Oxymoron Definition

Oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two opposite ideas are joined to create an effect. The common oxymoron phrase is a combination of an adjective proceeded by a noun with contrasting meanings, e.g. “cruel kindness” or “living death”.

However, the contrasting words/phrases are not always glued together. The contrasting ideas may be spaced out in a sentence, e.g. “In order to lead, you must walk behind.”

Difference between Oxymoron and Paradox

It is important to understand the difference between a paradox and an oxymoron. A paradox may consist of a sentence or even a group of sentences. An oxymoron, on the other hand, is a combination of two contradictory or opposite words. A paradox seems contradictory to the general truth but it does contain an implied truth. An oxymoron, however, may produce a dramatic effect but does not make sense. Examples of oxymoron are found both in casual conversations and in literature.

Common Examples of Oxymoron

  • Open secret
  • Tragic comedy
  • Seriously funny
  • Awfully pretty
  • Foolish wisdom
  • Original copies
  • Liquid gas

The above oxymoron examples produce a comical effect. Thus, it is a lot of fun to use them in your everyday speech.

Oxymoron Examples in Literature

Example #1

Below is an extract from the play “Romeo and Juliet”, Act I, Scene I, written by William Shakespeare.

“Why, then, 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.
Dost thou not laugh?”

We notice a series of oxymoron being employed when Romeo confronts the love of an inaccessible woman. An intense emotional effect is produced to highlight his mental conflict by the use of contradictory pairs of words such as “hating love”, “heavy lightness”, “bright smoke”, “cold fire”, and “sick health”.

Example #2

The example below is taken from Tennyson’s “Lancelot and Elaine”.

“the shackles of love straiten’d him
His honour rooted in dishonoured stood
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”

We clearly notice the use of oxymoron in phrases “shackles… straiten’d”, “honour… dishonour”, “faith unfaithful” and “falsely true”.

Example #3

In Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Petrarch’s 134th sonnet,

“I find no peace, and all my war is done
I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice,
I flee above the wind, yet can I not arise;”

The contradicting ideas of “war…peace”, “burn ….freeze”, and “flee above…not rise” produce a dramatic effect in the above-mentioned lines.

Example #4

Alexander Pope uses oxymoron to develop wit in his poems.

“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.”

The above lines from his “Essays of Criticism” provide fine evidence of his witticism. The oxymora “bookful blockhead” and “ignorantly read” describe a person who reads a lot but does not understand what he reads and does not employ his reading to improve his character.

Example #5

Shakespeare makes use of oxymoron in his plays to develop a paradox.

“I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.”

In the above lines taken from “Hamlet”, he draws two contradictory ideas “be cruel…be kind”. The contradiction is understood in the context of the play. Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, the murderer of his father, who has married his mother. Hamlet does not want his mother to be the beloved of his father’s murderer. Therefore, he is of the view that this murder will purge her.

Function of Oxymoron

Oxymoron produces a dramatic effect in both prose as well as poetry. For instance, when we read or hear the famous oxymoron, “sweet sorrow”, crafted by Shakespeare, it appeals to us instantly. It provokes our thoughts and makes us ponder on the meaning of contradicting ideas. This apparently confusing phrase expresses a complex nature of love that could never be expressed through any other simple expression.

In everyday conversation, however, people do not use oxymoron to make some deep statement like the one mentioned above. Instead, they do it to show wit. The use of oxymoron adds flavor to their speech.