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Understanding the Meaning and Usage of Oxymorons (With Examples)
Writers and poets have used oxymorons for ages as a literary device to express life's intrinsic contradictions and inconsistencies. In speeches, it creates a sense of irony, sarcasm, or humor. In this article, we explore the meaning and purpose of an oxymoron and provide some examples from famous literary works.
What is an oxymoron?
An oxymoron is a literary device that pairs contradictory words. As a contradiction of terms in conversation, this literary device can enhance an idea, create an impression, and entertain readers.
The word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron: it comes from the Greek words oxys, meaning sharp, and moronos, meaning stupid. Take this sentence, for example:
"His face revealed a vicious kindness; his victim let out a silent scream."
The sentence has two oxymorons: "vicious kindness" and "silent screams." If you read them literally, these phrases contradict themselves. Someone is vicious when they are deliberately cruel or violent. By that definition, no kindness can be cruel and violent, as kindness is the quality of being considerate and friendly. Also, a scream refers to a loud cry, which can't possess the quality of silence — the exact opposite of a scream.
This literary device may confuse someone learning English as a second language. As Richard Watson Todd said, "The true beauty of oxymorons is that, unless we sit back and really think, we happily accept them as normal English."
What are the effects of oxymorons in literature?
Oxymorons can achieve these three purposes in your writing:
First, oxymorons can enhance a lighthearted mood or highlight conflict. In the example mentioned earlier, we can see that "vicious kindness" and "silent screams" suggest a conflict situation. Also, take this statement as another example:
"He is an intelligent drunk spilling out a sober rant."
The sentence shows a playful use of oxymorons. A drunk isn't clearheaded enough to be intelligent; if our drunk is on a rant — speaking loudly in anger — he can't be sober. The thought evoked by this statement can be funny to readers, and it creates a playful tone.
Second, oxymorons can add a dramatic effect to an expression. At face value, it appears as inconsistencies that negate themselves. But as a complete thought, one of the words can amplify the meaning of the other. Consider this statement for example:
"This was a minor crisis, and the only choice was to drop the product line." (Todd 2007).
Here, "minor crisis" and "only choice" are oxymorons. But the word minor enhances the meaning of the phrase, indicating that the problem is intense but not too severe. The same goes for the phrase "only choice," with "only" making readers understand that there is one option alone. This usage creates an emphasis that adds a dramatic effect to the expression.
Also, oxymorons reveal a deeper meaning with the contradiction. It often expresses a complex idea that makes readers pause and ponder a statement. Going back to the example of "vicious kindness" and "silent screams," these oxymorons can possess a deeper meaning. Readers may stop to ask themselves, is it possible for kindness to be vicious? Or for screams to be silent? Probably. Out of consideration for others, we might do things to them that might seem cruel at the time but serve as an act of kindness in the future. Also, a silent scream can suggest a loud cry in the heart that's not expressed audibly.
Examples of oxymorons in literature
Writers have employed oxymorons in their work for ages. From prose to poetry, oxymorons have added variety and humor to famous literature, and here are some examples:
"A terrible beauty is born." — Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats (1921).
"His honour rooted in dishonour stood, And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true." — Lancelot and Elaine, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1859).
"I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief." — Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb (1823).
“Parting is such sweet sorrow That I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” — Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare (1597).
Todd, Richard Watson. Much Ado About English: Up and Down the Bizarre Byways of a Fascinating Language. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen