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Top 10 Oxymoronic Expressions in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi Twitter: @farooqkperogi An oxymoron is an expression that conjoins contradictory, mutually exclusive terms. I re...

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

An oxymoron is an expression that conjoins contradictory, mutually exclusive terms. I recall, for instance, that one of my English professors at Bayero University, Kano used to complain that my “silence” was “too loud for comfort” each time I didn’t contribute to class discussions. That used to intrigue me a lot.

There are different categories of oxymorons. For example, there are literary oxymorons, which are deliberately intended to pique the mind, to dramatize a contrast of contexts, and to aggrandize existential absurdities. Literary oxymoronic expressions like “living dead,” “deafening silence,” “bitter-sweet,” etc had powerful evocative powers when they first emerged.  But they have now devolved into flyblown bromides and have lost the capacity to conjure up fresh, vivid imagery.

Some oxymoronic expressions are the result of sloppy, muddled thinking and are therefore in the twilight zone between solecism and literary experimentation. Expressions such as “at about 2 a.m.,” “almost exactly,” “objective opinion,” “definite possibility,” although now fully incorporated into the corpus of acceptable English expressions, were originally the product of mental laziness. Here is why.

The preposition “at” denotes precision, while “about” indicates incertitude. A mixture of the two should ordinarily activate a massive psychic chaos in utterers of the expression. Similarly, “almost” means “all but,” that is, slightly short of, while “exactly” indicates, well, exactitude, that is, the opposite of “almost.”  “Objective” means that which is undistorted by emotion, opinion, or personal bias, and “opinion” is, course, all that “objectivity” should be devoid of. “Definite” means explicit and clearly defined and “possibility” denotes that which is not clearly defined; that which exists in the realm of tentativeness. So these expressions sprouted from minds that were wracked by indecision and mental dishevelment.

But there are perfectly legitimate oxymorons that are neither figurative nor borderline grammatical errors. They occur so often in our everyday speech that we are not usually conscious of the contradictions embedded in them. The contradictions become apparent—and hilarious— only when we develop a heightened awareness of both the lexical and semantic properties of the phrases. Below is a list that a friend shared with me a while ago. The notes that accompany the phrases are my interventions.

1. Clearly misunderstood. When we protest that our point of view is “clearly misunderstood” by someone, we often want to be understood as saying that we are “obviously misunderstood.” But, in other contexts, that which is “misunderstood” is often not “clear.”

2.  Exact estimate. This means the estimate as it has been given, without any kind of alteration. Problem is: in other usage norms, something is an “estimate” only when it is “not exact.”

3. Small crowd. The sense this phrase conveys is that of a relatively small gathering of people. But to the extent that a crowd necessarily forms only when a large number of people get together, the notion of “smallness” in the conception of a “crowd” is counter-intuitive in a straightforward context.

4. Act naturally. Of course, in this expression, “act” is synonymous with “behave.” That presents no contradictions. But when we realize that “act” can—and, in fact, often does—mean to behave unnaturally or affectedly, the contradiction becomes amusing.

5. Found missing. This expression often stands in for “discovered missing.” But to be “found” is also a state of not being “missing.”

6. Fully empty. This usually means “completely empty.” But the first obvious meaning of “fully” is “not empty.”

7. Pretty ugly. The “pretty” in this expression is interchangeable with “fairly” or “reasonably.” But the first thing that comes to our minds when someone says the word “pretty” without any other context is “beautiful.” That we say “pretty ugly” without any tinge of discomfort is a testament to the sophistication of the human linguistic faculty.

8. Seriously funny. When we say “seriously funny” we don’t think twice about assuming that we would be understood as meaning “really funny”—and we often are understood to mean that. But isn’t it interesting that, in everyday contexts, the notions of “seriousness” and being “funny” are mutually exclusive?

9. Only choice/option. A choice or an option ordinary presents us with an array of possibilities from which to pick. So the expression “only choice” promises us this array of possibilities with the word “choice” but then simultaneously denies us the promise with the adjective “only,” which means “without any others being included.”

10. Original copies. We have all been requested at one time or the other to present the “original copies” of our credentials. But a copy is a simulacrum of the original. So the phrase “original copies” would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, a copy can also mean a “record,” a matter to be printed. This latter meaning saves the phrase from the contradiction that surrounds it from the surface.

The original forwarded message from my friend identified “happily married” as the ultimate oxymoronic expression. I withhold my commentary on that!

Q and A

I enjoyed the Q and A on your grammar column. I want to ask a question: Should we use "the" before proper nouns? I realize that you use "the" before proper nouns e.g. " the Weekly Trust" instead of just "Weekly Trust," " the Peoples Daily, not " Peoples Daily". I know it´s correct to say, “The Farooq I know will not do that." In Arabic, there is this difference over the use of "the" (Al) with the Saudis prefixing it to their personal names while the Egyptians do not. Eg AlBashir and Bashir, AlFarooq, etc. I graduated from (the?) Ahmadu Bello University.

The definite article "the" often precedes the names of newspapers and magazines—and universities—in traditional grammar. That is why I often put it there. However, in current usage patterns, it's becoming optional.

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  1. I loved this! I hadn't thought of some of those phrases being oxymorons. I enjoyed the little laugh. I say those things all the time!

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with me. I went to your blog, too, and enjoyed reading it!


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