Background

Recently, Sean’s mother took a working vacation out of state. Sean says it’s a definite maybe that he’ll get to visit the aquarium. The only aquatic creatures he’s seen thus far have been the jumbo shrimp in their plastic glass containers in the supermarket. 

Explanation

Many phrases in this passage consist of two opposite terms – working vacation, definite maybe, jumbo shrimp, plastic glass. These phrases are called oxymorons.

Oxymoron

Read literally, oxymorons are contradictory if not outright paradoxical. An oxymoron is a figure of speech where two opposite concepts are combined, often for dramatic emphasis or even comedic effect. The two contradictory terms can come together to convey a thought-provoking idea or show a bit of wit. 

The History

The term oxymoron comes from Greek. “Oxys” translates to “sharp” while “mōros” means “dull or foolish.” These words combined to make the word “oxymoros”, and its neuter form “oxymoron” proved to be used more frequently. That means the word “oxymoron” is itself an oxymoron. 

At first, the term was only applied to purposeful paradoxes condensed into a short phrase or a few words. This meaning rose to the common vernacular in the mid seventeenth century. Nowadays, the word covers even unintentional contradictions.

Applying It

Oxymorons in literature can be used to convey drama. They can be incredibly thought-provoking and thus provide a new perspective to something that might otherwise be rote or cliché. Authors often pair oxymorons with symbolism to great effect. This is because oxymorons are great for describing complex ideas or topics. For example, you can say someone has a tense relationship with their sibling, or you could say they have a love-hate relationship. Both descriptions convey that the relationship is complex and uncertain, but the second gives more vivid details. “Love-hate” dictates two extremes – one second they’re screaming at each other, the next they’re baking cookies together. This description is not only more memorable but more informative. 

In an average conversation, oxymorons are more likely to be used for comedic effect. For example, while walking through a crowded hallway, your friend might say with a tinge of frustration, “I love humanity but I hate people.” 

There are so many oxymorons that have just become part of our everyday language that many people might not even realize they’re using them. It’s important to take the time to spot oxymorons so that you can make the most of your rhetoric tools. A well-placed comedic oxymoron can diffuse tension with its humor while a dramatic one can call attention to an important statement. Oxymorons can be a powerful tool in making sure your opinion never becomes a silent voice.

    Learn More

    1. Berner, R. Thomas. “Literary Newswriting: The Death of an Oxymoron.” Journalism Monographs, vol 99, Oct 1986. 
    2. Carter, Steven. Little House of Oxymorons. Hamilton Books, United Kingdom, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-7618-5103-5.
    3. Grother, Dr. Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2015. ISBN: 978-0-06-053700-5.

    Think Further

    1. What are some commonly used oxymorons?
    2. When was the most recent time you used an oxymoron? Were you even aware you were using one?
    3. How can you use oxymorons to enhance your everyday speech?

    Teacher Resources

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