Oxymoron Definition in Literature

An oxymoron in literature is a symbolic language tool where two or more contrasting words are put next to each other to create a unique feeling or emotion because of this contrast.

These words might at first seem to not make any sense as they are directly opposite, but this opposition is part of the fun of using an oxymoron, to begin with! In addition, they can help reveal something else about the text we are reading through the odd use of words next to each other (known as a juxtaposition).

You can find the use of oxymorons in poetry, creative writing, persuasive pieces such as speeches, and even in everyday conversation. Anywhere where you might want to create emphasis by using contrast!

Where does the word oxymoron come from?

The first half of the word ‘Oxymoron’ comes from the Ancient Greek word ‘Oxus,’ which means ‘sharp.’ The second half is taken from the Ancient Greek Word ‘Mōros’, meaning ‘dull’ or ‘foolish.’ Taken together, we get a word that translates as ‘sharply dull,’ which is an example of an oxymoron itself! This makes it an example of an autological word!

Examples of oxymoron

Perhaps the best way to learn about oxymorons in literature is through examples. This way, the techniques and effects of this tool can be felt. Here are some examples of an oxymoron in a sentence:

  • “After the teacher had finished speaking, there was a deafening silence within the room.”
  • “The comedian was seriously funny.”
  • “Walking through the city in a busy crowd, we were alone together.”
  • “The amateur baker made a perfectly imperfect cake.”
  • “My fears grew smaller as the night went on.”
  • “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” – George Orwell, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
  • “Her face let out a silent scream as she watched.”

Oxymorons can also be found in everyday language, such as walking dead,’ ‘only choice,’ and ‘old news.’

What is the purpose of an oxymoron in literature?

The purpose of an oxymoron in literature will vary depending on a few factors. What is the author’s purpose? What is the text type? Is it written to entertain, persuade or explain?

Here are some potential uses of an oxymoron to think about when reading texts that include them or even when getting ready to write your own:

  • To add dramatic effect. An oxymoron can be very dramatic! Poets like William Shakespeare would use this figurative device to emphasize the emotions felt by his characters. We can see this in Romeo and Juliet, where the pain and pleasure of love are described in the line ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’. Not only does this help define love as a complex emotion, but it also feels grander and over-the-top.
  • To reveal a deeper meaning. Oxymorons can also make the reader aware of something they might not have noticed within the text. Like metaphors, oxymorons can reveal a hidden layer of significance in the story. For example, a character with a ‘sad smile’ might be trying to hide their true emotions.
  • To poke fun at something with irony. We see this frequently in persuasive texts. Here, a writer will use an oxymoron to show how silly or absurd something is. We could describe a situation as a ‘perfect farce’ to emphasize how bad it is.
  • To add a playful tone. This feature of language is naturally quite active, placing words that don’t normally mix right next to each other. This can create a fun and exciting energy within the writing.
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