It’s ironic that the word oxymoron is derived from two Greek words that mean sharp and dull, because those two words are an oxymoron themselves. An oxymoron is a pair of words that have opposite meanings, but when used in combination provide a reader with a greater context about how to interpret a passage of literature. Oxymoron is also used to place emphasis on an idea or characteristic and can add to the emotion and mood of a passage.
Oxymorons are commonplace in prose and in poetry and can act as a device to develop character. Consider the sentence, “Mary greeted her aunt at the door before she asked her for money.” The sentence is narrative and tells a story, but does little to explain the emotions that Mary was feeling before asking her aunt for money. To the reader, without any other context, Mary could be asking her aunt for money for any number of reasons. The reader also is not given any information about the relationship between Mary and her aunt. If an oxymoron were to be used, the reader could infer more information about the plot as well as a gleaning on Mary’s character. For example, adding the oxymoron “calculated warmth,” to the sentence so that it reads, “Mary greeted her aunt at the door with calculated warmth …” gives the reader greater insight into Mary’s character and the relationship with her aunt. The reader immediately knows that Mary is not genuine and manipulative – information that could not be inferred without the use of the oxymoron. The reader also can infer that Mary is not particularly close with her aunt since she is willing to trick her into giving her money. In this example, calculated, meaning cold, and warmth are juxtaposed to form the oxymoron.
Adding an oxymoron to the previous example can also enhance the emotion and mood of the passage. Without the oxymoron, “calculated warmth,” the reader’s emotion towards Mary is neutral. Mary may have fallen on tough times and may need to ask her favorite aunt for a loan. However, the mood and emotions of the reader quickly change when the oxymoron is added so that the passage reads, “Mary greeted her aunt at the door with calculated warmth before she asked her for money.” Instead of feeling empathy for Mary’s plight, the reader instantly has negative feelings towards Mary, who has now gone from a sympathetic figure to a full villain. The mood also darkens from being neutral to almost sinister.
Juxtaposing two words with opposite meanings in the form of an oxymoron is a powerful tool that a writer can use to add characterization to a passage and to elicit different emotions and evoke powerful moods. When used properly, oxymorons can provide a reader with insights into characters and events that are not possible otherwise.