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Writing workshop: What is an oxymoron?

“Oxymoron” is not a dirty word – at least, not usually.

“Oxymoron” is not a disparaging term, an off-color remark or a description of less-than superior intelligence. Instead, an oxymoron is a figure of speech, a literary device and a way of wording descriptions in a striking manner.

What is an oxymoron?

Basically, an oxymoron is an exercise in contrasts, as when two seemingly opposite words are juxtaposed paradoxically to describe something more fully or perhaps even alarmingly.

The word “oxymoron” is derived from two ancient Greek terms: “oxus” and “moros.” “Oxus” meant pointed, or sharp, and “moros” meant blunt or dull.

The correct plural form of “oxymoron” is “oxymora.”

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Here are a few examples of oxymora.

Many popularly used phrases actually contain oxymoronic phrases, such as accidentally on purpose, accurate rumors, active retirement, agree to disagree, alone in the crowd, awfully good, bittersweet, cautiously optimistic, civil strife, constant variable, controlled chaos, cruel kindness, definite maybe, dress-casual, dull roar, extremely average, fairly obvious, fine mess, friendly fire, fuzzy logic, genuine imitation, minor disaster, never again, objective opinion, open secret, original copy, pretty ugly, quiet riot, spendthrift and more.

What is an oxymoron? (Pixabay public domain photo)
Oxymora are frequently found in classic literature.

Skilled wordsmiths have traditionally employed the oxymoron as a literary device.

For example, in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama, Romeo and Juliet, the heroine utters these famous oxymoronic words: “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow” (Act II, Scene 2).

John Donne crafted these oxymoronic phrasings in his poetic work, Devotions Upon Urgent Occasions: “O, miserable abundance, O, beggarly riches!”

American classic novelist Herman Melville penned these lines in his masterpiece work, Moby Dick: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”

Oxymora often appear in advertising, corporate and product names.

Although product promoters may choose to tag the items they market with oxymora to grab potential buyers’ attention, oxymora more often seem to draw skepticism instead.

Consider these examples of oxymora used in product names, titles and descriptions: Advanced BASIC, authentic reproduction, baby grand piano, freezer burn, graphite woods (golf clubs), Hell’s Angels, icy hot, instant classic, jumbo shrimp, living dead, old news, relaxation exercise, student teacher, and virtual reality.

Many book titles, television show names and movie titles have included oxymoronic phrases, such as Back to the Future, Eyes Wide Shut, The King of Queens, Little Big Man, Slumdog Millionnaire, The Little Giant, True Lies, and Urban Cowboy.

Occasionally, oxymora may occur unintentionally and ironically.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, speakers and writers often use oxymora without meaning to do so.  Some of the most pointed examples of unintentional oxymoron use might include airline schedules, budget deficit, butthead, corporate conscience, disaster preparedness, free trade, government efficiency, holy war, marital bliss, military intelligence, soft porn and more.

The oxymoron is essentially word-crafting in contrasts – no sure bet, but a wicked good way to work words.

Adapted by this user
 from public domain image

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