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English as a Second Language and/or Interpreting Practice: "oxymorons"
By: Lyn J. Wiley
By: Lyn J. Wiley
Oxymoron - definition: A figure of speech in which seemingly contradictory or incongruous terms appear in conjunction. Examples: cruel joke; dull roar, cold sweat; Hell's Angels; deafening silence; a fine mess, a well-known secret, a man child; disaster relief and Holy hell!
We interpret oxymorons based on political, cultural, socio-economic and religious views, negative and positive biases, firmly held opinions and other factors. Our interpretation is also based on the meanings we attach to individual words and combinations of words and on the extent to which we understand and interpret the multiple meanings of certain words. For these reasons, people often interpret oxymorons differently. And, debates and disagreements often arise, as to whether something is an oxymoron, or not.
Honest attorney: An attorney and some non-attorneys might say, "That's not an oxymoron - attorneys are honest so there are no contradictory terms there." Other people might disagree. And, thinking in the extreme someone might say, "An honest attorney!? I don't think so."
Holy War. One whose religious beliefs justify/support a war might call it as a 'holy war.' And that person would not, therefore, consider 'holy war' to be an oxymoron ('No contradictory terms there!"). Others might regard that same war as detestable, despicable, immoral and hellacious - a far cry from holy. And, for that reason, would most likely consider 'holy war' to be an oxymoron.
Hell's Angels: Members of the Hell's Angels organization and the people who love them may view this oxymoron differently from those who harbor harsh, negative biases toward motorcycles, motorcyclists and motorcycle-clubs.
Delightful diet. Those caught in an exasperating, seemingly endless, unsuccessful cycle of dieting may view 'delightful diet' differently from those whose diet allowed them to shed lot of weight quickly and with relative ease.
United States. Some Americans think our states are 'united' in purpose and working in concert. Others disagree. Likewise with the United Nations. Some people consider the nations to be united in purpose and working in concert. Others disagree.
Devout Atheist. Some might say, "I've been a devout atheist for 32 years!" And, someone might reply, "There's no such thing as a devout atheist! Devout means that we operate on deeply-held religious convictions!" And the other person might reply, "Well . . . to me, devout means we operate on a deep dedication to certain beliefs, such as atheism!"
There are one-word oxymorons: ironwood; butthead; wholesome; spendthrift; bridegroom; preposterous (before-after); someone; cowbird and bittersweet. The word 'oxymoron' itself is a one-word oxymoron. It is formed by two Greek roots: 'oxys' which means keen, bright, sharp and 'moron' which means foolish, stupid, dull.
Other oxymorons include two words: terribly gifted; lousy luck; working vacation; lazy ambition; born dead; critical praise, etc.
Others include three or more words: make haste slowly; a well-founded prejudice; kill someone with kindness; alone in a crowd; accidentally on purpose; lead from behind and twelve-ounce pound cake.
The contradiction of terms in some oxymorons is immediately clear: a sad clown; hot chili; vegetarian meatballs; a classy bitch; freezer burn. For others, the terms are more subtle: anxious patient; definite possibility and an educated guess.
Some oxymorons speak of things that don't exist (in the minds of some people). For example: one-size-fits-all; good government; marital bliss; inmate rehabilitation; uncomplicated relationship; harmless abuse; amicable divorce and sanitary landfill. Other people, of course, may believe (and argue) that those things do exist.
Some oxymorons include opposite- or near-opposite terms. For example: feels numb; whole piece; unconscious awareness; all natural artificial flavor; Voodoo science; essentially useless and bridegroom.
Some oxymorons speak of two very different (but not opposite) things: bonehead; winged feet; cherry tomato; ham steak; turkey bacon; weekday and plastic wood.
We often understand the 'meanings' of many oxymorons. For example we know that the term 'an endless hour' means that, mentally, a hour seemed to drag by at a slow or painfully slow pace as might be the case in a hospital, when waiting for a doctor to appear and give an assessment of a loved ones medical condition.
It's fun to look at oxymorons closely to note the seemingly contradictory terms such as (endless) and (hour). An hour has and 'end' of course. That would be the last second of sixty consecutive minutes. So, therefore it could be said that, "There is no such thing as an 'endless hour!" And thus the recognition that the figure of speech, 'endless hour' is an oxymoron.
You can decide whether you think the following items are correctly classified as oxymorons. Oxymorons are discussed on many online sites, for those who are interested.
Absolutely unsure; Absolutely uncertain; An absolute uncertainty
Abundant poverty; Abundance of poverty. In that area of the city there is an abundance of poverty. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of poverty worldwide.
A cardinal sin
Accidentally on purpose
Accurate astrological reading
Accurate innuendo; Accurate gossip; Accurate rumor; Reliable innuendo; Reliable gossip; Reliable rumor
Accurate stereotype; Fair-minded stereotype
A cuddly bear. Have you ever tried to cuddle a bear!?
A definite maybe
A down escalator
A dull roar
Advanced basic. Yesterday, she enrolled in an advanced BASIC math class.
Advanced beginner (someone who has mastered the most basic level of a skill and have moved up to the next level - but is still regarded as a 'beginner')
A final draft. The term 'draft' means that it is not final.
A fine mess; One fine mess
A just war
A larger half; The bigger half. If it's one-half of the whole, can it be larger that the other half?
A little big. Hey Ben - those pants you're wearing . . they're a little big on you - don't you think?
A little giant. Our CEO is a millionaire with a commanding presence. She's five foot four inches tall. We call her the 'Little Giant."
A little pregnant
A well-founded prejudice
A fair-minded prejudice
A harmless prejudice
A hostile welcome; A hostile greeting. A welcome tinged with hostility. Ben detested Randy. Still, he felt obligated to welcome him as he walked into the wedding reception. So, he did just that - although it was an awkward, somewhat hostile welcome.
A wealth of pain. I spent 18 years looking for my daughter who went missing when she was 3 years old. Her absence brought a wealth of unbearable, excruciating pain through the years.
All natural artificial flavor
Alone in a crowd
Alone together. We were young and in love and couldn't wait to find time alone together - just the two of us.
Altogether separate. The problem you just mentioned is altogether separate from the problem we came here to discuss.
Among the first
An old soul (when referring to a baby or a child)
An open secret
Anticipating the unanticipated
A sad clown
A short distance
A silent alarm
A slow race
A (sluggish) (slow) run
A sure bet
A well-known secret
A working holiday
Baby grand (piano)
Bad goods. The CEO insisted that her company had never shipped bad goods to a customer.
Bad luck; Lousy luck; Rotten luck
Behave badly; Badly behaved
Better than new
Black-gold (crude oil)
Boring entertainment; Horrible entertainment
Born dead. My cousin had a baby girl yesterday but sadly she was born dead.
Build down (a systematic numeric reduction especially as it pertains to military supplies and activity)
Clean dirt. I'm heading to the store to buy some clean dirt for my flower pots.
Controlled panic; Controlled hysteria
Cruel joke. A joke that's in extremely bad taste or is exceptionally hurtful or cruel
Damned good! That was a damned good football game! That's damned good lasagna! That was a damned good comeback!
Department of Interior (protects America's natural resources - outdoor resources)
Diet ice cream
Do the impossible
Draw a blank (mentally)
Ended before it began
Even odds; The odds are even
Expecting the unexpected
Fairly accurate guess. I love you and I'll trust you to make a fairly accurate guess as to how much our wedding will cost.
Far nearer; Far closer
Fat-free cream cheese
Flurry of inactivity
Free with purchase
Friendly fist; Friendly fists. To shake or punch one or two fists at someone in a playful, lighthearted, non-threatening manner
Friendly takeover; Friendly takeover bid
Full time hobby; Full-time avocation
Gentleman (robber) (thief)
Gigantic (ginormous) (huge) bug!
Good morning. People who have difficulty waking up or who are exhausted may view 'Good morning' differently from those who habitually wake up early (with zest and enthusiasm), always eager to greet and enjoy the mornings.
Harmless scam (con)
Hugely trivial. She's a drama queen, she loves to dramatize situations that most people would call hugely trivial.
Humane prison conditions
Impossible solution; Impossible resolution
Inaccurate facts. I lost interest in his speech after he stated some inaccurate facts.
Inmate (prisoner) rehabilitation
Insane genius; Crazy genius. That had to be some kind of an insane genius (crazy genius) to come up with that brilliant idea!
Kill someone with kindness
Lazy ambition; Lame ambition. My nephew constantly complains that he can't get a job, can't get a job, can't get a job. The fact is, he won't pound the pavement to find one! His real problem is his lazy ambition.
Lead from behind
Little bit big. That dress you're trying on, it's a little bit big on you - - don't you think?
Long shorts. I want a new pair of shorts. But not short-shorts. I want long shorts.
Make haste slowly
Many scarce. Many scarce shark's teeth that can be found on this beach.
Maxi thin. Advertisement: Our plastic wrap is 100 percent air-tight and maxi-thin!
Most definitely iffy. Most definitely uncertain. Will Ken and I ever get married? Well . . . that's most definitely (iffy) (uncertain)
Naturally insincere; Naturally disingenuous. My 44 year old sister is naturally insincere, she's been that way since childhood.
New used cars
Now then. The detective said to the suspect, "Now then . . . tell me again what happened last night."
Old boy; Good old boy
Old girl; Good old girl
Old New York
One grand mess
One size fits all
One hundred percent chance
Open lock; An open lock
Out in the boondocks
Plastic glasses (drinking glasses)
Preposterous (pre) and (post)
Questionable certainty. He based his argument on four facts which he stated with questionable certainty.
Quiet riot; Calm riot
Real counterfeit; Authentic counterfeit
Round-a-bout intersection. To get to the church, go two miles north and turn left at the round-about intersection.
Rude gentleman; Crass gentleman. A rude man or a crass man, perhaps. But a rude gentleman?
Screaming silence. I told him I thought he was guilty of the horrible crime and he said nothing - he just glared at me with screaming silence.
Serious fun. For me, playing golf is serious fun! It's a weekend - let's head to the beach and have some serious fun!
Serious laughter! We could hear serious laughter coming from the guys at the bachelor party
Short lengths. Please cut the fabric in short lengths.
Skinny broad (referring to a slim woman)
Sound of silence
Start stopping. You need to start stopping long before you get to the stop sign.
Stupid genius. He has 23 US patents and owns two companies but every week or two he runs out of gas and calls me to bring him a can of gasoline! Stupid genius!
Sweet and sour sauce
Sweet sadness; Sweet sorrow
Synthetic natural gas
Tame tirade. Compared to all his prior violent outbursts, this one was a relatively tame tirade.
Terribly pleasant; Terribly pleased
Thank God I'm an atheist!
The only choice; Just one choice
The Peacekeeper Missile
Thinking out loud
Top floor; Upper floor
Torturous teasing. Relentless, harsh teasing that is terrible for someone to endure
Twelve ounce pound cake
Ugly humor. Humor intended to hurt someone
United States (some people think our states are ''united' in purpose; others do not)
Upper low (a term occasionally used by meteorologists)
Useless smoking gun. The detective said the weapon found proved to be a useless smoking gun.
Vacillating determination; Wavering perseverance; Wavering conviction
White blackboards; Green blackboards
Whole half. He woke up late, scarfed down a whole half a sandwich and then rushed off to work.
Wickedly good. Who made this cherry pie? It's wickedly good! Or, who designed this building? It's wickedly good!
Wise fool; Wise old fool
Working vacation; Working holiday
You big baby!
Young eighty (Young seventy). My grandpa is so much fun! He's a very young eighty!
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