I. What is Oxymoron?
My room is an organized mess, or controlled chaos, if you will. Same difference.
The above phrase is packed with oxymorons, including “organized mess,” “controlled chaos,” and “same difference.” For something to be organized, it cannot be a mess. Chaos is anything but controlled! And how can something be different and the same? The answer is the oxymoron.
The word oxymoron is derived from the Greek phrases oxus and mōros, meaning a mix of “sharp and keen” and “dull and dumb.”
II. Examples of Oxymoron
We use many oxymoronic phrases in everyday speech, oftentimes to add some humor to an otherwise ordinary sentence.
For instance, imagine a woman who has a thirty-five year old son who still lives in her attic, playing video games and refusing to get a real job. An oxymoronic name for him could be used in this way:
That’s my adult child. Poor thing still can’t get himself into the real adult world.
An “adult child” literally does not make sense—you cannot have an adult who is also a child. This oxymoron, though, serves to describe an adult who refuses to act like an adult.
Consider the common snippet of advice:
When sneaking around, causing trouble, or entering a stressful situation, we often advise people to “act naturally.” Of course, if one is acting naturally, one is not acting. Still, we understand the phrase because, despite its contradictory elements, it makes sense.
III. The Importance of Using Oxymoron
Oxymora are important in a variety of ways. For one, they spice up everyday conversation with wit and humor. On the other hand, they also challenge audiences in speeches, poetry, and prose with confusing phrases that apparently contradict themselves, but upon further inspection, make sense. Oxymora encourage audiences to think beyond everyday logic in order to critically think about and understand paradoxes.
IV. Oxymoron in Literature
Oxymora provide literature with comedic, thought-provoking, and dramatic phrases.
Read this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen 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.
Upon realizing his love is for an unavailable woman, Romeo releases a slur of oxymora including: “loving hate,” “heavy lightness,” “serious vanity,” and “bright smoke.” The use of oxymoron here serves to highlight the discord that Romeo experiences between his strong passion for a woman, and the logic which tells him he cannot love her.
Consider this excerpt from Alexander Pope’s “Essays of Criticism”:
The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always list’ning to himself appears.
Pope’s “bookful blockhead” who is “ignorantly read” serves to wittily describe someone who reads a lot but learns little from his reading.
V. Examples of Oxymoron in Pop Culture
Ne-Yo describes a woman as a “Beautiful Monster,” an oxymoron meaning that a woman is simultaneously attractive and beautiful as well as terrifying and dangerous. This is further emphasized by the song’s other lyrics:
You’re a knife
Sharp and deadly
And it’s me
That you cut into
But I don’t mind
In fact I like it
Though I’m terrified
The speaker in this song is simultaneously satisfied and terrified when faced with this oxymoronic woman.
Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” Throughout this song, the speaker describes the mysterious “sounds of silence.” Of course, silence is by definition a lack of sound, so the “sound of silence” is an oxymoron.
The lyrics further explain what this phrase means:
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People who talk without speaking and hear without listening serve to oxymoronically describe people who live without meaning and connection in their lives. Simon and Garfunkel use oxymoron in this song to meaningfully describe a complicated idea of people who communicate but are not truly connected.
VI. Related Terms: Oxymoron vs. Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is the placement of two different or contradictory elements in close proximity to one another. Oxymoron, too, is the placement of contradictory elements side by side. The difference between juxtaposition and oxymoron is one of specificity: oxymoron is specifically a phrase containing two contradictory elements, whereas juxtaposition may refer to the position of two different characters, settings, or other plot elements. Oxymoron is a specific type of juxtaposition.
For an example of juxtaposition versus oxymoron, consider a trip to a restaurant:
The waitress serves a small appetizer of shrimp cocktail alongside a huge appetizer of jumbo shrimp, fried and dipped in three different sauces. The person who ordered shrimp cocktail laughs, and says, “Who knew jumbo shrimp were so much bigger? They must have the poor shrimp lifting weights!”
The juxtaposition of a small shrimp appetizer beside a large one is comedic, as the great difference in size is unexpected for two things that are, in name, both shrimp. The example of oxymoron, on the other hand, may be found in the same passage:
Another reason why this passage is comedic is the idea of “jumbo shrimp,” a phrase which is oxymoronic. Shrimp, by definition, are considered small, as we call wimpy people “shrimp.” Jumbo, on the other hand, implies that something is particularly large. The phrase “jumbo shrimp” is a comedic example of oxymoron.