If you’ve been following our column, you’ve gotten a pretty good survey of the basic essentials in the modern poet’s tool belt. You’ve learned how to use a hammer, a screwdriver, a chalk line, a carpenter’s square, and a level. A poet uses metaphor, simile, imagery, line breaks, sonority, and rhythm every time one sits down to write a poem.
Among the quirkier, funnier, more arcane devices—the hole saw, stud finder, miter board, and drill press of the wordsmith’s workbench—is today’s topic, the Oxymoron.
The word oxymoron is from the Greek words meaning sharp…dull. So the origin of the word itself is an oxymoron! An oxymoron might also be called a contradiction in terms, or a two-word paradox. We’ve all heard them:
We could go on forever. It’s just one more way to make your writing a little more colorful. I wrote a couple poems in response to Gather prompts which were full of oxymora, and the result, I thought, was lively and effective. But like hyperbole, neologism, and other circus stunts, oxymoron is the sort of device you want to use sparingly in your writing overall, lest it become stale and clownish. The exception to this rule would be humorous verse, for which circus stunts are the order of the day.
Here are a couple terrific articles on oxymorons with lots of great examples:
100 Awfully Good Examples of Oxymorons
Both are by About.com grammar maven Richard Nordquist. The second one is an excellent discussion until it gets to the list of “100 Examples,” many of which I feel are not particularly strong.
This is what I believe is the crucial point: An oxymoron is an apparent contradiction. “Civil war” is a perfectly sensible term for an internal conflict. It’s only when you consider “civil” in an out-of-context alternate meaning that the phrase becomes an oxymoron. “Pretty ugly” is another good example. “Pretty ugly” makes perfect sense in the sense of “fairly ugly.” It is only when you make a pun out of “pretty” meaning “attractive” that the phrase becomes an oxymoron in the narrowest and best sense.
Additional examples of this quintessential kind of oxymoron:
and so on. On the other hand, phrases like
do not rise to the level of oxymoron. They make perfect sense even as they are superficially contradictory. “Bittersweet” describes something that combines bitter and sweet taste sensations; similarly, “icy hot.” “Deliberate speed” and “loud whisper” mean exactly what they sound like they mean. If you had a “lead balloon,” you’d have an awfully hard time getting it to float upwards, and that’s exactly the point, no more, no less—there’s no double meaning involved.
There is perhaps yet a third distinction. Phrases like
are ironic, internally contradictory, paradoxical in a meaningful way. This sort of figure makes for lively writing, but doesn’t feature the pun, the wordplay, that distinguishes a genuine oxymoron. It’s just a straightforward paradox. But don’t get me wrong, it is still good writing.
These are fine distinctions, and you’re certainly free to argue with me about my choices. Regarding “silent scream” or “resident alien,” for example, do “scream” and “alien” merely combine two different connotations or shades of meaning of each of those words? Or are they out-and-out puns, involving amusingly incongruous alternate definitions, like “jumbo shrimp”?
Write a poem that includes at least one oxymoron.
Make a list of oxymorons. Include some of your favorites and try to make up some original ones as well.
Prose: Write a short fictional or factual news item that includes at least one oxymoron. Or, here’s an idea: write a short news item and write a headline for it that employs an oxymoron, a favorite device of headline writers.
Instructions for submitting your response to SunWinks!
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