An oxymoron (plural: oxymora), which is derived from the Greek words oxy meaning “sharp” and moron meaning “dull” is a play on words in which contrasting ideas are placed together in order to create an effect. Oxymora typically come in the pattern of adjective-noun with opposite meanings, e.g., “pretty fierce” or “walking dead.” However, it is worth noting that oxymora can come in the form of a phrase, e.g., “Sometimes you must lose yourself to find yourself.”
Difference between Oxymoron and Paradox
When using oxymora, it is important not to confuse it with the paradox. The former joins together two seemingly contradictory or contrasting words. On the other hand, the latter is a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory observation consisting of full sentences. Another point is that while a paradox would seem to be contradictory, it is implicitly true. Meanwhile, an oxymoron is used for dramatic license, but on the face is nonsensical. Oxymora are prevalent in literature as well as everyday conversation.
Common Examples of Oxymoron
Alone in a crowd
Oxymoron Examples in Literature
Below are two extracts from Paradise Lost written by John Milton.
“What in me is dark Illumines, what is low raise and support; That to the height of this great Argument I may assert Eternal Providence, And justify the way of God to men…”
Milton uses oxymora to great effect to indicate the removal of sin from humankind and to have them eradicated from “dark” to “illumines,” and “low” to “raise.” This contradiction tells of the choices that humans were given after being cast out of Eden, to either demonstrate contempt for God like Satan or to obey Him. The righteous choice of man resulted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which renewed the connection between humanity and God.
“A dungeon horrible, on all sides round, As one great furnace, flamed; yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible…”
These oxymora describe the warped conditions of Hell, in which flames exist but contain no light, only darkness. The obvious implications are that since light is a symbol of goodness, it could not possible exist in a place as evil as Hell.
“The World is Too Much With Us,” written by Williams Wordsworth.
“Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
In this sonnet, Williams offers some criticism that has been common since at least the Industrial Revolution. Our advancements as a civilization come at the cost of eliminating the wonders of nature. In this case, “boon” means advantage, or benefit. By combining sordid (unsavory) with the boon, he is casting a benefit (an otherwise positive term) in a negative light. These two words negate each other in a division that threatens our appreciation for the simple and natural.
“Romeo and Juliet,” written by Williams Shakespeare.
“Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical! Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!”
After Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in a duel, a furious Juliet uses several oxymora to describe him, signifying who she believed he had been before feeling as though she had been deceived. Shakespeare effectively employs this by first assigning a positive characteristic (beautiful) to a negative object (tyrant), then an unflattering object (fiend) is paired up with a positive attribute (angelical), attributes of a dove are placed on a raven, and the aggressive behaviors of a wolf are assigned to a lamb.
Function of Oxymoron
An oxymoron can be used to great emotional effect whether in a poem or short story. For instance, virtually everybody is familiar with the expression, “parting is sweet sorrow” from Romeo and Juliet. When we read or hear somebody speak these words, it immediately appeals to our senses. It is thought-provoking and leads us to contemplate the meaning of contradicting ideas. On the surface, this expression appears confusing because the feeling of sorrow is hardly a sweet emotion. On the other hand, while it is sad to say goodbye to somebody, the anticipation of seeing them again is worth feeling happy about. This expression highlights the complexity of love in a succinct manner that cannot be stated in any other way.
Of course, in regular day-to-day conversation, it is not usual to use an oxymoron to express something as deep or sophisticated. Rather, it serves to demonstrate wit, entertain and make people laugh. An oxymoron adds color and personality to the speaker’s words. For example, Oscar Wilde was known for his ability to, “resist anything, except temptation.” Likewise, legendary baseball player Yogi Berra, in reference to a popular restaurant, once stated, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”