The term oxymoron is used to describe the juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory elements in a sentence or phrase. Whilst the individual elements may seem to strongly contradict each other, the idea or object that they are describing does not have to be a contradiction in terms. The elements which make up the oxymoron do not have to be a pair of single words; an oxymoron may also be made up of multiple words or short phrases. It is even possible to get an oxymoron which just consists of a single word made up of two contradictory elements. For example, the musical instrument “pianoforte”, which can be literally translated as “loud-soft”. Oxymora may be deliberate or they may be accidental constructions which have come about because of the evolution of language or misunderstandings about the true meanings of words. The plural of oxymoron can either be given as oxymorons or oxymora, depending on which etymology is being used.
What are the main types of Oxymoron?
Oxymora are most commonly created using adjective-noun combinations, such as an “open secret”, a “small crowd”, the “living dead” or a “genuine fake”. In these terms, the words seem to contradict each other, but when they are used together, they manage to create well-known and easily understandable terms. These kinds of oxymora are very commonly used, as an increasing number of concepts, objects and products emerge which can only be described succinctly by using a combination of words which seem to oppose each other. Noun-Verb oxymora are less common, but are still found quite frequently, especially in the literary world. A phrase such as “the silence whistled” is an example of this type of oxymoron.
Oxymora in Literature
In literature, oxymora are often used to highlight real life contradictions or situations where the readers need to be aware of something unusual. William Shakespeare used oxymora in many of his works, as oxymora were considered particularly witty in Elizabethan England. In Romeo and Juliet, oxymora such as “heavy lightness”, “feather of lead” and “cold fire” are frequently used to highlight the confused feelings of the characters, who are both aware that whilst they are beginning to fall in love with each other, their love is considered to be forbidden by both of their families. When the reader or theatre goer sees or hears the oxymoron, they immediately have to consider the implications of what they have just read or seen. For example, when the reader hears the phrase “Parting is such sweet sorrow” in Shakespeare’s work, it becomes very easy to imagine the kind of upset which is felt by two lovers who must part, but who are still filled with the joys of being in love. The oxymora in this scene of Romeo and Juliet highlight the complex nature of love.
Some more Shakespearean Oxymora:
“I must be cruel, only to be kind” – Hamlet
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” – Hamlet
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – Macbeth
“Fearful Bravery” – Julius Caesar
“The Fortunate Unhappy” – Twelfth Night
“Very Tragical Mirth” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“devise some virtuous lie” – Sonnet 72
Using an Oxymoron for Comedic Purposes
Oxymora can also be used for comedic effect in some texts or speeches. The apparent contradictions which are paired together can cause the reader to stop, think and then chuckle when they realise the implications of the phrase. In many cases, they can be used to highlight the inherent conflicts which we face every day. Phrases such as “I can’t tolerate intolerance” are a prime example of this. The infamous Andy Warhol quote “I’m a deeply superficial person” can also considered to be an example of a comedic oxymoron, because superficial is often used synonymously with “shallow”, and therefore deep seems to be a direct contradiction. However, when the meaning of the phrase is actually considered, it actually seems to be quite profound, meaning that the reader or listen has to question the validity of the phrase itself!
Oxymora in Everyday Life
People often use oxymora in everyday speech as a way to add extra flavour to their descriptions. Because we communicate a lot in the modern world, using speech and other media such as the internet, people often get tired of using the same, old descriptions to talk about things. In many cases, people want to give more colourful descriptions to everyday objects. In these cases, it is not uncommon for people to use an oxymoron such as “deceptively honest”, “impossible achievement” and “everyday miracle” to make their descriptions more interesting. Many oxymora have become so commonplace that people do not even realise that their elements can be considered unusual or contradictory! Oxymora may also be used to attempt to put a positive spin on events or to confuse listeners as to the true meaning of the phrase. For example, the phrase “a period of negative growth” is actually a term which can be used to describe a period of decline or an economic recession!
Some other examples of common oxymora which are used in everyday life:
Occasionally, people will claim that a certain phrase is an oxymoron when it is not actually a proper oxymoron, because they want to imply that the two elements of the phrase are contradictory to each other. This device is often used by comedians in their acts, as a comedic way to undermine something and raise a laugh from the audience. For example, comedians occasionally refer to “business ethics”, “government intelligence” or even “Microsoft Works” as being oxymora. Whilst these are not technically oxymora, the speaker may be of the opinion that the terms are in direct contradiction to one another. These types of phrases are sometimes referred to as rhetorical oxymora.