Guide to Literary Terms

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Oxymoron

An oxymoron is when two apparently contradictory words are combined and therefore juxtaposed. Some oxymorons have entered the lexicon as commonly used turns of phrase, like “alone together,” “open secret,” or “deafening silence.” An oxymoron is different from a paradox, in which a contradiction appears within a statement or multiple sentences, not two juxtaposed words. For example, “Cowards die many times before their death” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.32) might at first glance seem like an oxymoron, but this is a paradox.

Correct example:

  • Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
    O anything of nothing first created!
    O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
    Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
    Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
    Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
    This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

    • Authors use oxymorons to show the inherent complexities and conflicts in the story they tell. In Act 1, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says a number of oxymorons in a conversation with Benvolio. For Romeo, romantic love is in itself complex and confusing, and his words reflect the contradictions he feels in his attraction to Rosaline.