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What is an Oxymoron?

An oxymoron is defined as a figure of speech that ties two words having contradictory meanings together to bring about literary impact. The effect brought about by an oxymoron allows writers to effectively communicate subtle details. Some of them might not make sense at first glance, but they enable the reader to relate upon closer observation. 

The definition of oxymoron relies on its two Greek root words – oxus, meaning “sharp,” and mōros, meaning “foolish” or “dull.” The combined word oxumōros means “pointed foolishness,” which interestingly is an oxymoron in itself. Oxymorons were used extensively by Greek thinkers to indulge in rhetoric. The figure of speech has since become commonplace. Examples of oxymorons such as “bittersweet” and “clearly confused” have become well-known expressions even in everyday conversations. 

Below are some popular oxymoron examples:

  • Open secret 
  • Old news
  • Close distance 
  • Ill health 
  • One-man army 
  • Terribly good 
  • Unbiased opinion 
  • Original copy
  • Negative growth 
  • Found missing 
  • Clearly misunderstood
  • Exact estimate 
  • Larger half 
  • Good grief 
  • Loose seal
  • Seriously funny 
  • Random order 
  • Extinct life 
  • Friendly foe 
  • Deliberate mistake 
  • Loud whisper

In the above list of oxymorons, a striking dissimilarity in the meanings of both words is understood upon second glance. This allows the writer to enhance the depth of language, making oxymorons an important literary device to explore complex emotions. 

Oxymoron Examples in Literature

Oxymorons have been used extensively across all forms of literature due to the increased level of engagement with the reader. From vivid poetry to invigorating speeches, writers across the board use oxymorons to emphasize important points they want the reader to pay attention to.  

Here are some examples of oxymorons from popular literature: 

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, still waking sleep that is not what it is!” 

William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare takes the reader through a journey of the emotions Romeo feels in the above example. He uses a statement filled with several oxymorons that make sense upon close attention to the play’s context. 

His honor rooted in dishonor stood, and faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson in Lancelot & Elaine, Idylls of the King

Tennyson brings close focus to the dilemma faced by Lancelot in the poem Lancelot & Elaine. It brings the reader face to face with the moral complexities Lancelot wades through in his relationship with Guinevere and her husband King Arthur. 

To please a companion 

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn

All changed, changed utterly

A terrible beauty is born.

W. B. Yeats in Easter 1916

Political events and torn emotions associated with them can be perfectly demonstrated using oxymorons. Yeats uses “terrible beauty” to describe the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule. 

The bookful blockhead ignorantly read, 

With loads of learned lumber in his head,

With his own tongue still edifies his ears,

And always list’ning to himself appears.

Alexander Pope in Essay on Criticism

Pope uses tactful and humorous oxymorons like “bookful blockhead” and “learned lumber” to describe people that are educated but not necessarily bright thinkers.  

That time is past, 

And all its aching joys are no more, 

And all its dizzy raptures.

William Wordsworth in Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey

The oxymoron here exemplifies the nature of joy, allowing Wordsworth to communicate intense longing for a past memory. 

Oxymoron vs. Paradox

Despite their apparent similarities, the differences between oxymorons and paradoxes are several. While the list and examples of oxymorons above illustrate the conjunction of two words with contradictory meanings, paradoxes often bring together two contradictory themes or ideas. Paradoxes are extensive and involve either a single or multiple statements that contradict established truths. 

For example: 

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

George Orwell in Animal Farm

Orwell brings about a seemingly illogical statement to communicate what he discerns as an important truth. Though the statements are contradictory, they bring about what Orwell thinks about governments or society at large. 

Here’s another example of a paradox in literature: 

I must be cruel to be kind.

William Shakespeare in Hamlet

Despite a clear incongruence in the statement, Shakespeare elicits how Hamlet, the titular character seeks to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, his mother’s lover. Though indulging in Claudius’ murder seems cruel, Hamlet believes this act would be in favor of his mother’s betterment. 

To put it simply, paradoxes have a vast scope of usage, whereas oxymorons are limited to words used in conjunction. 

Oxymoron vs. Juxtaposition

Juxtapositions bring about a comparison or contrast between ideas, themes, or perspectives. The purpose of juxtaposition is to elucidate and highlight the contrast between the themes in comparison. Placing the themes in proximity enhances the differences and allows the reader to better distinguish one from the other. 

Following are a few popular examples of juxtaposition: 

  • Virtue and vice 
  • Good and evil 
  • Nature and man 
  • Dark and light 
  • Empathy and apathy 
  • Static and dynamic 

Some examples of juxtaposition in literature are listed below: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I

Took the one less traveled by.

Robert Frost in The Road Not Taken

Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

The examples further explain how juxtapositions are figures of speech that enable the writer to draw comparisons between contrasting situations. Conversely, oxymorons exhibit truth despite the conjunction of two contradictory words. 

Oxymorons find extensive usage across literature and other forms of media to bring about emphasis and dramatic impact. The figure of speech also helps writers create more engaging and sometimes playful tones in language. Despite their limited scope when compared to paradoxes and juxtapositions, oxymorons bring about originality in text. 

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An oxymoron is a figure of speech that brings together words with contrasting meanings.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that brings together words with contrasting meanings.