Figurative Speech: Oxymorons

Oxymorons – they can be amusing or ironic, or they can give you a headache as you try to get your head around them. We use oxymorons all the time. They are terms that make sense initially, but appear to present a contradiction by fusing together two different and opposing words or terms.

Be careful not to confuse oxymoron with paradox which is a term or phrase that presents an internal contradiction of two statements that are both true, but cancel the other out. Examples of oxymoron in typical everyday speech include:

  • Less is more
  • Open secret
  • Hiding in plain sight
  • Please send us original copies
  • Genuine copy
  • Even in our genres: black comedy (something that is serious but comedic)
  • The only choice
  • Organised mess
  • And of course, “organised chaos”

I won’t write any further about paradox, because I have covered it before. As you can see, we use oxymoron in common language but it is a literary device and there are many examples in fiction and in poetry. The word “oxymoron” is itself an oxymoron taken from the Greek words and terms – oxy meaning sharp and moron meaning dull.

Examples in Literature

The most common that we might use as writers, is the term “deafening silence”. It’s a little overused today, but we know that it means it is so quiet as to be eerie. We rarely experience complete silence with the fast pace of life we have today. Even out in the country (in England) we can hear the distant sound of traffic. We are rarely far from a main road or a motorway. The sound of silence can be deafening as other sounds takes over – our heartbeat, if we have tinnitus, every creak of a floorboard can sound incredibly loud.

What about bitter sweet? We use to describe flavours (on my Random Review Site I’ve used the term to describe some of the reviewed coffees). Some chocolate is bitter sweet too, especially that with very high cocoa content and low sugar content. Something can be bitter and sweet at the same time, and food can also be sweet and sour at the same time.

We also describe love as bitter sweet. Shakespeare is a master of using oxymoron to demonstrate the pains of the heart.

Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Here, the oxymoron from Romeo and Juliet is “sweet sorrow”. Romeo & Juliet has many more, perhaps highlighting the juxtaposition of their situation (and most of the oxymora are expressed by Juliet who is perhaps the more realistic and grounded about the struggles of their potential relationship), but also how much pain love can cause us. Something that feels good should not cause us anguish, pain, anger, resentment and grief, but it does and this, the most tragic of love stories, highlights that perfectly.

Later, Juliet realises the gravity of the situation when she proclaims.

My only love came from my only hate

My favourite example of oxymoron is the classic song The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The title itself is an oxymoron, but most of the lyrics are used to show that there are people living meaningless lives. Consider these lines.

People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,

Which are a wonderful analysis of what happens so often today, people talking about shit without saying anything, and only listening to others’ viewpoints so they can respond (usually to tell them why they are wrong) and not so they can understand the point of view of that other person and meet them halfway.

Silence like a cancer grows.

Problems start when we stop talking. This is especially true of relationships.

The Function of the Oxymoron

There are three basic reasons to use oxymoron as a literary device, then.

  • Irony: to show the innate contradiction of a thing by using contradictory terms. The examples of Juliet above show the difficulty of being in a relationship with Romeo. One I have used is “Thank God I’m an atheist”
  • Humour: Mark Twain famously once said “I can resist everything except temptation”. It’s a common tool used by comedians
  • To make you stop and think: such as the lyrics by Simon and Garfunkel, the “sound of silence”, and several other lyrics besides in the song.
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