An oxymoron is a figure of speech that is made up of two or more words that seem to be the opposite of each other or truly are opposite of each other. In other words, oxymorons are contradictive words or phrases used intentionally to create an effect. Think jumbo shrimp. Or plastic silverware. Generally, an oxymoron phrase is a combination of an adjective or noun modifier, proceeded by a noun with contrasting meanings, such as a silent scream or paper towel.
Even the word oxymoron is an oxymoron. The word itself is formed from two Greek root words of opposite meaning:
Put the two terms together, and the literal meaning of oxymoron is a sharp moron. How that's for conflicting terms.
Oxymorons are a literary device authors use to create a special effect in their writing. Sometimes oxymorons are used to generate a bit of drama for the reader. Other times they are used to make readers stop and think about what was just read and ponder what exactly the author meant.
Oxymorons, by their nature, are thought-provoking, however, let's look at some that are more perplexing than others.
The same difference. How can something be the same and yet different? Answer: People are basically the same and yet individually very different.
Bittersweet. How can something be bitter and still sweet? Answer: Someone coming home after a long absence is bitter because the person had been away, but sweet because he or she is home once again.
In the song "Break Free" sung by Ariana Grande, the lyric: “I only wanna die alive," is an oxymoron. Some songs use oxymorons and contradictions to convey a sense of an impossible desire or an inner struggle, which is most probably what this song is striving for. The problem is, unlike most oxymorons that are possible, it is impossible to die alive.
Petrarch’s 134th Sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) provides lovely imagery through the use of an oxymoron.
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;
Sir Thomas uses the contradictory terms of peace and war, burn and freeze, flee above and can I not arise for purposeful dramatic effect.
There can be no discussion of an oxymoron in drama without quoting from Romeo and Juliet 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?”
This section drips in oxymoronic phrasings including “hating love,” “heavy lightness,” “bright smoke,” “cold fire,” and “sick health.”
Movie titles offer some great examples of oxymorons because a movie title needs to be dramatic and enticing and what is more interesting than a movie promising contradiction? Some titles using oxymorons:
Science Fiction Writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) made excellent use of oxymorons in his book Fahrenheit 451. Some examples include:
Not all contradictory terms are oxymorons. An oxymoron is much more specific. It also must be intentionally written to suggest that two contradictory ideas go together because their unlikely combination reveals a deeper truth. For example, the term "business ethics" might be a contradiction in terms. However, the phrase is not an oxymoron because the term has no deeper meaning.
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