrase “absolutely unsure” is an oxymoron. Instead of pulling away from one another, the contrasting definitions support the greater concept of being completely unsure. This emphasis adds a dramatic effect to a sentence or passage.
  • Create a playful tone. The use of oxymorons add playfulness to writing. Oxymorons like “seriously funny,” “original copy,” “plastic glasses,” and “clearly confused” juxtapose opposing words next to one another, but their ability to make sense despite their opposing forces adds wit to writing.
  • Reveal a deeper meaning. The dichotomy of an oxymoron often expresses a complex idea. It gives a reader pause and makes them think about the context in a different light. The word “bittersweet,” for example, is an oxymoron that reveals a double-sided existence of an object or idea.
  • Add irony. There are examples of oxymorons whose meanings might not seem in contrast to one another, but their cultural associations are. Ironic oxymorons include: “airline schedule,” “business ethics,” and “military intelligence.”

What Is the Difference Between Oxymoron and Paradox?

While close in appearance, there are motivational differences between an oxymoron and a paradox.

  • An oxymoron is a descriptive device that places two opposing words next to or near to one another.
  • A paradox, while also using contradictory terms or thoughts, is generally a longer statement, and a twist of words as well as logic.

10 Examples of Common Oxymorons

Oxymorons have made it into the mainstream lexicon of everyday conversation as well as literature. Here are 10 examples of popular oxymorons:

  1. “Small crowd”
  2. “Old news”
  3. “Open secret”
  4. “Living dead”
  5. “Deafening silence”
  6. “Only choice”
  7. “Pretty ugly”
  8. “Awfully good”
  9. “Almost exactly”
  10. “Same difference”

3 Examples of Oxymoron in Literature

Oxymorons have been used in literature for centuries. From poetry to prose, writers have used oxymorons to add color and wit.

  1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare used an oxymoron in one of the most famous lines he ever wrote, which comes from Romeo and Juliet: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” He also used oxymorons in other parts of the play, like in the scene when Romeo is trying to processes the pain of unrequited love through a series of oxymorons. His inner conflict is shown through the contradictions of his words: “Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate! O anything, of nothing first create!”
  2. Jack London, Call of the Wild. London uses figurative language to describe the harsh beauty of the Canadian Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. When the Aurora Borealis lights up the sky, London describes it “flaming coldly.” When Buck, the main dog in this story, is beaten into submission, London describes his pain as “exquisite agony.” The oxymorons mirror the contrast between the serene yet brutal landscape of the Yukon and Buck’s resistance to his new environment and his primal desire to embrace it.
  3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. This classic story from 1847 revolves around themes of love, independence, family, and obligation. Torn between love and duty, St. John, cousin of Jane, describes his deep feelings for Rosamond Oliver as “delicious poison.” He feels an overwhelming temptation to be with the woman he loves, even knowing it will ultimately steer him off course.

Learn more about writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.