Oxymoron in Literature: Definition, Purpose & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of…
  • 0:49 Definition of an Oxymoron
  • 1:27 Examples of an Oxymoron
  • 3:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, you'll review figurative language and its purpose in literature. Then, take a closer look at the term oxymoron and analyze some examples.

Definition of Figurative Language

Communication is one essential aspect of humanity that truly pushes mankind above all other species. We have invented so many different forms of communication that it is difficult to imagine what might come next. However, one method that has been around since the dawn of man, in verbal and in the written word, is figurative language.

You use figurative language every day and most likely don't even notice. Figurative language occurs any time you say one thing in terms of something else; it's the language that doesn't translate literally. For instance, the phrase 'it's raining cats and dogs' is figurative language. If it was literal, then it would mean cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Clearly, the phrase infers that it is raining hard and not that animals are falling through the air!

Definition of an Oxymoron

Figurative language serves to clarify our descriptions of the world around us. One common figurative language device that can achieve that goal is the oxymoron. An oxymoron occurs when two contradictory words are together in one phrase. In fact, oxymoron translates from the Greek words oxy meaning sharp, and moron, which means dull. Thus, the word itself is two contradictory words pushed together. It's often used to make the description of a particular scene more effective, to make the characters or even reader feel greater emotional intensity, and eventually clarify the different shades of meaning.

Examples of an Oxymoron

Some common examples are the phrases 'sweet sorrow,' 'cold fire', and 'silent scream'. Each pair of words has opposing definitions, but they are being used side by side. If these phrases are used in writing or even in oral communication, a more specific meaning can be reached.

For instance, if the parting of ways of two characters in a novel is described as sweet sorrow, then the reader can infer the characters are sad to leave each other, but happy about where they are about to go. Or if a character made a silent scream, then he did not actually make a sound, but instead, his facial expression showed his terror. These phrases allow for different shades of meaning and intensify emotions in order to clarify specific situations in stories and in real life.

A clever oxymoron can also add to the imagery of a scene in literature. One great example of that comes from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. This poem focuses on Satan's fall from Heaven and his impact on Man's fall, as well. Near the beginning of the story, Milton describes Hell as:

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible.

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