Oxymorons are apparent contradictions by opposing meanings of words side by side. They demonstrate the binary aspect of the complexity and ambivalence of life where things are seldom what they seem. They are closely related to paradoxes.
Examples: exhilarated terror. A special ordinary man, unjust justice, true deceiver, Downwardly mobile
The rhetorical term oxymoron, made up of two Greek words meaning “sharp” and “dull,” is itself oxymoronic.
As you probably remember from school, an oxymoron is a compressed paradox: a figure of speech in which seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side. British writer Thomas Gibbons characterized the figure as “sense in the masquerade of folly.”
The oxymoron has also been called “the show-off” figure, one that gives voice to life’s inherent conflicts and incongruities.
“The true beauty of oxymorons,” says Richard Watson Todd, “is that, unless we sit back and really think, we happily accept them as normal English.” Todd illustrates his point in the following passage:
It was an open secret that the company had used a paid volunteer to test the plastic glasses. Although they were made using liquid gas technology and were an original copy that looked almost exactly like a more expensive brand, the volunteer thought that they were pretty ugly and that it would be simply impossible for the general public to accept them. On hearing this feedback, the company board was clearly confused and there was a deafening silence. This was a minor crisis and the only choice was to drop the product line. (Much Ado About English. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2006)
But then all of that may be old news to you. Closely related are:
There’s an old saying about entertainers who “suddenly” find fame:
It usually takes a few decades to become an overnight success.
Or Dolly Parton’s quip:
“You just can’t imagine how expensive it is to make me look so cheap”
Henry James famously characterised George Eliot as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous”.
Like other kinds of figurative language, oxymorons (or oxymora) are often found in literature. However, as shown by this list of 100 awfully good examples, oxymorons are also part of our everyday speech.
Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney
⁽Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne
Brilliant Plodder – Charles Darwin
“brisk vacancy” Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery
⁽One Door Away From Heaven by Dean Koontz
creative destruction – the driving dynamic of capitalism – Military Industrialism
‘creative destruction’ of capitalism – chain stores
⁽Paradise Lost by John Milton
⁽Lancelot and Elaine by Lord Tennyson
“lascivious grace” Sonnet 40 by William Shakespeare
“liquid marble” ⁽Poetaster by Ben Jonson
“melancholy merriment” Don Juan by Lord Byron
“scalding coolness” For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
“The Sound of Silence” song by Paul Simon
“sweet sorrow” Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
“transparent night” “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman
True Lies movie directed by James Cameron
A special ordinary man,
A sociable recluse,
Israel’s nuclear capability has been an open secret for decades..
the sweet despair of first love,
triumph of failure,
Pure – pain, shit….sorrow….
The Coens remain true deceivers.