Why are oxymorons so confusingly true


What is an oxymoron?

The oxymoron is a rhetorical stylistic device. This style figure is a Word composition or one Phrase, from Words with opposite and / or widely differing meanings consists.

The very origin of the term "oxymoron" indicates that it is composed of the Greek words »Oxys« = sharp (meaningful) and »Moros« = dull / stupid, therefore contains an antithesis itself.

Examples of Oxymora as word compounds:

  • "Love-hate relationship"
  • "bittersweet"
  • "Stupid smart"

Examples of Oxymora as word combinations:

  • "Painfully beautiful"
  • "good as hell"
  • »Squaring the Circle«
  • "loved enemy"
  • "Loving challenge"

Contradictio in adiecto: A subgroup of the oxymoron

A special form of the oxymoron is the contradictio in adiecto (Latin = contradiction in the addition). It always consists of a noun and an adjective. An adjective is usually used to describe the noun it is attached to. In the contradictio in adiecto, however, noun and adjective do not go together, as in the example above, »affectionate battle announcement«.

This obvious contradiction has one purpose: the focus on the actual term is sharpened. The contrast acts like a stumbling block that prompts you to listen more closely or to think about this combination of words.

Further examples are:

  • "Aggressive friendliness"
  • »Calm dynamic«
  • "Energetic gentleness"

Other phrases have lost this effect due to their frequent use. Everyone knows what to do with you "Old boy" or one "Old girl", With "Eloquent silence" or one "Silent scream" is meant. These expressions contain contradicting terms. But the contradictio in adiecto is used almost unintentionally: it is Part of everyday language become.

The oxymoron in literature

However, if a pair of opposites is new and surprising, it will attract special attention. This applies not only to the contradictio in adiecto, but to all oxymora. They are therefore also popular in literature. They can be found in all literary genres as well as in different literary epochs and currents.

The well-known fun poem "It was dark, the moon was shining brightly" is a series of Oxymora. His first stanza reads:

"It was dark, the moon was shining brightly
The green corridor is covered with snow
As a car at lightning speed
Slowly drove around the corner. "
(Author unknown)

A famous example from serious poetry is Friedrich Hölderlin's word combination "sad and happy":

"And the youth, the river, pulled away into the plain,
Sad glad, like the heart, when it, to itself too beautiful,
To go down lovingly
Throws himself into the waters of time. "
Friedrich Hölderlin, "Heidelberg"

The oxymoron in baroque poetry

The literature of the Baroque era (approx. 1600–1720) was shaped by the horrors of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). Especially in poetry, the pain of the transience of everything earthly is thematized. The consciousness of futility in this world is contrasted with the religious hope for eternal life in the face of God. The oxymoron is the ideal figure to give poetic expression to the contrast between earthly and eternal life.

The use of ancient rhetorical stylistic devices was part of the basic equipment of every poet in the Baroque era. It was a self-evident convention, in a sense his tool of the trade. The literary scholar Christoph Parry comments on the use of the oxymoron: "With a poet like Andreas Gryphius, rhetorical convention is combined with genuinely felt pain in the motif of the transience and futility of everything earthly." [1]


"The shoulders of warm snow will become cold sand"
Christian Hoffmann von Hoffmannswaldau, "Transience of Beauty"

"Is this serious game happening: because time still suffers"
Andreas Gryphius, "Image of our Life"

"Since only horror and chaste lust float"
Martin Opitz, "From the Wolffesbrunnen near Heidelberg"

The oxymoron in romantic lyric poetry

Romantic poets (approx. 1790–1830) also often work with the oxymoron. They too speak, not unlike the Baroque poets, about human conditioning and divine infinity. In Romanticism, however, this pair of opposites does not relate to Christian ideas in the narrower sense.

It is more about the conflict between restrictive social rules and feelings that break these rigid rules. The Romantics made the contradiction between bourgeois and artistic existence their theme. They contrast fantasy and intuition with the rational pragmatism of the Enlightenment.


“O rich poverty! Giving, happy receiving! "
Karoline von Günderode, "Love"

»Infinite and mysterious / A sweet shower flows through us«
Novalis, "Hymns to the Night"

"There is written in the forest / a quiet, serious word"
Joseph von Eichendorff, "Farewell"

Because the oxymoron is a particularly daring stylistic device, it meets the romantic goals. It connects what is actually incompatible in terms of content and thus nullifies the laws of logic.

The oxymoron in relation to other stylistic devices


The Paradox is a rhetorical figure who closely related to the oxymoron is. The demarcation is often not easy. According to Duden, a paradox is a seemingly nonsensical, false assertion or statement, which, however, on closer analysis indicates a higher truth. A famous example is the statement of the Greek philosopher Socrates: "I know that I know nothing."


The pleonasm is that logical counterpart to the oxymoron. A term is supplemented by a second, different but with the same meaning. Examples from everyday life are "Dense crowd" or "Damp wet".

Examples of an oxymoron
  • "Love-hate relationship"
  • "bittersweet"
  • "Stupid smart"
  • "Painfully beautiful"
  • "good as hell"
  • »Squaring the Circle«
  • "loved enemy"
  • "Loving challenge"
  • "Aggressive friendliness"
  • »Calm dynamic«
  • "Energetic gentleness"
  • "Old boy"
  • "Old girl"
  • "Eloquent silence"
  • "silent Scream"
  • "Sadly glad"
  • »Factual romance« (title of a poem by Erich Kästner)
[1] Parry, Christoph. People, Works, Epochs: An Introduction to German Cultural History. Ismaning: Max Hueber 1993, p. 56. ^
Page published on 08/17/2016. Last update on September 3rd, 2020.
Text by Dr. Susanne Niemuth-Engelmann. © Inhalt.de.