An oxymoron is a figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other. It’s often referred to as a contradiction in terms. As with other rhetorical devices, oxymorons are used for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they’re used to create a little bit of drama for the reader; sometimes they’re used to make a person stop and think, whether that's to laugh or to wonder.
A common oxymoron is the phrase "the same difference." This phrase qualifies as an oxymoron because the words "same" and "difference" have completely opposite meanings. Bringing them together into one phrase produces a verbally puzzling, yet engaging, effect.
It’s likely you’ve used, or at least heard, a couple oxymorons in your everyday life, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. Let’s see if any of these hit home for you:
There are some well-known phrases and quotations that make use of oxymorons. Seeing these oxymorons used in context may provide a better idea of how and why they’re used.
"I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief." - Charles Lamb
"I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible." - Oscar Wilde
"And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true." - Alfred Tennyson
"Modern dancing is so old fashioned." - Samuel Goldwyn
"A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business." - Henry Ford
"I am a deeply superficial person." - Andy Warhol
"We’re busy doing nothing." - Bing Crosby
"No one goes to that restaurant anymore. It's always too crowded." - Yogi Berra
"A joke is actually an extremely really serious issue." - Winston Churchill
"I like humanity, but I loathe persons." - Edna St. Vincent Millay
"I generally advise persons never ever to present assistance." - P.G. Wodehouse
For more oxymoron quotes, take a look at Examples of Funny Oxymoron Quotes.
Why use phrases that don’t seem to make logical sense? Well, there are a few good reasons why, starting with dramatic effect.
Saying that a picture or a scene is "painfully beautiful" calls attention to the speaker and the object of inquiry. Such a phrase shows that an object can have two different qualities at once, making it a subject for study and analysis.
When someone says a phrase such as "naturally weird" or "clearly confused," the speaker is finding a new way to describe that individual or object. Adding the adverb "naturally" to the first phrase makes it even more apparent that the subject of discussion is rather unusual, as opposed to the effect the word "weird" would have on its own.
Sometimes people aren’t trying to make a profound statement when they use oxymorons. Instead, they want to be witty and show they can use words to make people laugh. One example of this is when Oscar Wilde comically reflected on the fact that he “can resist anything, except temptation.”
So you can see that oxymorons add humor or drama to speech or writing, allowing you to make a funny or pointed remark. As well as playing with oxymorons, Oscar Wilde was also a master of symbolism. He enjoyed writing things that weren’t meant to be taken literally, simply pondered upon.
When you’re ready to graduate from oxymorons to symbolism, enjoy these examples of symbolism in literature. May they inspire you through all your writing adventures.