What is an Oxymoron?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

An oxymoron is a phrase in which the parts are contradictory or incongruous in one of several ways. Often, at least one of the words in an oxymoron is not used literally or has multiple meanings, or there’s some shorthand being used, and the apparent self-contradiction arises from this. To understand more about what an oxymoron is, let’s look at some examples.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Figurative meaning oxymoron.

Vegetarian meatball. There are dozens of vegetarian meatball recipes available on the Internet, despite the fact that anything that deserves the name meatball cannot, by definition, be labeled vegetarian. The word meatball is being used to evoke shape, flavor, and the role of the food in various recipes, and what is really meant is something like “a vegetarian version of a meatball.” However, it’s effective to say just the two words, and – if you think of the second one as being in quotes – a vegetarian “meatball,” meaning it’s only a so-called meatball, it works.

Shorthand oxymoron.

Bigger half. Halves must, by definition, be exactly equal. To say that one half is bigger than another is an oxymoron because it means that they can’t be halves. What’s meant is something like “the bigger of what ought to be, or was intended to be, two equal pieces.”

Bird dog. A dog is one sort of creature. A bird is another. An animal cannot simultaneously be a bird and the mammal called a dog, so this is an oxymoron. What is meant is “a dog that effectively hunts birds.”

Double-meaning oxymoron.

Jumbo shrimp. Shrimp is the name for a sea creature. It is also a size designation for something very minute. Therefore, when it is juxtaposed with the word that is in many schemes – eggs and black olives, for example – used for the largest size, jumbo, we are simultaneously aware of both meanings, and an oxymoron results.

Pretty Ugly. Pretty means attractive. It also is used as an intensifier to indicate a moderately large amount, as in “He is pretty hungry/tired/excited, etc.” When it is used in the second sense, but juxtaposed to a word that contradicts the first sense, we are aware of both senses at once, and an oxymoron results. Awfully pretty is the same thing in reverse.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


would christian atheist be one?


Actually oxymoron is not slang! The definition of slang is "a word/term relative to a community"; and the word 'oxymoron' is not just relative to one community.


Lol, 'oxymoron' is not slang; it is a rhetorical tool - about as far from slang as one can get. And I think you mean 'contradictory'. 'Oxymoron' is purposeful to intensify meaning; 'contradiction' just happens to be incongruous.


also the word (friendly fire),could be in that category, military jargon. so stupid.


'Oxymoron' is a slang term to describe a sentence or a phrase that is controversial to itself. Examples which have become part of our common language are phrases such 'pretty ugly' or 'liquid gas' or 'seriously funny' but it really means anything phrase which is controversial to itself. As my peep above mentioned 'honest lawyer' is a good one!


living dead. dark light. seriously silly. deafening silence. honest liar.

Just some more examples.


Omitted: 1. Sane woman. 2. Honest lawyer. 3. Honest politician.


is for once in this second an oxymoron?????

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