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Oxymoron

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English

Oxymorons are quite often used in poetry but can also be found in many different types of text as well as in everyday language.

What is an Oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that puts two words next to each other with very different meanings that end up making sense in a strange way. The first word is usually used to describe the second word in a way that contrasts with it.

Old news is an everyday example of an oxymoron, as news is meant to be current.

It might be quite hard to wrap your head around this definition - how on earth can opposites make sense together? Let's take a look at some examples to explain.

Examples of common oxymorons

Oxymorons are probably more common than you think. These examples should help you understand how oxymorons are used, and how two opposites together can make sense!

Oxymoron, Examples of Oxymoron, StudySmarterThree classic oxymorons, ecomythsalliance.org

There are hundreds of oxymorons, so let's take a look at some of the most common ones.

Deafening silence. The two words which make up this oxymoron mean completely different things. 'Deafening' means something so loud you can't hear anything else, and 'silence' is the opposite, a lack of sound. But when the two words are combined, they give a new meaning. Deafening silence means 'an absence of noise that cannot be ignored'.

Although oxymorons might seem quite complicated, you probably already know some, and perhaps even use oxymorons in everyday. Have you ever heard the phrases, small crowd, going nowhere, or good grief? These are all commonly used oxymorons that use contrasting words to create new meanings.

We know that a crowd is usually a large group of people rather than a small one, that you can't actually be going nowhere, and we can see that good and grief are contrasting words. Once you are able to spot common oxymorons like these, it should get easier to identify and understand them when you come across them in literature.

Examples of oxymorons in Literature

Now that you have learned about what oxymorons are and how they are used, we will have a look at different uses of oxymorons in Literature (you might come across these in your exams!)

'Parting is such sweet sorrow' (Romeo and Juliet, W. Shakespeare (1595))

This is one of the most well-known oxymorons in Literature, said by Juliet in the famous play as she says goodbye to Romeo. The oxymoron is 'sweet sorrow', and shows that Juliet is sad that she has to say goodbye, but happy because she will be able to meet Romeo again. This shows how oxymorons can offer a deeper meaning.

'A terrible beauty is born' (Easter 1916, WB Yeats (1921))

This example is taken from a famous poem about the Irish rebellion against the British government. The oxymoron focuses on the difference between the 'terrible' things that occurred during the rebellion and the 'beauty' of the Irish as they sought independence. Once again, this is an example of an oxymoron being used to create a deeper meaning.

'Of melancholy merriment' (Don Juan, Lord Byron (1818-24))

Our final example is taken from Byron's epic poem, Don Juan. It is trying to explain the connections between feelings of sadness and feelings of joy. This is a great example of how writers use oxymorons to make connections between things that aren't commonly connected.

Reminding ourselves that oxymorons are two words next to each other with very different meanings that end up making sense in a strange way, we can look at these examples and realize that we can make sense of what they are saying. There can be a sweet sorrow, a terrible beauty, or a melancholy merriment; we just have to consider the contrasting words a little bit longer to find the deeper meaning.

How do you know it's an oxymoron?

As we have already discovered, an oxymoron is a language device that uses contrast to create meaning. There are other types of language devices that also focus on contrast, and it can get quite confusing when you are trying to identify what type of language device you are looking at. It is always good to practice identifying different language devices and to learn the differences between them.

Oxymoron vs. Juxtaposition

We already know what oxymorons are, so let's talk about some similar language devices that use contrast to highlight differences. Juxtaposition is a wider term, it is a language device that places two things close together that have a contrasting effect. An oxymoron is a specific type of juxtaposition that uses just two words.

Juxtaposition uses more than two words to contrast. So, if it's two words placed right together that contrast each other, it's probably an oxymoron.

Oxymoron vs. Paradox

Another language device that contrasts two ideas is called a paradox.

A paradox contains a contradiction that makes the sentence seem illogical.

This might sound a little confusing - so here's an example:

This sentence is a lie.

This is an easy example of a paradox. Logically, the sentence cannot be both 'true' and a 'lie' at the same time. If the sentence is a lie, it is telling us something that is true. If it is a true sentence, then it cannot be a lie.

An easy way to tell the difference between a paradox and an oxymoron is to look at the number of words. An oxymoron is the only type of language device that contrasts itself in only two words.

Oxymoron, Comic strip of oxymoron, StudySmartera cartoon of two men talking, thefunnytimes.com

Oxymoron - Key takeaways

  • An oxymoron is a language device that uses contrast. An oxymoron is a figure of speech.
  • An oxymoron takes two words with opposing meanings and puts them together to make sense in a strange or different way.
  • Oxymorons are a common language device used in poetry, but can also be used in other types of literature, as well as in everyday speech.
  • Oxymorons have everyday uses, such as good grief, going nowhere, and a small crowd.

  • You can identify an oxymoron as it is made up of only two contrasting words, whereas other language devices such as juxtaposition and paradox use phrases or sentences that oppose each other.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron combines two words with opposite meanings - this leads to a new and different meaning from the one the words have on their own.

An oxymoron is a rhetorical figure where two apparently contradictory words are placed together.

Pronunciation: ok see 'maw ron

Some examples of oxymorons are a deafening silence, a small crowd, a working vacation, and going nowhere.

Final Oxymoron Quiz

Question

What are oxymorons used for?

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Answer

They are used to show contrast and/or a deeper meaning.


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Question

What is an example of an oxymoron from everyday life?

  1. Good day 

  2. Good grief

  3. Good morning

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Answer

2. Good grief

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Question

What type of language device is an oxymoron?


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Answer

A figure of speech/figurative language

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Question

What types of literature most commonly have oxymorons?

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Answer

Fiction and poetry.

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Question

What types of literature can include oxymorons?

  1. Poetry

  2. Prose

  3. All types of literature

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Answer

3. All types of literature.

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Question

How can you identify an oxymoron?

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Answer

It uses two words that contrast with each other.

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Question

What other language devices can be confused with oxymorons?


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Answer

Paradox and juxtaposition.

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Question

Which famous Shakespeare play contains the oxymoron sweet sorrow?


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Answer

Romeo and Juliet.

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Question

What could be paired with the word ‘deafening’ to make it an oxymoron?


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Answer

Silence.

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Question

​Define the words in this oxymoron: Melancholy merriment.

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Answer

melancholy = a depression, a gloomy state of mind

    Merriment = light fun, an enjoyable time

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Question

How is an oxymoron different from a paradox?

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Answer

An oxymoron uses two words, a paradox is a phrase that contradicts itself.

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Question

What is the definition of an oxymoron?

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Answer

Two words next to each other that have very different meanings that end up making sense in a strange way.

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Question

What can oxymorons help writers to do?

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Answer

Oxymorons are a useful tool for showing contrast and for exploring a deeper or secondary meaning.

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Question

Is this an example of an oxymoron? Bad hair day.

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Answer

No.

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