At 4:30 am on this day in 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Forty-three confederate guns along the coast of Charleston, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. On the following morning, the Union commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered after 33 straight hours of bombardment. No one on either side was killed, but by the end of the war four years later, 600,000 of the 3,000,000 who fought were dead (1).
The term civil war is sometimes classified as an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory words are juxtaposed – placed side by side — as in deafening silence. The word is from Greek and translates as “sharp or pointed” (oxus) and “dull or foolish” (moros). Therefore, the word oxymoron is an oxymoron that means “a sharp dullness” or “pointed foolishness” (2).
Below are other examples of oxymora (Yes, as in some other words from Greek, the plural of oxymoron is irregular: oxymora):
jumbo shrimp, guest host, old news, dry ice, light heavyweight, original copy, festina lente (Latin for hurry slowly) (3)
In the Shakespearean tragedy Romeo and Juliet, a play about contrasts — love and hate, young and old, darkness and light — Romeo presents an oxymoron-packet speech when he reacts to the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues:
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, 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!
Some individual words we use today began as oxymora. For example, the word sophomore originated from the combination of two Greek words sophos, meaning “wise,” and moros, meaning “foolish, dull.”
Today’s Challenge: Serious Fun With Oxymorons
What are some adjective-noun combinations that have contradictory meanings? Try creating your own oxymora by juxtaposing words that have contrasting meanings. You can try any contradictory combination, but the easiest combo to start with is an adjective and a noun, as in “serious fun” or “successful failure.” Just begin with an adjective or noun that comes to mind; then, couple it with a noun or adjective that has a contradictory meaning. Once you have generated a list, select the one you like the best and use it for the title of a short poem, story, or piece of “poetic prose” that captures the contradictory theme of your oxymoron. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: I am a deeply superficial person. – Andy Warhol
2 – Grothe, Mardy. Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom From History’s Greatest Wordsmiths. New York: HarperCollins 2004.
3 – Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (6th Edition). Macmillan General Reference, 1992: 338.