One Seriously Funny List of Oxymorons

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 
jumbo shrimp
Who ordered the jumbo shrimp? HowStuffWorks
Key Takeaways
  • Oxymorons are short phrases with contradictory meanings, like "jumbo shrimp."
  • The term "oxymoron" itself is an oxymoron, combining words with opposite meanings.
  • Some oxymorons are used for satire or sarcasm, such as "military intelligence."

An oxymoron is a short phrase, usually two words, that is contrary or incongruous. A classic oxymoron can be found in the seafood section of your local grocery store: oxymorons.htm" class="bg-danger bg-opacity-25">jumbo shrimp. Sure, "jumbo" means something is big, but "shrimp"? It's more than just a tasty crustacean! It's also a slangy way of calling someone small or short. So "jumbo shrimp" is an oxymoron.

The term "oxymoron">oxymoron" comes from Greek, where "oxy" means "sharp or acute," and "moros" means "dumb or foolish." So oxymoron is itself a bit of, well, an oxymoron. It smashes together a root word meaning sharp and another root meaning dumb. That seems about right.


In any case, we've been using oxymorons for hundreds of years. The earliest known instance was in 1640, in oxymoron">Edward Reynolds' "A treatise of the passions and faculties of the soule of man":

It was a bold but true ὀξύμωρον of Seneca. Mortibus vivimus.

Reynolds gives us a lot to work with there, including the Greek spelling of "oxymoron." The oxymoron that Reynolds gives us, though, is in Latin. It's Mortibus vivimus and it means "living death."

Sometimes oxymorons are used more for satire or sarcasm than for pure wordplay purposes. These are sometimes called "rhetorical oxymorons." Think of "military intelligence" or "airline food." They aren't technically opposites like our old favorite "jumbo shrimp," but anyone who's eaten food on an airplane will get the joke.

People will often say a particular two-word phrase is an oxymoron when there's no real contradiction between the two words, and it doesn't seem like they're making a joke. So here is a list of clear oxymorons ("clear oxymoron" being a kind of oxymoron itself, right?).

  1. act natural
  2. advanced BASIC (programming)
  3. alone together
  4. awfully good
  5. awfully pretty
  6. bad luck
  7. baggy tights
  8. bittersweet
  9. big baby
  10. black light
  11. civil war
  12. clearly misunderstood
  13. constant variable
  14. controlled chaos
  15. crash landing
  16. deafening silence
  17. dull roar
  18. even odds
  19. foolish wisdom
  20. freezer burn
  21. friendly fire
  22. genuine imitation
  23. good grief
  24. intense apathy
  25. live recording
  26. militant pacifist
  27. minor crisis
  28. mud bath
  29. negative income
  30. old boy
  31. old news
  32. only choice
  33. open secret
  34. original copy
  35. passive aggressive
  36. plastic glasses
  37. poor health
  38. pygmy mammoth
  39. random order
  40. resident alien
  41. seriously funny
  42. small crowd
  43. square ring (boxing)
  44. student teacher
  45. true lies
  46. unbiased opinion
  47. virtual reality
  48. walking dead
  49. weapons of peace
  50. working vacation


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the term "oxymoron"?
The term "oxymoron" comes from Greek, combining "oxy" (sharp) and "moron" (dull), creating a term that is itself an oxymoron.
How are oxymorons used in rhetoric?
Oxymorons are used in rhetoric to create contrast, highlight contradictions and add humor or irony to a statement.