An oxymoron (plural oxymorons or oxymora) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharp dull") is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. Oxymorons appear in a variety of contexts, including inadvertent errors such as ground pilot and literary oxymorons crafted to reveal a paradox.
Types"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."
Other examples of oxymora of this kind are:
- Dark light
- Living dead
- New Classic
- Old News
- Open secret (supposedly a secret but it has leaked)
- Vintage Modern
Oxymorons are not always a pair of words; they can also be devised in the meaning of sentences or phrases.
Oxymoron is derived from the 5th century Latin "oxymoron", which is derived from the Ancient Greek "ὀξύς" (oxus, sharp) + "μωρός" (mōros, dull). The Greek "ὀξύμωρον" (oxumōron) is not found in the extant Greek sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymorons in an article in Word Ways in 1990, running from single-word oxymorons such as "pianoforte" (literally, "soft-loud") through "doublespeak oxymora" (deliberately intended to confuse) and "opinion oxymora" (editorial opinions designed to provoke a laugh). In general, oxymorons can be divided into expressions that were deliberately crafted to be contradictory and those phrases that inadvertently or incidentally contain a contradiction, often as a result of a punning use of one or both words.
Oxymorons are sometimes inadvertently created by errors or sloppiness in conversation; common examples include extremely average, objective opinion, and instant classic. In some cases an inadvertent oxymoron ends up being widely adopted as the name for some concept and ceases to be recognised as an oxymoron. Cases where this has occurred include bittersweet, virtual reality, constant variable, and living dead.
Many oxymorons have been popularised in vernacular speech. Unlike literary oxymorons, many of these are not intended to construct a paradox; they are simply puns. Examples include controlled chaos, open secret, organized mess, alone in a crowd, and accidentally on purpose.
There are also examples in which terms that are superficially contradictory are juxtaposed in such a way that there is no contradiction. Examples include same difference, jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, and hot ice (where hot means stolen and ice means diamonds, respectively, in criminal argot).
Oxymorons as paradoxes
Writers often use an oxymoron to call attention to an apparent contradiction. For example, Wilfred Owen's poem The Send-off refers to soldiers leaving for the front line, who "lined the train with faces grimly gay." The oxymoron grimly gay highlights the contradiction between how the soldiers feel and how they act: though they put on a brave face and act cheerful, they feel grim.
One case where many oxymorons are strung together can be found in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo declares:"O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!"
Some paradoxical oxymorons become clichés:
- Irregular pattern
- Bitter sweet
- Deafening silence
- Forward retreat
- Noisy silence
- Quiet riot
- Serious joke
- Silent Scream
- Sweet sorrow
Terms falsely called oxymorons for rhetorical effect
Although a true oxymoron is "something that is surprisingly true, a paradox," Garry Wills has argued that modern usage has brought a common misunderstanding that oxymoron is nearly synonymous with contradiction. The introduction of this usage, the opposite of its true meaning, has been credited to William F. Buckley.
Sometimes a pair of terms is claimed to be an oxymoron by those who hold the opinion that the two are mutually exclusive. That is, although there is no inherent contradiction between the terms, the speaker expresses the opinion that the two terms imply properties or characteristics that cannot occur together. Such claims may be made purely for humorous effect; many examples, such as military intelligence, freedom fighters, business ethics were popularized by comedian George Carlin. Another example is the term civil war, which is not an oxymoron, but can be claimed to be so for humorous effect, if civil is construed as meaning polite rather than between citizens of the same state. Alternatively, such claims may reflect a genuinely held opinion or ideological position. Well-known examples include claims made against "government worker", "honest broker", "educational television," "Microsoft Works" and "working from home".
Visual and physical oxymorons
In his book More on Oxymoron, the artist Patrick Hughes discusses and gives examples of visual oxymorons. He writes:
"In the visual version of oxymoron, the material of which a thing is made (or appears to be made) takes the place of the adjective, and the thing itself (or thing represented) takes the place of the noun." The book is currently out of print, but while it remains so is available to download.
Examples include waves in the sand, a fossil tree and topiary representing something solid like an ocean liner. Hughes lists further examples of oxymoronic objects including:
- Plastic lemons
- Electric candles
- Rubber bones for dogs
- Floating soap
- China eggs to persuade hens to lay
- Solid water (ice)
- Bricked-up windows
- Artificial grass
- Wax fruit
- Invisible ink
- Joke rubber coat hooks
- Solid wooden bottle moulds
- Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
- Contradictio in terminis
- Performative contradiction
- Pleonasm and tautology
- Self refuting idea
- Wooden iron
- Retronym (some retronyms form oxymorons).
- ^ Tufts.edu
- ^ OED.com
- ^ Richard Lederer, "Oxymoronology" Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on fun-with-words.com
- ^ http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Wills-watching-7069
- ^ TheAtlantic.com
- ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 47. ISBN 0-224-02246-6. According to Hughes' website"Books authored or co-authored by Patrick Hughes". http://www.patrickhughes.co.uk/books.htm. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
- ^ "The Unfindable (Marcel Mariën)". http://www.patrickhughes.co.uk/papers/more_on_oxymoron_patrick_hughes.pdf. Retrieved 7 October 2010. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
- ^ Hughes, Patrick (1984). More on Oxymoron. Jonathan Cape Ltd. pp. 72. ISBN 0-224-02246-6.
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.