100 Awfully Good Oxymorons


Awfully Good Oxymorons

by Richard Nordquist/ThoughtCo

An oxymoron is a figure of speech, usually one or two words in which seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side. This contradiction is also known as a paradox. Writers and poets have used it for centuries as a literary device to describe life’s inherent conflicts and incongruities. In speech, oxymorons can lend a sense of humor, irony, or sarcasm.

The word “oxymoron” is itself oxymoronic, which is to say contradictory. The word is derived from two ancient Greek words oxys, which means “sharp,” and moronos, which means “dull” or “stupid.” Take this sentence, for example:

There are two oxymorons in this sentence: “minor crisis” and “only choice.” If you’re learning English as a second language, you might be confused by these figures of speech. Read literally, they contradict themselves. A crisis is defined as a time of serious difficulty or importance. By that measure, no crisis is unimportant or minor. Similarly, “choice” implies more than one option, which is contradicted by “only,” which implies the opposite.

But once you become fluent in English, its easy to recognize such oxymorons for the figures of speech that they are. As the textbook author Richard Watson Todd said, “The true beauty of oxymorons is that, unless we sit back and really think, we happily accept them as normal English.”

Oxymorons have been used since the days of the ancient Greek poets, and William Shakespeare sprinkled them throughout his plays, poems, and sonnets. Oxymorons also feature in modern comedy and politics. The conservative political writer William Buckley, for instance, became famous quotes like “an intelligent liberal is an oxymoron.”

Like other kinds of figurative language, oxymorons (or oxymora) are often found in literature. As shown by this list of 100 awfully good examples, oxymorons are also part of our everyday speech. You’ll find common figures of speech, plus references to works of classic and pop culture.

  • absent presence
    (from “Astrophil and Stella” by Sir Philip Sidney)
  • alone together
  • awful good
  • beggarly riches
    (from “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” by John Donne)
  • bittersweet
  • “brisk vacancy”
    (from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery)
  • cheerful pessimist
  • civil war
  • clearly misunderstood
  • comfortable misery
    (from “One Door Away From Heaven” by Dean Koontz)
  • conspicuous absence
  • cool passion
  • crash landing
  • cruel kindness
  • darkness visible
    (from “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
    (from “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
  • idiot savant
  • ill health
  • impossible solution
  • intense apathy
  • joyful sadness
  • jumbo shrimp
  • larger half
  • lascivious grace
    (from Sonnet 40 by William Shakespeare)
  • lead balloon
  • liquid marble
    (from “Poetaster” by Ben Jonson)
  • living dead
  • living end
  • living sacrifices
  • loosely sealed
  • loud whisper
  • loyal opposition
  • magic realism
  • melancholy merriment
    ( from “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
  • recorded live
  • resident alien
  • sad smile
  • same difference
  • scalding coolness
    (from “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”
    (from “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare)
  • terribly good
  • theoretical experience
  • transparent night
    (from “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

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