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The Funny and Fascinating Paradoxes of Oxymorons

Two contradictory words can create new meaning and a fresh way of seeing things.

Key points

  • Contradiction and paradox are normal features of human thought. Oxymorons make these absurdities explicit.
  • Two contradictory words can create new meaning and a fresh way of seeing things, such as why people cry at weddings.
  • Things can be good and bad, true and false, beautiful and ugly. Oxymorons remind us that language and life are full of complexities.
  • When we think about it, almost everything in life is a product of the complex coexistence of contradictions. Our brain excels at using opposites.
Naji Habib / Pixabay
Source: Naji Habib / Pixabay

Oxymorons are common in everyday language, especially in expressions we use without much thought. We might say something is “awfully good,” “bittersweet,” “an original copy,” or that “less is more.” The word "oxymoron" comes from the Greek, meaning “pointed stupidity,” and phrases like these are obviously contradictory.

Yet they still make sense because they paradoxically convey a nuanced or complex idea not easily expressed in a single word. They conjure a new way of seeing and evoke some measure of truth.

“Jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron because “jumbo” means huge and “shrimp” means tiny. “Bittersweet” indicates something both pleasant and painful at the same time, such as a wedding that marks a happy occasion but also a new beginning that leaves a wake of childhood loss. This explains why people commonly cry at weddings.

Oxymorons can help us express our thoughts and feelings more clearly. “Deafening silence” indicates a quiet situation that is uncomfortably noticeable or disturbing. “Civil war” reveals the irony and absurdity of fighting between people who belong to the same country or group.

Oxymorons can create a contradiction that makes us think more deeply or creatively. They highlight the fact that reality is rarely simple or straightforward. Things can be both good and bad, true and false, beautiful and ugly. Oxymorons remind us that language and life are both full of complexities and surprises.

Oxymorons are not merely linguistic figures of speech. They demonstrate the viability in our brain of opposites working together: two words for opposing concepts not only coexist but create in the mind something new. When we think about it we realize that almost everything in life is a product of the complex coexistence of contradictions.

Take “unbiased opinion.” It is even possible to have one? No, because every opinion is informed by the entire context of one’s life and a lifetime of biases.

Oxymorons appear widely in literature and art. Some of the most famous are found in Shakespeare, such as “sweet sorrow” and “O brawling love! O loving hate!” from Romeo and Juliet, “cold fire” from Henry V, and “fair is foul and foul is fair” from Macbeth. In his novel 1984, George Orwell used them liberally as slogans of a totalitarian regime: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”

Why are oxymorons sometimes funny and why do we so readily use them without thinking? One possibility is that they create a cognitive dissonance, a clash that forces us to think more clearly. They challenge expectations and assumptions and compel us to see things from a different perspective. They appeal to our sense of irony and absurdity by exposing contradictions and inconsistencies in both language and reality.

Another explanation is that oxymorons reflect the paradoxical contradictions inherent in human nature. We can simultaneously feel happy and sad, love and hate someone in equal measure, or act wisely and foolishly at the same time. Oxymorons capture what psychology calls “blended emotions.”

Tropes are figures of speech that play with the ordinary meaning of words, such as metaphor, simile, hyperbole, or irony. Oxymoron is a type of trope that combines two contradictory or incongruous words, such as “cruel kindness,” “found missing,” or “alone together.” By juxtaposing opposite concepts, oxymorons create a deeper meaning or a humorous effect.

By contrast, schemes are figures of speech that play with the usual arrangement of words, such as alliteration, antithesis, ellipsis, or parallelism. For example, antithesis is a scheme that places opposite ideas or phrases next to each other to create a contrast or a contradiction, such as, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Both oxymorons and antitheses are figures of speech that involve contradictions, but they differ in their form and function. Oxymorons use contradictory words, while antitheses use contradictory phrases. Oxymorons can reveal an inapparent truth or complexity behind a contradiction, while antitheses emphasize a dilemma between two choices.

Life is rarely clear, smooth, or certain. It’s a mess, a mess that is constantly in motion. Circumstances and assumptions can turn upside down in an instant. You could say that life itself is oxymoronic, both painful and joyous. Writing in Medium, Natalia Cabalerro calls life’s usual string of circumstance a “harmonious mess.” In other words, oxymorons tell us that life is a mess that somehow makes sense.

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