Oxymoron, a Greek term combining the words for “sharp” and “foolish,” has been adopted in English to refer to inadvertently contradictory or incongruous mash-ups of terms such as “military intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp” — a class known as subjective oxymora (that latter word is the pedantic-looking plural) because they are not literally at odds with each other.
However, the original connotation is of an evocative paradox deliberately framed by a writer — an objective oxymoron. One of the most well-known examples is William Shakespeare’s line “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” from Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet exults in the bittersweet anguish generated by the lovers’ separation. Shakespeare provided a short list of literary oxymora in this earlier passage from the same speech:
“O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!”
The Bard employed oxymora on other occasions, including in Hamlet (“I must be cruel, only to be kind”), in Julius Caesar (“fearful bravery”), and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“A tedious brief scene . . . very tragical mirth”). Likewise, John Donne wrote of “beggarly riches,” Herman Melville of “a careful disorderliness,” John Milton of “darkness visible,” and Alexander Pope of a “bookful blockhead,” and Lord Tennyson ventured of his Lancelot that “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”
Classic authors do not have a monopoly on oxymora, though; contemporary coinages are often more than subjective punch lines like “responsible government.” Here are some other recent examples that might inspire you to convey original ideas in phrases that are more than the sum of their parts:
- alone together: said, perhaps, of two people that share a physical space but are emotionally isolated from each other
- cheerful pessimism: a description of a person who blithely notices and remarks on the dark cloud behind every silver lining
- eloquent silence: a lack of response from someone that nevertheless clearly conveys that person’s attitude
- hellish paradise: an environment designed to make inhabitants or visitors feel bliss but is, to the more perceptive among them, unnerving in its illusory promise
- sad smile: a mild expression of superficial cheer that does not mask melancholy or sorrow
- sublimely awful: a reference to something that is so bad, it arouses ironic delight
- wise fool: a person of supposed mental weakness more shrewd than he or she seems at first