You may not be familiar with the term “oxymoron,” but you’ve almost certainly come across them in your day-to-day conversations. In fact, some of your favorite books, films, and songs probably use oxymorons right in their title to catch their audiences’ attention. For instance, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and the film Eyes Wide Shut are both pop culture oxymorons. These titles show how using oxymorons as a literary device makes an idea stand out.
Let’s take a closer look at the oxymoron definition, the difference between oxymoron and paradox, and how to use them effectively in your writing. We’ll show you some famous oxymoron examples, too.
What is an oxymoron in literature?
Oxymoron is a figure of speech that uses two opposing words or contradictory words to convey a new idea. A common oxymoron example is “bittersweet”—the two root words, bitter and sweet, are inherently contradictory. Paired together, however, they create a deeper meaning. We see that two things that shouldn’t exist together do, in fact, coexist inside us all the time.
The word “oxymoron” comes from two Greek words which actually form their own oxymoron: oxus, which means “sharp,” and mōros, which means “dull-witted.” This sounds like two words that contradict each other. Like all good oxymorons, however, it contains another meaning: an oxymoron uses a phrase that sounds foolish (“dull-witted”) to communicate something wise (“sharp”).
The plural of oxymoron is “oxymora.” However, this word is falling out of fashion; these days, it’s more common to see oxymoron pluralized as “oxymorons.” Both are correct.
What’s the difference between oxymoron and paradox?
Oxymoron and paradox are similar literary devices that deal with contrasting ideas, but they’re not quite the same. An oxymoron, as we looked at above, is a word or phrase that uses two seemingly contradictory words with opposing meanings to communicate something new.
Both are rhetorical devices, but a paradox is like an oxymoron that’s been stretched out—instead of being only one or short phrase, a paradox can be a full sentence or more. That’s because instead of relying on literal contradictory words, a paradox comes from two contradictory ideas.
The word “paradox” comes from an ancient Greek word, parádoxos, which means “contrary or unexpected.” Paradoxes and oxymorons can both be use to heighten the dramatic effect of a story.
A famous literary example of paradox happens in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This presents two ideas that cannot exist side by side—how can something be more or less equal to something else? Orwell uses paradox to illustrate the underlying themes of his work.
We encounter paradoxes in everyday life, too. For example, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” and “you have to spend money to make money” are two paradoxes that contain a deeper, underlying truth. Nick Lowe’s song “Cruel to be Kind” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” are both examples of paradoxes because they use contradictory terms.
What’s the difference between oxymoron and juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition is a broad literary device that uses contrast for effect. Oxymorons and paradoxes are both types of juxtaposition, because they both use contrasting words to engage the reader.
However, juxtaposition can be much bigger than that. In addition to juxtaposing words or ideas, a writer can juxtapose characters, settings, themes, dialects, rhythms, and so much more. By using these contrasting elements in a story, you can heighten the effect and resonance of your writing.
You can learn more about effective ways to use juxtaposition in a story here.
The purpose of oxymoron in writing
In literature, oxymorons can do a few cool things in our writing. Let’s take a look at what purpose they serve when we use them in a story.
Oxymorons create drama
Well-placed oxymorons tend to heighten the dramatic effect and underline the theme of a moment, because they communicate something deeper than the individual root words could on their own.
For example, if your character “smiles sadly,” that’s an oxymoron—two words that are fundamentally contradictory. Paired side by side, however, each one gives the other a more complex meaning and lets the reader deeper into the scene. This oxymoron suggests another layer of meaning behind the simple action of smiling. You can use oxymorons to make the reader pause and think about what the characters are experiencing in that moment.
Oxymorons introduce irony
Sometimes, oxymorons can be used to add irony and communicate something new about character, theme, or setting. By expressing an idea as an oxymoron during your scene, you’ll give the story another facet to engage the reader’s attention.
Examples of ironic oxymorons might be things like “an honest politician,” “business ethics,” “civil war,” or “bus schedule.” Be mindful that these phrases won’t necessarily feel ironic to everyone, and so they should be used cautiously; however, you can use them to show your characters and the way your characters view the world around them.
Oxymorons highlight humor
Oxymorons can also be used to make your readers laugh or lend a lighter tone to a story. One example happens in the musical Wicked when the character Fiyero says,
“There’s no pretense here. I happen to be genuinely self-absorbed and deeply shallow.”
You can use oppositional words to create humorous moments and illustrate important traits in your characters.
Oxymoron examples from everyday speech
As you can see, oxymoron is a literary device that’s around us all the time. We use it in our everyday conversation without even realizing it. Here are some common oxymoron examples that you’ve probably come across in the English language. As you read them, notice the contradictions in each one:
Oxymoron examples from literature
Now that we’ve answered the question “What is an oxymoron” and showed you why it’s a helpful tool for creative writers, let’s take a look at how other writers have used oxymoron and paradox in their work.
Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
To visit other places; and come down
With fearful bravery, thinking by this face
To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage
William Shakespeare loved using oxymorons in his plays and sonnets because they make the reader think about the true meaning of the words. In these example sentences, he’s used the oxymoron “fearful bravery,” two apparent contradictions, to indicate a false show of courage.
You can find other Shakespearean oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet (“O brawling love! O loving hate!,” “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” and “A damned saint, an honorable villain!”); Twelfth Night (“In the sweet pangs of it remember me,” and “I am slain by a fair cruel maid”); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth”), and a range of his other work.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
And now it is deluged with a nectarous flood—the young germs swamped—delicious poison cankering them: now I see myself stretched on an ottoman in the drawing-room at Vale Hall, at my bride Rosamond Oliver’s feet.
Here Charlotte Brontë uses the oxymoron “delicious poison” to illustrate the dual nature of passionate love. Big emotions like love, hate, fear, and ambition—the cornerstones of many literary themes—work well with oxymorons because these feelings are naturally conflicting in nature. That’s why you’ll see so many writers using oxymorons to show the push and pull, the darkness and light, of love.
“Oxymoronic Love,” by Jennifer Militello
Jennifer Militello’s poem is actually full of paradoxes, rather than oxymorons, but it’s worth mentioning due to the use of oxymoron in the title. The poet likely chose it to illustrate to the reader that love is full of contradiction. Consider this brief phrase:
The hunger leaves us satisfied,
the fullness leaves us wrung.
This poem uses seemingly opposing images and ideas to explore the complexity of the human heart. Here we see how these oxymorons have been stretched into broader thoughts to accommodate the rhythm of the poem.
Contradictory words are a bittersweet literary device
Oxymorons have become a mainstay of our everyday language, and they’re effective for creating drama, irony, and humor in literature too! Now that you’re an expert on oxymorons and paradoxes, you can use them to create terrible beauty and exquisite agony in your own story.