Definition of Oxymoron
Oxymoron is a figure of speech pairing two words together that are opposing and/or contradictory. This combination of contrary or antithetical words is also known in conversation as a contradiction in terms. As a literary device, oxymoron has the effect of creating an impression, enhancing a concept, and even entertaining the reader.
For example, the phrase original copy is a good illustration of an oxymoron. This is a pairing of opposing words that contradict each other. If something is original, then it is not a copy. In turn, if something is a copy, then it is not original. Yet, original copy as an oxymoron commonly and figuratively means that the content of the copy is original.
One way to utilize this figure of speech and literary device in a sentence might be: “The librarian stated that there is an original copy on the shelf, which is an oxymoron.” In this case, the oxymoron is “original copy” and not the librarian. A person cannot be an oxymoron.
Difference Between Oxymoron and Paradox
People are often confused by the difference between oxymoron and paradox. Paradox is a literary device in which a statement or group of statements features initially contrasting ideas. However, with applied thought, paradoxes make sense. Also, they often lead the reader to an underlying truth. One example of a paradox is the following conflicting idea. The best way to make money is to spend money.
Oxymoron is also a literary device, but is considered a “condensed” paradox. This means that oxymoron is a figure of speech that includes just a couple of contradictory words that are paired together rather than a full statement of ideas. Oxymoron phrases can be figuratively true, but not literally true.
Common Examples of Oxymoron
Here are some examples of oxymoron that may be found in everyday expression:
- Only choice
- Same difference
- Friendly fire
- Virtual reality
- Controlled chaos
- Freezer burn
- Silent scream
- Terribly good
- Wise fool
- Close distance
Usage of Oxymoron in Speech or Writing
Here are some examples of oxymoron that may be found in everyday writing or conversation:
- My sister and I had a friendly fight over the lipstick.
- I think the professor stated his unbiased opinion regarding the student response.
- You look awfully pretty in that coat.
- Sarah ate the whole piece of pie.
- The carpenters left the bench completely unfinished.
- The new kittens enjoyed being alone together.
- True fiction is my favorite genre to read.
- It is considered a false truth that a broken mirror means bad luck.
- Joe considers himself to be a ladies’ man when he’s at a club.
- Jenny thinks of her garage as an organized mess.
Think you haven’t heard of any famous oxymorons? Here are some well-known and recognizable examples of this figure of speech:
- Little Bighorn Battlefield (national monument in Montana)
- “True Lies” (American film)
- “CatDog” (American animated television series)
- “Pretty Ugly” (book by Kirker Butler)
- “Big Little Lies” (book by Liane Moriarty, adapted into television series for HBO)
- “Quotes from a Devout Atheist” (compilation book of Richard Dawkins quotes)
- “Waking Dream” (American documentary film)
- “You can’t have more types of fake news than real news.” (Elon Musk)
- “I am a deeply superficial person.” (Andy Warhol)
- “I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too?” (Emily Dickinson)
- “Cruel kindness drew me near and held me close” (InsideOut song lyric)
- “Ordinary riches can be stolen; real riches cannot.” (Oscar Wilde)
- “… this was fancy terrible.” (Dorothy Parker)
- “Vidia was complicated, two fairies in one, a loyal traitor.” (Gail Carson Levine)
Overall, as a literary device, oxymoron functions as a means of getting the reader’s attention through the pairing of opposing or contradictory words. Reading these words together will often cause a reader to pause and think about what the writer is trying to convey. These figures of speech can enhance a reader’s understanding of a concept, interpretation of a phrase, or enjoyment of language.
Here are instances in which it’s effective to use oxymoron in writing:
Demonstrate Linguistic Skill
Since most people don’t use oxymoron very often when speaking, it does take linguistic skill to create one that is successful. For example, just pairing any two words that are contradictory won’t make for an effective oxymoron. The phrase daily night certainly features contrary wording. However, if there is no figurative or underlying meaning to the phrase, it shouldn’t be used as a proper oxymoron. Instead, it takes linguistic skill in knowing which words, though opposing, will work together to have an effect on the reader.
One example of a skillful oxymoron is real fake. This figure of speech is clever in that utilizing the word “real” to describe something that is “fake” actually lends a sense of truth and authenticity to something that is, by nature, untrue and inauthentic. Therefore, the linguistic skill demonstrated in this oxymoron is a layered. Real fake is a combination of contradictory terms. However, the terms are also complementary as a pair.
Oxymoron can enhance drama in writing. This is especially achieved if the word pairing reveals intensity or a great difference in quality. For example, if a character receives a painful smile, this creates a significant dramatic effect. Smiles are rarely associated with pain. Therefore, the reader is left in some suspense to wonder what events or feelings would result in such a response received by the character.
However, it’s important that writers don’t overuse oxymoron as a literary device. Too many uses of oxymoron can be either distracting or tedious for the reader. Their dramatic effect is much more powerful with sparing use.
Oxymoron can be an excellent tool in creating humor for a reader. For example, if a character is described as a man child, this oxymoron calls up a humorous image of a child that looks like a man or vice-versa. It is also comedic in terms of behavior, both in terms of a man acting like a child or a child behaving like a man.
Oxymoron can also serve as a means of elevated language when used to express a sense of irony. For example, oxymoron phrases such as marital bliss, military intelligence, and business ethics, depending on how they are used as figures of speech, can be effective literary devices to indicate irony. These word pairings are not inherently opposite, but their individual concepts can seem contradictory when combined.
Examples of Oxymoron in Literature
Oxymoron is an effective literary device. Here are some examples of oxymoron phrases in well-known literary works, along with how they add to interpretation:
Example #1: Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)
Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
In perhaps the most well-known oxymoron in literature, Juliet describes her feelings about Romeo leaving her presence as “sweet sorrow.” Shakespeare’s use of oxymoron indicates that Juliet’s “sorrow” and sadness at the thought that Romeo must part from her is also “sweet” and pleasant. She feels sadness knowing she must say good night to Romeo. However, she lovingly anticipates seeing him again which is a pleasant feeling.
Example #2: Don Juan (George Gordon, Lord Byron)
It is an awful topic–but ‘t is not
My cue for any time to be terrific:
For checker’d as is seen our human lot
With good, and bad, and worse, alike prolific
Of melancholy merriment, to quote
Too much of one sort would be soporific;–
Without, or with, offence to friends or foes,
I sketch your world exactly as it goes.
In this poem, Lord Byron uses the oxymoron “melancholy merriment” to describe the feelings and connections between sadness and joy. This oxymoron is symbolic of the human condition as reflected in the poet’s mention of “our human lot.” In addition, this oxymoron supports and complements the balance of oppositions featured in the rest of the poem’s structure, such as good and bad, without or with, and friends or foes.
Example #3: Funeral Blues (W.H. Auden)
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
In this poem, Auden utilizes the oxymoron “juicy bone.” Of course, a bone is generally considered dry and the opposite of juicy. However, a bone may seem juicy to a dog that is salivating at the thought of chewing it. Also, this oxymoron is ironic in the context of a poem in which a funeral is the subject. The “juicy bone” is a contrast in its own phrasing, as well as a contrasting image with the coffin and the implied corpse’s bones inside.
Example #4: The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.
Salinger uses an oxymoron in this quote by Holden Caulfield, the narrator of the novel. The phrase “terrific liar” pairs two words that have opposing connotations. “Terrific” has positive connotations, as in wonderful or extraordinarily great. However, “liar” has negative connotations, as in someone who is untruthful or deceptive. Together, these words indicate that Holden takes pride in how adept he is at lying–a behavior that is generally associated with indignity.
This statement made by Holden reveals the level of complexity and impact an oxymoron can have as a literary device when it comes to interpretation. Through the phrase “terrific liar,” Holden is admitting that he is both a deceptive person and that he’s extraordinarily great at being so. Therefore, Salinger cleverly calls into question Holden’s reliability as a narrator through just this figure of speech. If Holden’s claim is that he is wonderful at being an untruthful person, then he casts doubt as to the truth of his own statement to the reader about being a terrific liar as well.