"What is an Oxymoron?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is an Oxymoron? (Full Transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz

To get a sense of what the term oxymoron means, let’s consider its word origin.  The first half of the word derives from the ancient Greek word “oxus,” meaning sharp. The second half of the word comes from the ancient Greek word “mōros,” meaning dull or foolish. If we put them together, we get the very strange concept: sharply dull. As this origin suggests, oxymoron is itself an oxymoron; it is a rhetorical term that describes words or phrases that, when placed together, create paradoxes or contradictions.  These contradictions seem foolish but, when we think about them a bit, often turn out to be sharp observations about our world.

Let’s hasten slowly to an example. One of the states that borders Oregon is Nevada, and within it is the city of Reno. That city, as many of you know, calls itself “The Biggest Little City in the World,” which seems foolish. How can a you measure the biggest little city?  This slogan goes back to the early twentieth century, when Reno was quite small.  But, as the oxymoron suggests, even at that date, Reno aspired to offer the same “big-city” amenities as the dominant mega-cities of its time—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and so on. Thus, the oxymoron is sharply dull, or appropriately inappropriate.

Oxymorons are a favorite literary device of poets, particularly when they express complex feelings such as love and desire. Consider the sonnet. One feature of this kind of poem is its tendency to describe love as a strange mixture of pain and pleasure.  Here’s an example from Francesco Petrarch, the creator of the form:

Sweet anger, sweet disdain and sweet peace,
sweet ills, sweet troubles, and sweet burdens,
sweet speech, and sweetly understood,
now with sweet fire, now filled with sweet airs:

soul, don't complain, but suffer in silence,
and temper the sweet bitterness that hurt you
with the sweet honour loving her has brought you
to whom I say: 'You alone please me.' (The Canzoniere 205)

Here’s another from Lady Mary Wroth’s 17th century sonnet sequence “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus,” which describes the painful pleasure the speaker feels when thinking of her lover:

Heat in desire, while frosts of care I prove,

    Wanting my love, yett surfett doe with love

    Burne, and yett freeze, better in hell to bee.

Most famously, Shakespeare gets in on the act in Romeo and Juliet, when, early in the play, Romeo contemplates his feelings for his first love, Rosaline (before, of course, meeting Juliet):

“Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
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.”

What all of these oxymorons convey is the strange, maddening mixture of feelings that constitutes Petrarchan desire and that continues to structure the way we think about love to this day. As the contemporary rhetorician John Cougar Mellencamp sings, “Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, / You make it, hurts so good.”

Let me leave you with one final, more complex example of an oxymoron taken from Claude McKay’s famous sonnet “America.” Within the poem, the Jamaican-American poet repurposes the Petrarchan convention of pleasure/pain to describe his complex feelings for the country where he had made his home:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

Within the poem, America is represented metaphorically as McKay’s unrequited lover, a place of immense beauty and opportunity but also a place of racism, hatred, and violence.  This paradoxical history of America is embodied in the oxymoron “cultured hell,” which initially seems a foolish phrase but upon closer examination reveals a sharp portrait of the nation’s many contradictions. I encourage you to read the rest of the poem to see how McKay processes this oxymoronic love and, in a related sense, how he breathes new life into a very old genre.