Oxymoron | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Oxymoron | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature


Oxymoron Definition

Oxymoron is a figure in which contradictory words are placed side by side for raising a striking effect.

The oxymoron is generally described as the extreme form of the epigram. When the brevity of an epigrammatic utterance is carried to the extreme point, and two contradictory words are juxtaposed, or placed side by side, the figure is called the oxymoron.

What does Oxymoron Mean?

Oxymoron involves a contradiction in terms, not in mere ideas. Being closely allied to epigram, the effect of this figure is seemingly absurd but it really suggests a subtle meaning. The exceptional coincidence of the contradictory forms is what arrests our attention.

‘The figure’ Fowler warns, ‘needs discreet handling or its effect may be absurd rather than impressive.’ Lack of discernment in the use of contradictory terms often leads to unhappy results, as in ‘As you see, the discrepancy is immensely slight’

In the example ‘She was regularly irregular in her presence in the college’, we get a case of oxymoron, for here (a) we find two words “regularly’ and ‘irregular’ which are sharply contradictory; (b) the contradictory words are set side by side ; (e) at first its effect seems absurd but it really suggests a subtle meaning-her irregularity of presence is so systematic that it will be no exaggeration to call it regular; and (d) the juxtaposition of the contradictory terms helps to enhance the effect of the expression.

Characteristics of Oxymoron

The chief characteristics of an oxymoron are given below:

(I) To raise a sense of contradiction two sharply opposing terms are used in the same sentence.

(II) The contradictory words are set side by side.

(II) Such placing suggests a striking meaning and emphasizes the sense.

Oxymoron Examples

The oxymoron, thus, consists in the juxtaposition of two contradictory words in order to achieve impressiveness or some significant sense. A few examples of this figure are given below:

You must hasten slowly.

This is nothing but imprison’d liberty.

This is the effect of a senseless sense.

You have a plentiful lack of money.

Life is bitter sweet.

In each of the above cases, two contradictory words ‘hasten’ and ‘slowly’, ‘imprison’d’ and ‘liberty’, ‘senseless’ and ‘sense’, ‘plentiful’ and ‘lack’ and ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet-are juxtaposed to have the effect of impressiveness in the ianguage used or statements made.

Examples with Illustrations

(a) They have a plentiful lack of wit. (Shakespeare)

This is an oxymoron.

In this figure two sharply contradictory words are set side by side for the sake of emphasis.

Here we find two contradictory words ‘plentiful’ and ‘lack’, which are juxtaposed. The statement seems to be absurd at first (for, how can ‘lack’ be considered ‘plentiful’), but soon we perceive a striking meaning in it: the absence of wit is not small but great indeed.

(b) And all its aching joys are now no more. (Wordsworth)

This is an oxymoron.

This figure consists in the setting of contradictory terms side by side, raising a striking effect.

Here two opposing terms, ‘aching’ and ‘joys’, are juxtaposed. The expression seems absurd at first, for we know joys to be pleasing, not aching. But soon we realize that it suggests a subtle meaning: the joys are that much intense as are some sufferings that ache.

(c) Do that good mischief which may make this island/ Thine forever. (Shakespeare )

This is an oxymoron.

In this figure two contradictory words are set side by side for the purpose of emphasis.

Here two contradictory words, ‘good’ and ‘mischief’ are juxtaposed.

While the statement seems to be absurd at the first reading or hearing, it reveals a subtle meaning: what is a mischief to Miranda may be good to Caliban!

Epigram Vs Oxymoron

(a) In epigram the contradiction appears through a sentence or a clause where opposing terms are usually kept apart, but is oxymoron contradictory words are set side by side. (b) An epigram usually carries a deep thought or truth, but an oxymoron may not do so.

Paradox Vs Oxymoron

(a) The contradiction in paradox comes from without, the inconsistency with the generally admitted opinion being detected on a close examination of the sentence which usually carries no formally contrasting words, but that in oxymoron comes from within, sharply contradictory terms being set side by side within the sentence itself. (b) In paradox we find a proposition which is contrary to received opinion, but it need not be so in oxymoron.

Antithesis Vs Epigram Vs Oxymoron

Antithesis Epigram Oxymoron
1. There are two contrasted words or ideas. There is a contradiction in the apparent meaning of a statement. Two contrasted words are present.
2. These contrasted words or ideas are set against each other in a balanced form. The statement is brief and terse and causes a shock. These words are juxtaposed or placed side by side.
3. The purpose is to emphasise the idea or thought contained. The purpose is to rouse some inner thought or significance. The purpose is to have greater emphasis or impressiveness.

Commonly Used Phrases of Oxymoron

There are some Common Oxymoron which, on account of their frequent use, have lost their freshness and glitter, and are hardly conscious of the striking nature of the contradiction they raise. Some such examples are given below:

an honest rogue

a painful pleasure

a quiet noise

darkness visible

active idleness

pleasing pains

an open secret

a pious fraud

a tedious amusement

dumb discourse

harmonious discord

cruel kindness

artfully artless

carefully careless

shabby genteel

expressive silence

noble revenge

solemn trifling

white lie

a silent rebuke

a waking dream

a living death

Examples of Oxymoron in Literature

  1. Thus idly busy rolls their world away. (Goldsmith)
  2. The book full blockhead, ignorantly read. (Pope )
  3. Whose dread command is lawless law. (Byron )
  4. It was a pleasing fear. (Byron)
  5. So loathed the bright dishonour of his love. (Tennyson)
  6. A privacy of glorious light is thine. (Wordsworth)
  7. This pleasing anxious being o’er reigned. (Gray)
  8. [Of James I ] The most learned fool in Christendom.
  9. With wanton head, and giddy cunning,

The melting voice through mazes running. (Milton )

  1. I find no peace, and all my war is done ;

I fear and hope; I burn and freeze in ice. (Wyatt )

  1. Such welcome and unwelcome things at once.
  2. With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage. (Shakespeare )
  3. Hasten slowly.
  4. Among the faithless, faithful only he.
  5. A little noiseless noise among the leaves.
  6. O Death in life, the days that are no more. (Tennyson)
  7. If ever thou shalt love

In the sweet pangs of it remember me. (Shakespeare )

  1. Upon Death’s purple altar now

See where the victor victim bleeds.

  1. O heavy lightless! serious vanity!

Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! (Shakespeare )

  1. The shackles of old love straiten’d him,

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,

And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true. (Tennyson )

  1. I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief. (Lamb)
  2. In this shrill bush of quietude.
  3. His humble ambition, proud humility,

His jarring concord, his disorder dulcet.

  1. The toiling pleasure sickens into pain. (Goldsmith)
  2. But fate thee well, most foul, most fair! farewell,

Thou pure impiety and impious purity! (Shakespeare )

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