How to understand – and use – English oxymorons

Jeanne Perrett
Jeanne Perrett
Woman and a child sat outdoors reading

If you had to explain what an oxymoron is, what would you say? And would you know how to use one correctly? You might even be using oxymorons already completely by accident. After all, how many times have you talked about a “small crowd”, described someone as a “big baby” or gossiped about an “open secret”?

Let’s explain more about the term. An oxymoron is a figure of speech where two words of opposed or contradictory meaning are used together to create emphasis. While some oxymorons are created by accident – such as “small crowd” – sometimes they are used deliberately to draw attention to something or to create drama for the reader or listener. Let’s take a closer look at some popular English oxymorons and get to the bottom of what they actually mean.

What are oxymorons?
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1. Big baby

This is an oxymoron because all babies are small. The word ‘big’ is added to emphasize the fact that someone is acting more childishly than you would expect. All babies can be childish but, for some reason, adding the word ‘big’ communicates that the person you are talking about is even more childish than a regular-sized baby.

“The teacher told James not to be such a big baby when he complained about having too much homework.”

2. Act naturally

When you act, you are pretending to be someone that you are not naturally, and yet, it is very common to use the phrase “act naturally” to encourage someone to be themselves. This oxymoron works because often people have to work hard – against their desires – to just be themselves in certain company or in certain situations.

“When you meet your new boss, just act naturally.”

3. Organized mess

How can a mess be organized? This oxymoron is often used to describe the chaos that someone has created – but when they actually know where everything is.

“I can find everything on my desk because it is an organized mess.”

4. Open secret

If something is a secret, no one else is supposed to know about it. This oxymoron is a great way to describe a fact that started off as a secret, but now a select number of people know about it. Many people will gossip about this 'secret', but won’t necessarily spread it any further.

“Everyone at the party knew about Sarah’s new boyfriend as it was an open secret.”

5. Small crowd

By definition a crowd is a substantial amount of people – but adding the word 'small' makes it easier for us to imagine the difference between a crowd of 100 compared with a crowd of 500 people.

"We found a seat at the concert as there was only a small crowd of people there."

6. Deafening silence

Silence can't deafen you but it's used to describe a situation where there is a complete and noticeable lack of communication or noise. This absence of sound can be so powerful that it creates a significant emotional impact.

"The group was anxiously waiting for the doctor to respond. There was a deafening silence in the room."

7. Wise fool

Appearances can be deceiving. A wise fool is someone who seems foolish or unintelligent at first but may actually be wiser than you think.

"The hermit was a wise fool, offering meaning insights about life to those who visited him."

Oxymorons in the English language can be a terribly good way to enhance your writing and speaking, making it more varied and interesting. Try to remember any you come across and add it to your English repertoire. There are hundreds to find.

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