What Is an Oxymoron? Definition and Examples Image

While it might sound like a clever insult, an oxymoron is actually a figure of speech that can add flare to your writing.

By combining two terms that appear to be contradictory, you can create new meanings, make your readers think (or laugh), and maybe infuse your prose with a little irony.

Oxymoron Definition

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two words possessing contradictory meanings to create a startling effect.

The term itself contains two opposing ideas, from the Greek word oxys, meaning “sharp,” and moronos, meaning “dull” or “stupid.”

You can find examples of oxymorons in the following sentences:

Because of the minor crisis, we had to reschedule our trip.

Our only choice was to withdraw from the contest.

At first glance, the first example seems to make perfect sense. Since we’re undergoing a minor crisis, we might need to reschedule our trip.

But take the definition of the word crisis: a crisis is a time of great difficulty and importance. Therefore, based on that very definition, no crisis would rightly be described as “minor.”

Another oxymoron is found in the phrase “only choice.” A choice means there is more than one option to choose from, so it’s not possible to say there’s only one choice.

Different Combinations of Oxymorons

Knowing what oxymorons are and how to use them will help you give more life to your writing. The possibilities of creating an oxymoron are endless. Some of the more common combinations are:

  1. Using an adjective that means something opposite from the noun it describes. Examples include: “deafening silence,”  “best enemy,” “dull roar,” “open secret,” “sweet sorrow.”
  2. Using two nouns with opposing meanings. Examples are “love-hate relationship,” “paper towel.”
  3. Using two verbs with opposite meanings. Examples include “agreed to disagree”
  4. Using two adjectives with contradicting meanings. Examples include “alone together” and “bittersweet.”
  5. Using an unexpected adverb to describe an adjective or verb. Examples include “naturally weird,” “clearly confused.”

Significance of Oxymoron in Literature

The best writers know how to use different figures of speech, including oxymorons, to paint the picture that they want and evoke specific emotions from their readers.

Examples can be found in the works of ancient Greek poets, William Shakespeare’s sonnets, poems, and plays, and even modern comedy and political rhetoric.

Oxymoron can be employed to achieve the following:

1. To give a dramatic effect

What do you feel when you hear someone describing a scene as “beautiful,” versus someone saying it’s “painfully beautiful?”

The oxymoron “painfully beautiful” gives a more dramatic effect and calls the attention of the reader. The use of two conflicting concepts to describe something challenges us to think more, rather than just accepting the expected phrase.

Many times, oxymorons in literature help focus the reader’s attention to the existence of more than one way of viewing an experience.

For example, Shakespeare’s famous line, “Parting is such sweet sorrow” challenges our perspective about goodbyes: could it be that parting from someone we love is not wholly sorrowful, but comes with a tinge of sweetness?

Reading an oxymoron in this line causes us to think more deeply about the subject.

2. To add flavor to everyday speech

Sometimes, speakers or writers find a new way of expressing an idea by adding a contradicting adverb: for example, describing someone as “naturally weird” gives a whole new layer to that person’s weirdness.

3. To entertain

Other times, oxymorons may express an idea in a new way, just to show the writer’s creativity to entertain others.

Many writers use them to be humorous, like in the following line by Yogi Berra: “No one goes to that restaurant anymore—it’s always too crowded.”

What Are Some Examples of Oxymoron?

Reading actual examples from great works of literature will give you a clearer picture of how oxymorons work. The oxymorons are set in bold:

Example 1. From William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

I will bestow him, and will answer well

The death I gave him. So, again, good night.

I must be cruel, only to be kind:

Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

One word more, good lady.

The above passage from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet links two contradictory concepts: being cruel in order to be kind. The line refers to Hamlet’s desire to kill Claudius, the man who murdered his father and has now married his mother.

Hamlet believes that he is justified in killing Claudius because he doesn’t want his mother to be married to his father’s murderer.

Example 2. From Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle

He looked round for his gun, but in place of the clean, well-oiled fowling-piece, he found an old firelock lying by him, the barrel incrusted with rust, the lock falling off, and the stock worm-eaten. He now suspected that the grave roysterers of the mountains had put a trick upon him, and, having dosed him with liquor, had robbed him of his gun. Wolf, too, had disappeared, but he might have strayed away after a squirrel or partridge. He whistled after him, and shouted his name, but all in vain; the echoes repeated his whistle and shout, but no dog was to be seen.

Grave means “serious or solemn,” while roysterers refers to people who are partying or reveling. This combination from Rip Van Winkle gives us a glimpse of Rip’s confusion and of the supernatural “feel” of his mountain experience.

Example 3. From William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916”

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

The oxymoron “terrible beauty” is used not only once, but in fact appears again at the end of this poem by William Butler Yeats.

The poem talks about the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, when Irish nationalists revolted against the British government in Ireland. The violence during that time injured or killed thousands of people. 

Yeats uses the oxymoron “terrible beauty” to show the positive effects coming from that bloody event, with the desire for self-government growing and eventually leading to the War of Irish Independence.

Example 4. From The Book of Joel in the King James Bible

The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.

Two oxymorons are found in the above line from the Bible. The sun is a source of light and saying it will be turned into darkness clearly catches the reader’s attention.

The second oxymoron is in the phrase “the great and the terrible day of the Lord.” To say that something is great implies something good, whereas terrible is defined as something extremely or distressingly bad or serious.

Bible scholars believe the author intentionally used this choice of words to show a dual set of events, the good and the bad, occurring at the same time.

The use of the oxymoron invites the reader to ponder more deeply on what it could mean instead of just moving quickly to the next page.

Example 5. From Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

She held herself tight to him and her lips looked for his and then found them and were against them and he felt her, fresh, new and smooth and young and lovely with the warm, scalding coolness and unbelievable to be there in the robe that was as familiar as his clothes, or his shoes, or his duty and then she said, frightenedly, “And now let us do quickly what it is we do so that the other is all gone.

The above scene from Chapter 7 of For Whom the Bell Tolls describes the meeting between Robert Jordan and his lover, Maria.

While the entire passage shows the passion between the two lovers, an oxymoron right in the middle, “scalding coolness,” tells us of their conflicting emotions.

As an American soldier fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Robert battles with his obligation to fight and his desire to stay by Maria’s side.

Example 6. From William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

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?

Shakespeare’s use of a series of oxymorons in one passage stirs up in us the confusion that Romeo must have felt in pursuing a woman who was not accessible to him. We get to experience the mental conflict that he himself was undergoing.

Examples of Oxymoron in Pop Culture

Below are two examples of oxymorons from popular songs.

Example 1. From Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more.

People talking without speaking,

People hearing without listening,

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dare

Disturb the sound of silence.

Is it possible for people to talk without speaking, or to hear without listening? These oxymorons challenge us to think about the idea of living without truly connecting with others.

(Side note: Later, some people used the song to reference the Vietnam War, a war which many people believe was also full of contradictions.)

Example 2. From The Stylistics’s “Breakup to Make Up”

Break up to make up, that’s all we do

First you love me then you hate me, that’s a game for fools

The song lyrics describe the oxymoron “break up to make up” as a “game for fools,” showing the contradicting emotions that the writer feels for the state of his relationship.

Is “Awfully Good” an Oxymoron?

One of the most common oxymorons that you probably encounter regularly is “awfully good.” Both “awful” and “good” possess contradicting definitions, but together they’re often used to describe something wonderful.

Another common oxymoron is “terribly nice.” We don’t normally encounter a person who is both terrible and nice, but put these words together and you get a description of someone truly friendly.

How to Use Oxymorons

If you want to use any of the oxymoron examples listed here, or come up with your own creative spins, follow these steps:

  1. First, read more examples of oxymorons. The examples above will help you become more familiar with how to use them.
  2. When you want to describe a concept, explore all possible adjectives, including contradictory ones. Write them down on a sheet of notebook paper, or create a mind map by writing your main concept in a circle and drawing lines to other circles with one adjective in each.
  3. When you find a pair of contradicting adjectives for the concept you are exploring, string them together and see what effect they have.
  4. Continue experimenting until you achieve the result that you wish.

Enhance Your Writing

Using oxymorons effectively and successfully will likely take some practice. But don’t be afraid to experiment with them. Soon you will see that your writing becomes richer and fuller.

Because you have added this figure of speech to your toolbox, you will be able to challenge your readers to see more than one perspective of the ideas you present.

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