Oxymorons #

Oxymorons are apparent contradictions by opposing meanings of words side by side. They demonstrate the binary aspect of the complexity and ambivalence of life where things are seldom what they seem. They are closely related to paradoxes.

Examples: exhilarated terror. A special ordinary man, unjust justice, true deceiver, Downwardly mobile

The rhetorical term oxymoron, made up of two Greek words meaning “sharp” and “dull,” is itself oxymoronic.

As you probably remember from school, an oxymoron is a compressed paradox: a figure of speech in which seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side. British writer Thomas Gibbons characterized the figure as “sense in the masquerade of folly.”

The oxymoron has also been called “the show-off” figure, one that gives voice to life’s inherent conflicts and incongruities.

“The true beauty of oxymorons,” says Richard Watson Todd, “is that, unless we sit back and really think, we happily accept them as normal English.” Todd illustrates his point in the following passage:

It was an open secret that the company had used a paid volunteer to test the plastic glasses. Although they were made using liquid gas technology and were an original copy that looked almost exactly like a more expensive brand, the volunteer thought that they were pretty ugly and that it would be simply impossible for the general public to accept them. On hearing this feedback, the company board was clearly confused and there was a deafening silence. This was a minor crisis and the only choice was to drop the product line. (Much Ado About English. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2006)

But then all of that may be old news to you. Closely related are:


There’s an old saying about entertainers who “suddenly” find fame:

It usually takes a few decades to become an overnight success.

Or Dolly Parton’s quip:

“You just can’t imagine how expensive it is to make me look so cheap”

Henry James famously characterised George Eliot as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous”.

Like other kinds of figurative language, oxymorons (or oxymora) are often found in literature. However, as shown by this list of 100 awfully good examples, oxymorons are also part of our everyday speech.

“absent presence”
Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney

alone together

awful good

“beggarly riches”
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne

Brilliant Plodder – Charles Darwin

bitter sweet

“brisk vacancy” Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery

Bleak optimist

cheerful pessimist

civil war

clearly misunderstood

“comfortable misery”
One Door Away From Heaven by Dean Koontz

conspicuous absence

cool passion

creative destruction – the driving dynamic of capitalism – Military Industrialism

‘creative destruction’ of capitalism – chain stores

crash landing

cruel kindness

“darkness visible”

Paradise Lost by John Milton

deafening silence

deceptively honest

definite maybe

deliberate speed

devout atheist

dull roar

eloquent silence

even odds

exact estimate

extinct life

“falsely true”
Lancelot and Elaine by Lord Tennyson

festive tranquility

found missing

freezer burn

friendly takeover

genuine imitation

good grief

growing smaller

guest host

historical present

humane slaughter

icy hot

idiotic savant

ill health

impossible solution

intense apathy

joyful sadness

jumbo shrimp

larger half

“lascivious grace” Sonnet 40 by William Shakespeare

lead balloon

“liquid marble” ⁽Poetaster by Ben Jonson

living dead

living end

living sacrifices

loosely sealed

loud whisper

loyal opposition

magic realism

“melancholy merriment” Don Juan by Lord Byron

militant pacifist

minor miracle

negative growth

negative income

old news

one-man band

only choice

openly deceptive

open secret

original copy

overbearingly modest

paper tablecloth

paper towel

peaceful conquest

plastic glasses

plastic silverware

poor health

pretty ugly

properly ridiculous

random order

real fakes

recorded live

resident alien

sad smile

same difference

“scalding coolness” For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

seriously funny

shrewd dumbness

silent scream

small crowd

soft rock

“The Sound of Silence” song by Paul Simon

static flow

steel wool

student teacher

“sweet sorrow” Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

terribly good

theoretical experience

“transparent night” “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman

true fiction

True Lies movie directed by James Cameron

unbiased opinion

unconscious awareness

upward fall

wise fool

working vacation

Exhilarated terror,

A special ordinary man,

Downwardly mobile,

A sociable recluse,

Israel’s nuclear capability has been an open secret for decades..

Bitterly sweet,

grimly funny,

the sweet despair of first love,

passive aggression,

compassionate detachment,

triumph of failure,

progressive conservative

ultra moderate

latent hostility.

Sweet unrest

Pure – pain, shit….sorrow….

Pleasurable pain

The Coens remain true deceivers.