An oxymoron is a literary device in which two contradictory words are used together, such as: deafening silence.
The word oxymoron is derived from Greek “oxy” meaning “sharp, wise,” and “moron,” meaning “foolish.” Therefore, the word “oxymoron” itself is an oxymoron! It’s a self-defining word!
The paradox and the oxymoron are closely related literary devices, and should not be confused. Both the paradox and the oxymoron are seemingly contradictory yet workable statements. However, the main difference is that the paradox is a statement or group of statements while the oxymoron is just two contradictory words used together.
Here is Cambridge Dictionary’s definition for the oxymoron:
Two words used together that have, or seem to have, opposite meanings.
A good example of the oxymoron which I will illustrate here is the “deafening silence.”
Have you ever read that “the silence was deafening?” Or were you ever told that “your silence is deafening?”
How can silence be deafening? After all, it is extremely loud noise that is deafening, while silence is the absense of any noise.
Welcome the “literary device!” Literary devices play with words, and help to drive home meaning, or make expressions more colorful.
The “silence is deafening” perhaps because it is utterly silent, or “unnaturally silent.” We may say “the silence was deafening,” because we didn’t expect the atmosphere to be so silent, which causes the ears to strain in want of hearing something. In this case, the silence strains the ears just as much as excessive noise would assault it.
We can say a person’s silence is deafening if that person’s refusal to speak or respond when addressed causes people to eagerly anticipate a reply. “Come on, say something! Your silence is deafening!”
Some weeks back, when my friend Sir Kenrick stopped responding to my Whatsapp messages concerning an important business matter we were negotiating, I became alarmed. I wondered what could have been the cause of his sudden silence! I waited eagerly for his reply. I said “Sir, your silence is deafening.” He later told me that his phone was broken.