Definition of Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two seemingly opposing and contradictory elements are juxtaposed. In literature, oxymora, also known as oxymorons, often reveal a paradox.

The word oxymoron is in itself an oxymoron. It comes from the Ancient Greek word oxumoron, a compound of the words oxus, meaning “sharp” or “keen” and moros, meaning “dull” or “stupid.” Therefore it means something akin to wise foolishness.

Oxymora are often pairs of words, such as the adjective-noun combinations of a “new classic” or a “big sip,” or a noun-verb combination such as “the silence whistles.” Oxymora can also be found in phrases or sentences that have a juxtaposition of contradictory concepts.

Difference Between Oxymoron and Paradox

Oxymoron and paradox are very similar concepts, and the definition of oxymoron states that sometimes they may present a paradox. The difference is that a paradox often is used in literature to give unexpected insights, whereas an oxymoron does not necessarily lead to any insights. Paradoxes usually defy intuition in that they combine seemingly contradictory concepts to hint at a deeper truth. Oxymora, on the other hand, are often easy to grasp the meaning of even while the terms involved are usually used to mean opposite things.

Common Examples of Oxymoron

There are many examples of oxymoron that have become common phrases, such as:

  • controlled chaos
  • kill with kindness
  • old news
  • small giant
  • original copy
  • even odds
  • elevated subway

There are also many famous quotes that contain oxymora, such as:

  • “I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it is much better to prophesy after the event has already taken place. ” – Winston Churchill
  • “It’s a step forward although there was no progress.” – President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt
  • “Nothing was stolen. I had an honest thief.” – Donald Trump
  • “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.” – Isaac B. Singer
  • “I am a deeply superficial person.” – Andy Warhol

Other languages have contributed oxymora to English, such as the Chinese concept of yin-yang. The famous black and white circular symbol that expresses yin-yang shows a drop of white in the black and side and, conversely, a small bit of black in the white side. This is meant to represent that even opposites contain a bit of each other. The yin-yang symbol is thus also a visual representation of oxymoron.

The Italian word pianoforte is also an oxymoron, in that piano means quite and forte means loud. This was the original name for the instrument that later became the piano (an abbreviation of the original word).

Significance of Oxymoron in Literature

Authors have used oxymora throughout the history of literature for many reasons. At times an oxymoron may call attention to the dual nature of an object or concept—something, for example, can be both sweet and sorrowful at the same time (Shakespeare famously wrote that “parting is such sweet sorrow”). This makes the reader think more deeply about the multiple meanings of experience. Oxymora also may just present a concept in a new light to emphasize the author’s creativity. The author Oscar Wilde used many oxymora for comedic effect, and many of these statements have entered popular consciousness, like his statement “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

Examples of Oxymoron in Literature

Example #1

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine?—O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
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.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare used many oxymoron examples in his works, and his famous tragic play Romeo and Juliet contains several oxymora. In just this one short excerpt there are many oxymora back to back. For instance, “loving hate,” “heavy lightness,” “feather of lead,” “bright smoke,” “cold fire,” and “sick health” are all oxymoron examples. So too are the slightly longer lines, “O anything of nothing,” “Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,” and “This love feel I, that feel no love in this.” The interesting function of these many oxymora is to illustrate the difficult dualities of love and the extremes that a person may feel when in love. The theme of Romeo and Juliet is, of course, that of tragic love and the very relationship of the two lovers is an oxymoron, as Juliet states, “My only love sprung from my only hate!”

Example #2

Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

(“The Send-Off” by Wilfred Owen)

In this poem by Wilfred Owen, soldiers are getting ready to go to war. They are trying to put on a good face as the public is sending them off, but they know they are heading into uncertainty and terror. Therefore, their faces are “grimly gay”—an oxymoron, but certainly understandable given the circumstances.

Example #3

As for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.

(The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde, as stated above, loved using oxymora in his works for comedic effect. In this case, the oxymoron is created by the juxtaposition of “believe” and “incredible.” The word “incredible” stems etymologically from the negative form of “credible,” which means “believable.” Therefore, Wilde, in effect, has written that his character will believe anything that cannot be believed. This adds to a sense of the character having something of a wild imagination and being uninterested in anything that is too straightforward.

Example #4

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

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

In George Orwell’s famous satire Animal Farm, the animals kick out the human owners and attempt to govern the farm themselves. At first, the leader Napoleon creates seven commandments for them to follow, the most important of which is “All animals are equal.” However, as time goes on the commandments begin to change, just as Napoleon’s demeanor toward the rest of the animals starts to change. Eventually he changes this key commandment to the quote above: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Of course, this new commandment is one of many examples of oxymoron in the new leadership system. Some animals being “more” equal than others is not actually possible if one is to believe the first half of the statement. Orwell used this quote precisely to highlight the hypocrisies of the Russian Revolution. He wrote Animal Farm to critique the form of communism adopted in Russian after the revolution, showing that there was, indeed, no real equality in the new system.

Test Your Knowledge of Oxymoron

1. Which of the following statements is the best oxymoron definition?
A. A completely nonsensical pairing of words that has no meaning when used together.
B. A figure of speech in which seemingly contradictory terms are juxtaposed.
C. A stupid phrase that is clichéd and trite.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is not correct, as oxymora do indeed have meaning and can be understood as containing sense.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is an oxymoron example?
A. Deliberate mistake
B. Rotten banana
C. Foolish idiot
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. A mistake, by definition, is something that a person does not mean to do, while being deliberate is the opposite. However, one can imagine how this situation might arise, such as if an embezzler makes a “mistake” in the accounting so as to confuse the flow of funds.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following words, when following the word “partial,” create an oxymoron?
A. Silence
B. Success
C. Cease-fire
D. All of the above
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: D is the correct answer, as all of the concepts listed signify a completeness to them. For example, there either is a cease-fire of there isn’t; it’s either silent or it isn’t. However, it’s easy to imagine situations for all of these oxymora, such as a project that was successful in some ways and not in others.[/spoiler]

4. Which of the following lines from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 72” contains an example of oxymoron?
A. For you in me can nothing worthy prove
B. Unless you would devise some virtuous lie
C. My name be buried where my body is
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #4″]
Answer: B is the correct answer, as a “virtuous lie” is an oxymoron.[/spoiler]