An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two contradictory or opposite terms together for rhetorical effect. This literary device has been originated from the Greek word ‘oxumōron’. It was first known used in mid 17th century.
An oxymoron pairs two words with opposing meanings (e.g. “jumbo shrimp”). The contradictory terms seem illogical but reveal a deeper truth when analyzed together. Oxymoron’s create rhetorical impact and humor through the unexpected juxtaposition of contrasting words.
Functions of Oxymoron
Oxymoron’s are useful in the English language as they create effective titles of the text, add dramatic effect and gain a comic effect. This literary device is used in our daily conversation to show wit and add aroma to a speech. One of the most significant effect of using oxymoron is that, it makes the language rich and suggestive.
What are the 3 types of oxymoron?
The three main types of oxymoron’s. Each brings together contradictions in different ways, which adds depth and complexity to language and thought. These are as under: –
- Contradictory Words
- Contradictory Phrases
- Contradictory Concepts
1- Contradictory Words
This type of oxymoron takes two opposing words and fuses them into a single phrase, resulting in combinations like “bitter sweet,” “deafening silence,” and “living dead.” The juxtaposition of contradictory words creates a rhetorical effect and draws attention to the tension between these opposing elements. This not only adds depth to language but often serves as a powerful tool for poets and writers to convey complex emotions or ideas.
2- Contradictory Phrases
Oxymoron’s can also manifest as contradictory phrases. In these phrases, the entire expressions are formed by combining words with opposing meanings. The examples of contradictory phrases include, ‘organized chaos’, ‘terribly pleased’, and ‘accidentally on purpose’. In these cases, it is the phrase as a whole that contrasts with itself, which creates a unique blend of contradictions that can be humorous.
3- Contradictory Concepts
The third type of oxymoron involves juxtaposing abstract concepts with opposing meanings. This include “sad joy”, “dark brightness” and “cruel kindness.” It involves intangible ideas rather than specific words or phrases. In this type, the contradictory concepts are combined so that the writers and speakers can explore the complexities of human emotions, moral dilemmas and the intricacies of the human psyche.
Common examples of oxymoron’s are as under:
- Living dead
- Deafening silence
- Bitter sweet
- Pretty ugly
- Alone together
Oxymoron Examples in Sentences
Examples of oxymoron’s used in sentences include:
- The loud silence in the room was unsettling after the argument.
- She let out a cruel kindness by telling her friend the harsh truth about her failing business.
- He was filled with depressed elation after getting the job he didn’t really want.
- The young sage nodded in naive wisdom as he attempted to understand the complex philosophy.
- It was a chaotic order as the toddlers played together in the preschool classroom.
- The burning ice felt numb and hot on her skin during the cryotherapy session.
- The deliberately accidental bump caused him to spill his coffee as he walked by.
- His speech was filled with refreshing clichés about unity and working together.
- The failing success of his last book left the author wary about his next publication.
- It was an original copy, one of the first prints fresh off the presses.
- The living dead wandered the post-apocalyptic city, driven only by their instinct to feed.
Oxymoron Examples in poetry
Here are some examples of oxymoron used effectively in poetry:
1- “London” by William Blake
“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”
The speaker describes their wanderings through the streets of London. He specifically mentions the streets along the River Thames. The term ‘charter’d’ has been used to indicate that these streets are controlled and regulated, which suggests a sense of restriction and limitation. The repeated use of the word “marks” conveys a sense of deep sadness and suffering in the faces of these individuals. The “marks of weakness” and “marks of woe” suggest that the people of London bear the visible scars or signs of their struggles and hardships.
2- “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;”
Keats addresses the nightingale as an “immortal Bird”. He expresses the idea that the nightingale is not subject to death in the same way that humans are. He admires the bird’s ability to transcend the limitations of mortality. Keats explores the contrast between the fleeting nature of human existence and the eternal qualities of art and nature. The nightingale’s song provides a way to escape from the ordinary and temporary, which gives the speaker a taste of something everlasting and timeless in the world of imagination and nature..
3- “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
In the above stanza, the speaker demonstrates the idea of self contradiction. He begins by asking, “Do I contradict myself?” This question acknowledges that he sometimes holds conflicting or contradictory beliefs or experiences. In the next two lines, he is embracing and accepting these contradictions. Whitman essentially says that it is perfectly fine to contradict himself because he is a complex and multifaceted individual. The phrase “I am large, I contain multitudes” implies that he is not limited to a single and consistent identity but encompasses a wide range of thoughts, emotions and experiences.
4- “Storm on the Island” by Seamus Heaney
“We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.”
The oxymoron in the lines is the juxtaposition of “empty air” and “huge nothing.” The first line suggests that people are constantly surrounded by a vast and seemingly empty space. This might be a metaphor for the world or life itself, which can sometimes feel overwhelming or devoid of clear meaning or purpose. It highlights the idea that we exist within a vast and often uncertain environment.
The second line reflects the paradox of human nature. It points out the irony that we often fear something as vast as “nothing” or emptiness. This “nothing” might represent the unknown, the void or the uncertainty of the future. People tend to fear what they cannot understand or control and the emptiness or vastness of the world can be unsettling or frightening.
Oxymoron Examples in drama
Here are some good examples of oxymoron’s used in dramatic works and plays:
1- “Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare
“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
The oxymoron of “more woe” and “Juliet and her Romeo” irony highlights the tragedy of their love story. It conveys the idea that their love ultimately leads to immense sorrow and tragedy. The use of “woe” in conjunction with “Romeo” highlights the inevitable and heartbreaking outcome of their love. The sweetness of their affection is overshadowed by the tragic consequences that befall them. This oxymoron captures the essence of the play, which is a tale of love and tragedy intertwined.
2- “Macbeth” by Shakespeare
“Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
“Black desires” conveys the dark ambitions that drive Macbeth. The speaker says the ‘stars to ‘hide your fires’ and plead to ‘light’ not to see these desires. He is essentially expressing a desire for concealment and privacy. The use of the oxymoron “black and deep” underscores the internal conflict within the speaker. These lines convey a sense of inner turmoil and moral complexity.
3- “Hamlet” by Shakespeare
“I must be cruel only to be kind.”
This oxymoron captures Hamlet’s inner conflict – he thinks being cruel (killing Claudius) is the only kind thing to do. Hamlet is explaining his intentions to his mother i.e. Queen Gertrude, qua his seemingly harsh and critical behavior towards her.
4- “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams
“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people.”
The oxymoron of “real magic” suits the desperate and contradictory nature of Blanche Dubois. In this context, Blanche is expressing her desire for a life that is not bound by harsh realities but rather filled with enchantment and wonder. She yearns for a world that is more beautiful and less harsh than the one she has experienced. This reflects her escapist tendencies and her struggle with the painful realities of her life.
5- “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!
Let us do something, while we have the chance!
It is not everyday that we are needed.”
The oxymoron’s of “idle discourse” and “needed” reflect the absurdity and paralysis of the characters. In the aforestated stanza, the speaker is urging action and a sense of urgency. It has been emphasized that the time is precious, so instead of engaging in idle conversation, one should make the most of the opportunity at hand. The speaker suggests that there are rare occasions where the help of the people is required, therefore, they should consume their time in taking meaningful steps.
6- “Essay on Man” by Pope
“Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great.”
The lines contain oxymoron’s i.e. “Isthmus”, “Middle state”, “Darkly wise” and “Rudely great”. These oxymoron’s in these lines serve to create a sense of complexity and contradiction in the speaker’s state of being. The speaker is neither wholly ordinary nor completely exceptional. These oxymoron’s possess a form of wisdom that are shrouded in obscurity or enigma.
Oxymoron vs Paradox
‘Paradox’ is a statement that, on the face, seems illogical yet is found to be true when scanned. It is a common element in concise writing. For example, the child is the father of the man. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written by Keats where poet said, ‘heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
‘Oxymoron’ is a figure of speech that shows the two words or lines of opposite significance together to create the effect—for example, cruel kindness, small crowd, living history, etc.
More to read
- Literary Devices (A – Z List)
- Anaphoric Examples