Oxymoron — and other oxymora

It’s inspiring to see grammar lessons on the New York subway, especially when your express train is running on the local track. Now everyone who took the A train on the C line last week knows what an oxymoron is. And just in case you’re still not sure what the ad pictured above means (because shrimps aren’t always tiny, are they?): it’s a figure of speech — an oxymoron — in which apparently contradictory terms are joined together to emphasize the very paradox of their conjunction. It’s often used nowadays more loosely to mean “contradiction in terms,” which is literally what it is. Oxymoron is in fact an oxymoron itself, derived from the Greek word oxus, meaning “keen or sharp”, combined with moros, which means “foolish”. 

An oxymoron similar to oxymoron is sophomore: the American name for a student in his or her second year of study at college or high school. Not because all sophomores are sophomoric, mind you (and that might best be left for a separate discussion). No, it’s because the word rooted in Greek translates literally to “wise fool,” (sophos = “wisdom”, moros we already know).

The best way to understand the meaning of any word or expression is to dole out examples. Cue oxymora galore.

Some single-word oxymora:


Some two-word oxymora:

open secret
deafening silence
sight unseen
liquid gas
alone together
virtual reality
lead balloon
same difference
working holiday
constant variable
almost exactly
plastic glasses

Some oxymoronic quotes:

“His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true. — Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“I am a deeply superficial person.” — Andy Warhol
“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.” — Oscar Wilde
“Poverty is hateful good.” — Geoffrey Chaucer
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — William Shakespeare
“I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief.” — Charles Lamb
“Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” — John Milton
“The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it.” — President Trump

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President Trump (perhaps the ultimate 21st-century oxymoron)


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