Oxymoron  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

An oxymoron (plural oxymora or oxymorons) (from Greek ὀξύμωρον, "sharp dull") is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. Oxymora appear in a variety of contexts, including inadvertent errors such as ground pilot and literary oxymorons crafted to reveal a paradox.

Contents

Types

The most common form of oxymoron involves an adjective-noun combination of two words. For example, the following line from Tennyson's Idylls of the King contains two oxymora: "And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true."

Other examples of oxymora of this kind are:

Less often seen are noun-verb combinations of two words, such as the line "The silence whistles" from Nathan Alterman's Summer Night, or in a record album title like Sounds of Silence.

Oxymora are not always a pair of words; they can also be devised in the meaning of sentences or phrases.

Etymology

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.

Taxonomy

Richard Lederer assembled a taxonomy of oxymora in an article in Word Ways in 1990, running from single-word oxymora 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, oxymora 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.

Apparent oxymora

Many oxymora have been popularised in vernacular speech. 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).

Oxymora 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 cheerfully, they feel grim.

One case where many oxymora 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 oxymora become clichés:

  • Bitter sweet
  • Deafening silence
  • Dry Drunk
  • Forward retreat
  • Irregular pattern
  • Noisy silence
  • Quiet riot
  • Serious joke
  • Sweet sorrow

Terms falsely called oxymora 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 oxymora

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."

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:

  • Artificial grass
  • Bricked-up windows
  • Ceramic eggs to persuade hens to lay
  • Electric candles
  • Floating soap
  • Invisible ink
  • Joke rubber coat hooks
  • Plastic lemons
  • Rubber bones for dogs
  • Solid water (ice)
  • Solid wooden bottle moulds
  • Wax fruit
  • Plastic glass (for drinking)

Other languages

Oxymora, in the sense of "single-word oxymora" such as "pianoforte", are very common in Chinese and neighboring languages such as Japanese, and consist of two opposing Chinese characters. Archetypal examples include 男女 (man and woman, male and female, gender), 陰陽 (yin and yang), 善悪 (good and evil, morality), and are used to indicate couples, ranges, or the trait that these are extremes of.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Oxymoron" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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