What is an Oxymoron?

Oxymoron occurs when two contradictory words are placed next to one another.

The living dead are pretty ugly.


Calling someone an oxymoron isn’t an insult you hear every day, but surely you’ve heard an oxymoron used to insult someone. Have you ever described something as pretty ugly? Or said something a bit rude and tried to cover it up with “I’m seriously joking?” Then you’ve used an oxymoron. This literary device occurs when two contradictory words are placed next to one another. These words are often adjectives, since they function as descriptions. When used separately, these two words may appear as opposites, but when combined they work to create a whole new concept. The term “oxymoron” is actually derived from two opposite adjectives: “sharp” and “dull.”  Keep in mind that not all oxymorons are meant to be negative- maybe you just couldn’t resist the jumbo shrimp at that awfully amazing seafood restaurant. Or while it drives some people crazy, you enjoy deafening silence. Are you starting to count all the oxymorons you’ve used lately? We’ll bet that number is disturbingly awesome.


Now that you know the open secret of oxymorons, try to find the ones in the following poems:

Romeo and Juliet (Excerpt)


O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!

Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!

Despised substance of divinest show!

Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,

A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!

O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell

When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend

In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?

Was ever book containing such vile matter

So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell

In such a gorgeous palace!

Paradoxes and Oxymorons


This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.

Look at it talking to you. You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.

You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.


The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.

What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,

Bringing a system of them into play. Play?

Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be


A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,

As in the division of grace these long August days

Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know

It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.


It has been played once more. I think you exist only

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there

Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem

Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.

Poetry Term: