Oxymoron (stylistic agent) – examples and effects

What is an oxymoron?

Image result for oxymoronThe oxymoron (plural: Oxymora) belongs as a rhetorical stylistic device to the tropics. It is with him a word composition (compound), or a combination of words that is opposite of words and / or widely spaced importance.

The origin of the term “oxymoron” already indicates that it is composed of the Greek words “oxys” = sharp (sensible) and “moros” = dull / stupid, and thus contains an antithesis.


Examples of Oxymora as word compositions:

  • “Love-hate”
  • “bittersweet”
  • “Stupid smart”

Examples of Oxymora as phrases:

  • “Painfully beautiful”
  • “good as hell”
  • »Squaring the circle«
  • “loved enemy”
  • »Loving challenge«

Contradictio in adiecto: A subgroup of oxymoron

The Contradictio in adiecto (Latin = contradiction in the enclosure) is a special form of oxymoron. It always consists of a noun and an adjective. An adjective usually serves to give a more detailed description of the noun to which it is attached. In the Contradictio in adiecto noun and adjective, however, do not match, as in the above example “loving challenge”.

This apparent contradiction sharpens the attention for the term. The contrast acts like a stumbling block, prompting you to listen more carefully or think about this phrase.

Further examples are:

  • “Aggressive friendliness”
  • »Calm dynamics«
  • “Energetic gentleness”

Other phrases have lost this effect by their frequent use meanwhile. Everyone knows what is meant by an “old boy” or an “old girl,” “eloquent silence,” or a “silent cry.” Here the contradictio in adiecto is used almost without any intention and has become part of the everyday language.

The oxymoron in the literature

Image result for literatureBut if a pair of opposites is new and surprising, it attracts particular attention. This is true not only for the Contradictio in adiecto, but for all Oxymora. They are therefore popular in the literature. They are found in all literary genres as well as in various literary epochs and currents.

So the well-known fun poem “It was dark, the moon shone bright” is a juxtaposition of Oxymora. His first verse is:

“It was dark, the moon was bright
Snow covers the green corridor
As a car as fast as lightning
Drive slowly around the corner. ”
(Author unknown)

A famous example from the serious poetry is Friedrich Hölderlin’s word composition “sad-happy”:

“And the youth who drew electricity into the plain,
Sad, like the heart, if it is too beautiful,
Love to go down,
Throw yourself into the floods of time. ”
Friedrich Hölderlin, »Heidelberg«

The oxymoron in baroque poetry

Literature in the Baroque era (circa 1600 – 1720) is shaped by the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Above all in poetry, the theme of pain is the transience of everything earthly. The consciousness of futility in this world is opposed by the religious hope of eternal life in the face of God. The oxymoron is the appropriate figure to poetically express the contrast between earthly and eternal life.

The use of ancient rhetorical stylistic devices was a basic feature of every poet in the Baroque. It was a self-evident convention, in a sense its tools. The literary scholar Christoph Parry remarks on the use of the oxymoron: “In a poet like Andreas Gryphius, rhetorical convention combines with genuinely perceived 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”

“Spit the serious spil, because time still suffers”
Andreas Gryphius, “The image of our life”

»Since only generosity and chaste voluptuousness hover«
Martin Opitz, “From Wolff’s Fountain at Heidelberg”

The oxymoron in romantic lyric

Lyricists of the Romantic period (circa 1790 – 1830) also frequently work with oxymoron. They also speak, not unlike the Baroque poets, about human condition and divine infinity. This pair of opposites in Romanticism does not refer to Christian ideas in the narrower sense.

It is more about the split between restrictive social rules and feelings that go beyond these rigid rules. The romantics make the contradiction of bourgeois and artistic existence to the topic. They counter the rational pragmatism of the Enlightenment with imagination and intuition.


“O rich poverty! Giving, blessed receiving! «
Karoline von Günderode, “Love”

“Infinite and mysterious / sweet shower”
Novalis, “Hymns to the Night”

“There is written in the forest / a silent, serious word.”
Joseph von Eichendorff, “farewell”

Because the oxymoron is a particularly daring stylistic device, it meets the romantic goals. In terms of content, it combines what is incompatible and thus undermines the laws of logic.