What is an oxymoron? Definition plus commonly used examples such as awfully good and deafening silence

These phrases don’t make much sense on face value but they are used every day - from 'deafening silence' to 'working holiday'

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The English language is full of many literary devices which help us to better express how we feel, even though they don’t appear logical on face value. Examples include idioms and portmanteaus.

Another great example is an oxymoron, a figure of speech which brings together two terms which appear to be contradictory.

William Shakespeare loved the effect that a good oxymoron could have on the audience, and some of his most famous lines feature contrasting images. He famously devoted a whole passage to it in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo is trying desperately to express himself:

From Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1:

O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness, serious vanity!

Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

And they're not confined to Shakespeare. There are countless examples of oxymorons which are regularly used by English speakers - although they can be difficult to interpret for those learning English as a foreign language. Below we’ve rounded up 14 notable examples. Have a look through our list and see which ones you use.

Awfully good

The phrase awfully good is used when someone wants to express an extreme likeness of something. It doesn’t seem to make sense, however, as usually when something is awful it’s the exact opposite of good.

One choice

People say they made a decision because it was the one choice they had when they felt they only had one viable option. A choice by definition, however, is when people have more than one legitimate option so if someone feels they can only do one thing then that is not a choice at all.

Old news

Old news is something that is not new or exciting anymore, but in reality nothing can actually be old news because news is a report of recent events. In addition, something new is something which has not been seen before so it cannot be old.

Freezer burn

Freezer burn occurs when frozen foods are exposed to cold, dry air, which causes them to dehydrate as the outer layers lose moisture. The words themselves don’t appear to match well together, however, as something that is frozen is very cold but something that burns is very hot.

The definition of an oxymoron plus commonly used examples such as awfully good and deafening silence.The definition of an oxymoron plus commonly used examples such as awfully good and deafening silence.
The definition of an oxymoron plus commonly used examples such as awfully good and deafening silence.

Living dead

The phrase living dead can be used in two different ways. The first is to describe creatures such as zombies which are dead but have risen from the ground - as we know from countless films and video games. In everyday life, people might refer to themselves or someone else as the living dead when they are exceptionally tired. The phrase obviously brings together two contrasting ideas.

Deafening silence

A deafening silence is a shocking or striking absence of sound. Objectively, all silence is the complete lack of any sound but when people refer to something having deafening silence they are talking about the way that silence impacts them emotionally. The phrase also doesn’t make sense when taken on face value because when something is deafening that means that a sound is so loud nothing else can be heard besides it.


The word bittersweet has two meanings. It can be used to describe food which is both sweet and bitter at the same time, such as dark chocolate or coffee. It can also be used to describe a pleasure which is tinged with some pain or sadness.

Small crowd

People refer to a small crowd when they mean that there are only a few people gathered together. By definition, however, a crowd is a large number of people gathered together, usually in a disorganised way, so it’s actually impossible to have a small crowd.

Working holiday

A working holiday is just what it sounds like; when people are on holiday from their workplace in theory - either by physically being away from home or just simply by taking that time away from their job - but are actually continuing to work. This is an oxymoron most of us would prefer didn't exist, but sadly does in the modern world of work.

Cruel to be kind

If someone is being cruel to be kind that means they are doing something to someone which may seem mean or harsh but will actually be beneficial to them in the long run.  These two juxtaposing ideas don’t appear to work together at first, however, but it definitely describes some common situations in life well.

Definitely maybe

The phrase - and title of the Oasis debut album - is used by someone who thinks they will do something but they don’t want to commit to it fully. The word “definitely”, however, shows full commitment to something, however, while the word “maybe” shows indecision so it’s not really possible to have both feelings towards something at once.

Unbiased opinion

An unbiased opinion is one which is not based on any kind of prejudice or favouritism, but an opinion is a judgement someone forms about something, potentially informed by fact but not always, based on their own views, morals or ethics. Opinions, by definition, are therefore all formed using some kind of bias.

Sleep like a baby

If someone is said to sleep like a baby they are said to have slept exceptionally well, but as any parent knows well, babies are known for disturbed sleep and waking frequently during the night, so the phrase doesn’t appear quite right, despite its common usage.

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