The virus crisis has produced many sentiments of the sort “Nobody is alone in being alone”. This makes me wonder if I am reading a paradox or an oxymoron. Where does the boundary (if any) between the meanings of these words lie, and which side of it is my statement? Previous discussion on this site is not definitive because it tended to repeat definitions of these and other related words without considering fully the overlaps of meaning. Considering the following definitions I incline towards oxymoron but feel myself on soft ground in doing so.

Paradox = a statement or situation that may be true but seems impossible or difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics

Cambridge Dictionary

Paradox = a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true. Or = a self-contradictory statement that at first seems true

Merriam Webster

Oxymoron = a phrase or statement that seems to say two opposite things

Cambridge Dictionary

Oxymoron = a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness)

broadly: something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements

Merriam Webster


1 Answer 1


Dictionary definitions aren't wrong, but because of historical limitations (print on paper, publishing hard copies, and, for the internet, time in reading), definitions tend towards the most condensed version and letting the native speaker fill in the gaps. Often the definitions will miss nuances that are obvious to daily users of the terms.

Seeing a few examples, which dictionaries usually don't have, should distinguish them.

An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, usually just two terms, usually an adjective and a noun that contradict each other. Some examples of oxymorons are 'jumbo shrimp', 'military intelligence', 'open secret'. They may be actual contradictions, or rely on multiple meanings, or simply humorous.

A paradox is a statement of a phenomenon that sounds impossible. It may turn out to actually be impossible or maybe actually possible. So it is a claim that can need a lot of description to get to the point where one realizes both what is expected, what actually happens, and how that might be a contradiction. Some examples of paradoxes are a catch-22, optical illusions, or hormesis.

So the difference is an oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, two words whose semantics are at odds, and a paradox is a situation which doesn't seem possible.

The phrase

Nobody is alone in being alone.

does seem to straddle both these ideas. On the one hand, it's saying 'everybody is together in being alone, together and alone being contradictory -terms-. But it also is a complex situation aside from the individual terms used where being solitary is a situation of individuals and it is possible that all individuals could share this situation, which is paradoxical.

So which is it? There's no law that says it must be one or the other and not both. And an oxymoron is easily considered to be a paradox in terms, as much as a contradiction is paradoxical.

  • I like your mention of hormesis. It is akin to my text in that it maps the same structure onto two connected but different underlying truths, producing a momentary contradiction, as in “Increasing dose stimulates and represses the response”
    – Anton
    Dec 30, 2020 at 8:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.