What Is an Oxymoron?

Now that were alone together, let’s talk about oxymorons.

That first sentence starts with an oxymoron—one of the most commonly used figures of speech in the English language. But what makes it an oxymoron?

What is an oxymoron?

A figure of speech, usually just a few words, which places two contradictory or incongruent words togetherwords with opposite meanings that would not usually be used together because, logically, they contradict each other. For instance, you might describe something as “seriously funny” or speak in “loud whisper.”


The ancient Greeks clearly understood the concept behind oxymorons (alternative plural oxymora), as the word originates with them:

Oxy = sharp, and moron = dull

Clearly, ‘sharp’ and ‘dull’ are opposites, which explains oxymorons in a nutshell.

What does an oxymoron do?

In his article 100 Awfully Good Oxymorons, published on the ThoughtCo. Website, Richard Nordquist defines oxymorons as a literary device used by writers and poets for centuries “to describe life’s inherent conflicts and incongruities.”

He cites the following examples from literature and song:

“Scalding coolness” (Ernest Hemingway 1940)

“Sweet sorrow” (Shakespeare 1595)

“Transparent night” (Walt Whitman 1865)

“Sad merriment” (Lord Byron (1819)

“The Sound of Silence” (Song title, Paul Simon, 1965)

Nordquist also notes that, “In speech, oxymorons can lend a sense of humor, irony, or sarcasm.” Indeed, oxymorons are often used to make fun of an idea, person, or situation regarded as ridiculous, useless, or impossible.

For instance, some might say the phrase ‘an honest politician’ is an oxymoron—it’s a sarcastic way of emphasizing that ‘honest’ and ‘politician’ are words and concepts that don’t fit together, suggesting politicians by their very nature are incapable of being honest.

You too may have described your desk or kitchen counters as being in a state of ‘organized chaos.’

Oxymorons are so common that we often don’t see them for what they are. For example, we talk about ‘civil war,’ yet the two concepts are complete opposites, which makes this phrase an oxymoron.

Here are some more examples explained:

Deafening silence‘Silence’ implies there is no noise, yet here the silence is described as ‘deafening,’ the very opposite of silent. The paradox between the two words serves to emphasize the profound quality of the silence.

Lead balloonThe phrase ‘that went down like a lead balloon’ or ‘that will go down like a lead balloon’ is an oxymoron used to describe an idea, action, or suggestion not well-received or considered unworkable. For instance:

“I told them my plan for a family get together, but the idea went down like a lead balloon.”

“Fred suggested a pay-rise for everyone, but that went down like a lead balloon with the management.”

“I suggested my parents move in, but that went down like a lead balloon with Doris.”

Again, we have two opposites being used to emphasize meaning. Balloons are filled with air, right? They float upwardbut here, the balloon is made of leadit’s so heavy, it’s not going anywhere but down!

Old newsNews by its very nature is new, so it can’t be old at the same timeexcept in this commonly used oxymoron that stresses the news is not new at all but something already known.

“She told me about the split, but Tim told me last night, so it was old news.”

“It was reported yesterday in the papers, but I heard about it last week, so it’s old news.”

“I don’t use that website anymore—their information is always out of date—they only post old news.”

Conspicuous absenceIf something is conspicuous, it’s out in the open, easily seen, it’s glaringly obvious. But in this oxymoron, it’s the absence of something or someone—who clearly cannot logically be conspicuous—that makes the fact they are not present an object of attention.

“At the wedding, he was conspicuous by his absence.”

“In court, there was a conspicuous absence of evidence against them.”

“After that nasty scene in the office, Tim was conspicuously absent for several days.”

Here are some phrases you might not have recognized as oxymorons before:

Working vacation


Silent scream

Negative income

Intense apathy

Devout atheist

A genuine imitation

A minor miracle

A militant pacifist

Found missing

Brilliantly awful

Open secret

Exact estimate

Only choice

Cheerful pessimist

Now you’ve had a glimpse into the world of the oxymoron, you know the basics to recognize them, even when they’re hiding in plain sight. Hopefully, you can definitely maybe have some fun making up some awfully good ones of your own.

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