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What’s an Oxymoron? (Explanation, with Examples)

What's an oxymoron?

What is an oxymoron?

Bittersweet, jumbo shrimp, and virtual reality all share something in common. Can you guess what it is?

If this blatant subtlety (cough) weren’t already obvious enough-we’re talking about oxymorons. Let’s get surface deep, literary.

The meaning of oxymoron

“[oxymoron] A figure conjoining words or terms apparently contradictory so as to give point to the statement or expression,” 1650s, from Greek oxymōron [oxys “sharp, pointed” + mōros “stupid”]. . . The word itself is an illustration of the thing. Now often used loosely to mean “contradiction in terms.””

Put in plain English, an oxymoron is a literary device or figure of speech which uses opposing phraseology to emphasize or embellish writing.

Common examples of oxymorons

Oxymorons have become regular phrases and terms that people use all the time, (whether or not they realize they’re oxymorons)

  • civil war
  • deafening silence
  • only choice/option
  • bittersweet
  • alone together
  • exact estimate
  • awfully good
  • cruel kindness
  • clearly misunderstood
  • unbiased opinion
  • same difference
  • wise fool

Are oxymorons and paradoxes the same?

Oxymorons mention opposing words or terms; paradoxes mentions opposing concepts or ideas. For example, the idea that “you must spend money to make money”, is paradoxical; it mentions something with opposing concepts.

We can also classify them by kind: because oxymorons apply to individual words, they’re a literary technique rather than a literary element. Paradoxes, on the other hand, can become a theme throughout a piece of work, and so are better understood as a literary element.

Read about other literary devices


  1. Etymonline, oxymoron.

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