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Oxymoron Definition

Oxymorons (or oxymora) are literary figures of speech usually composed of a pair of neighbouring contradictory words (often within a sentence). However this is not always the case. The Webster Dictionary defines oxymoron as "a combination of contradictory or incongruous words".

Oxymorons can be used for dramatic effect, for example: Hell's Angels and deafening silence. They can also be comical, such as in civil engineer. Clearly this is not an oxymoron in the true and strict sense, but the suggestion that it is oxymoronic is humorous.

Perhaps the most well-known of all oxymorons is Jumbo Shrimp (at least in the US; not in the UK where a jumbo shrimp is known as a king prawn). Jon Agee takes this as the title of his superbly illustrated book of oxymorons Who Ordered the Jumbo Shrimp?, which is available through our online wordplay bookstoreoxymoron section.


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Others have quite acceptable meaningful uses in English, but, when analysed word for word, contain contradictions. Examples include almost perfect, clearly misunderstood, and pretty ugly. These are only oxymorons in a punning sense.

The word oxymoron (plural: oxymora or oxymorons) is derived from the Greek for pointedly foolish (oxys = SHARP, KEEN + moros = FOOLISH).

For more examples of oxymorons, particularly of the more amusing variety, take a look at our Funny Oxymorons page.

You will also enjoy Oxymoronology by Richard Lederer, a survey of the various types of oxymorons complete with copious delightful examples.

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