ASL Lessons | Bookstore | ASL University Main ►

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.

For example:

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 estimate
Accurate horoscope
Accurate stereotype; Fair-minded stereotype
Act naturally
A cuddly bear. Have you ever tried to cuddle a bear!?
Acute apathy
A definite maybe
A down escalator
A dull roar
Adult children
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
Almost always
Almost exactly
Almost final
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.
Amicable divorce
Among the first
Anarchy rules!
An old soul (when referring to a baby or a child)
An open secret
Anti-missile missile
Anticipated serendipity
Anticipating the unanticipated
Anxious patient
Approximately equal
Artificial grass
Artificial intelligence
Artificial turf
A sad clown
A short distance
A silent alarm
A slow race
A (sluggish) (slow) run
Assistant principal
Assisted suicide
A sure bet
Athletic scholarship
Authentic replica
Auto pilot
A well-known secret
Awfully cute
Awfully good
Awfully happy
Awfully lucky
A working holiday


Baby giant
Baby grand (piano)
Back-handed compliment
Bad balance
Bad goods. The CEO insisted that her company had never shipped bad goods to a customer.
Bad health
Bad luck; Lousy luck; Rotten luck
Bankrupt millionaire
Bar entrance
Barely clothed
Behave badly; Badly behaved
Benign neglect
Better than new
Beyond infinity
Big baby
Big sip!
Bitchy lady
Black-gold (crude oil)
Black light
Blocked entry
Blunt force
Boneless ribs
Boring entertainment; Horrible entertainment
Born dead. My cousin had a baby girl yesterday but sadly she was born dead.
Bright night
Build down (a systematic numeric reduction especially as it pertains to military supplies and activity)
Business ethics


Calm breeze
Calm wind
Cardinal sin
Cautiously optimistic
Cherry tomato
Christian Science
Civil riot
Civil rebellion
Civil disobedience
Civil war
Classy bitch
Classic novel
Clean dirt. I'm heading to the store to buy some clean dirt for my flower pots.
Clearly confused
Clearly misunderstood
Climb down
Cold sweat
Complicated simpleton
Computer security
Conspicuous absence
Constant change
Constant variable
Constructive criticism
Contentious cooperation
Controlled chaos
Controlled panic; Controlled hysteria
Crash landing
Criminal justice
Criminal lawyer
Critical praise
Crowded room
Cruel joke. A joke that's in extremely bad taste or is exceptionally hurtful or cruel


Damaged goods
Damned good! That was a damned good football game! That's damned good lasagna! That was a damned good comeback!
Dead livestock
Deafening silence
Deceptively honest
Defensive attack
Definite possibility
Deliberate mistake
Delightful diet
Department of Interior (protects America's natural resources - outdoor resources)
Detailed summary
Devout atheist
Diet ice cream
Disaster relief
Disgustingly delicious
Doing nothing
Do the impossible
Dotted line
Double solitaire
Draw a blank (mentally)
Dry ice
Dry martini


Easy work
Easy problem
Educated guess
Elevated subway
Emotional reasoning
Ended before it began
Endless hour
Escaped inmate
Especially nasty
Essentially useless
Even odds; The odds are even
Evolutionary theory
Exact estimate
Exactly wrong
Expecting the unexpected
Extensive briefing
Extinct life
Extremely bland
Extremely lackadaisical
Extremely neutral


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
Fast food
Fast idle
Fat-free cream cheese
Fatally injured
Feels numb
Female jock
Fire water
Flurry of inactivity
Forgotten memories
Found missing
Free love
Free trade
Free with purchase
Freezer burn
Friendly competition
Friendly divorce
Friendly feud
Friendly fire
Friendly fist; Friendly fists. To shake or punch one or two fists at someone in a playful, lighthearted, non-threatening manner
Friendly opposition
Friendly takeover; Friendly takeover bid
Full time hobby; Full-time avocation
Fuzzy logic


Gentleman (robber) (thief)
Genuine imitation
Giant gnat
Gigantic (ginormous) (huge) bug!
Girly man
Global village
Good beating
Good government
Good grief
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.
Government efficiency
Great Depression
Ground pilot
Growing smaller
Guest host


Half dead
Half true
Half dressed
Half killed
Half naked
Ham steak
Happy apathy
Hard pillow
Hard water
Hardly easy
Harmless abuse
Harmless crime
Harmless lie
Harmless deceit
Harmless scam (con)
Healthy tan
Hell's Angels
Hideous joke
High ground
Highly depressed
Holy hell!
Holy war
Honest lawyer
Honest thief
Honest politician
Hot chili
House boat
Hugely trivial. She's a drama queen, she loves to dramatize situations that most people would call hugely trivial.
Human robot
Humane euthanasia
Humane prison conditions
Humane slaughter


Icy hot
Idiot Savant
Ill health
Important trivia
Impossible solution; Impossible resolution
Inaccurate facts. I lost interest in his speech after he stated some inaccurate facts.
Infrequent ritual
Intermittent habit
Inmate (prisoner) rehabilitation
Insane logic
Incredibly dull
Insane genius; Crazy genius. That had to be some kind of an insane genius (crazy genius) to come up with that brilliant idea!
Inside out
Insignificant problem
Intense apathy
Irrational logic
Irregular pattern


Jumbo shrimp


Kill someone with kindness


Ladies man
Lame skills
Lame talent
Last initial
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 astray
Lead from behind
Legally drunk
Light heavyweight
Liquid gas
Liquid smoke
Little bit big. That dress you're trying on, it's a little bit big on you - - don't you think?
Living Dead
Logical guesswork
Long shorts. I want a new pair of shorts. But not short-shorts. I want long shorts.
Loosely sealed
Loose tights
Loose knot
Loud whisper
Love-hate relationship
Low altitude
Loyal opposition
Luke-warm enthusiasm
Lucky stiff


Micro-macro organism
Man child
Mandatory option
Make haste slowly
Manly woman
Many fewer
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!
Mean-spirited joke
Melted ice
Mercy killing
Microsoft Works
Mild jalapeño
Militant pacifist
Mildly psychotic
Mind-expanding drugs
Military intelligence
Minor crisis
Minor miracle
Minor disaster
Mobile home
Morbid humor
Most definitely iffy. Most definitely uncertain. Will Ken and I ever get married? Well . . . that's most definitely (iffy) (uncertain)
Mutually exclusive


Native American
Natural makeup
Natural synthetic
Naturally insincere; Naturally disingenuous. My 44 year old sister is naturally insincere, she's been that way since childhood.
Near miss
Needless requirement
Negative growth
Negative income
Never again
New classic
New used cars
Noble savage
Non-fat cream
Non-working mother
Nothing much
Now then. The detective said to the suspect, "Now then . . . tell me again what happened last night."
Numb feeling


Obnoxious joke
Obvious secret
Ocean shore
Old boy; Good old boy
Old girl; Good old girl
Old news
Old New York
One-man band
One-man ensemble
One grand mess
One size fits all
One hundred percent chance
Open lock; An open lock
Openly deceptive
Organized chaos
Original copy
Organized mess
Outer core
Out in the boondocks
Oyster crackers


Painfully beautiful
Paperless office
Paper tablecloth
Paper towel
Passive aggressive
Peace force
Peaceful conquest
Peaceful rebellion
Peaceful riot
Perfect lie
Petite large
Plastic glasses (drinking glasses)
Plastic silverware
Plastic wood
Poor health
Positively negative
Precise estimate
Preplanned spontaneity
Preposterous (pre) and (post)
Pretty distasteful
Pretty horrible
Pretty ugly
Prison food
Prison reform


Questionable certainty. He based his argument on four facts which he stated with questionable certainty.
Quiet riot; Calm riot


Random logic
Random order
Randomly organized
Rapid Transit
Rap music
Real counterfeit; Authentic counterfeit
Real phony
Real fantasy
Recently new
Recorded live
Recycling dump
Required donation
Religious tolerance
Resident alien
Resounding silence
Rock music
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?


Sad smile
Safe sex
Safe bet
Safety hazard
Same difference
Sanitary landfill
Science fiction
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
Seriously funny
Serious play
Severely killed
Short lengths. Please cut the fabric in short lengths.
Shouting whispers
Sight unseen
Silent scream
Silent voice
Simple calculus
Simple complication
Sinfully good
Skinny broad (referring to a slim woman)
Slave wages
Slow speed
Slow jog
Small crowd
Small fortune
Social outcast
Soft thunder
Soft rock
Solo ensemble
Sound of silence
Standard deviation
Start stopping. You need to start stopping long before you get to the stop sign.
Static flow
Steel wool
Straight angle
Strangely familiar
Strangely normal
Student teacher
Stunted growth
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!
Suicide victim
Successful suicide
Sweet and sour sauce
Sweet-sour pork
Sweet sadness; Sweet sorrow
Sweet Tarts
Synthetic natural gas
Systematic chaos


Tame tirade. Compared to all his prior violent outbursts, this one was a relatively tame tirade.
Taped live
Tax return
Terribly attentive
Terribly pleasant; Terribly pleased
Terribly gifted
Terribly talented
Terrific headache
Terrific loss
Terrifying joy-ride
Thank God I'm an atheist!
The only choice; Just one choice
Theoretical experience
The Peacekeeper Missile
Thick film
Thinking out loud
Tight slacks
Top floor; Upper floor
Torturous teasing. Relentless, harsh teasing that is terrible for someone to endure
Tragic comedy
True fiction
Truly false
Turkey ham
Twelve ounce pound cake


Ugly humor. Humor intended to hurt someone
Unacceptable solution
Unbiased opinion
Uncomplicated relationship
Unconscious awareness
Uninvited guest
United Nations
United States (some people think our states are ''united' in purpose; others do not)
Unknown identity
Unseen surveillance
Unsung hero
Uncommon routine
Unfounded logic
Upper low (a term occasionally used by meteorologists)
Upward fall
Useless smoking gun. The detective said the weapon found proved to be a useless smoking gun.
Upside down


Valuable junk
Vacillating determination; Wavering perseverance; Wavering conviction
Vegetarian meatballs
Very little
Very tiny
Virtual reality
Visceral logic
Voodoo science


Walking dead
War games
Wet drywall
White blackboards; Green blackboards
Whole half. He woke up late, scarfed down a whole half a sandwich and then rushed off to work.
Whole piece
Wickedly good. Who made this cherry pie? It's wickedly good! Or, who designed this building? It's wickedly good!
Winged feet
Wise fool; Wise old fool
Wooden nickel
Working vacation; Working holiday
Work party



You big baby!
Young adult
Young eighty (Young seventy). My grandpa is so much fun! He's a very young eighty!


Zero deficit
Zero probability






*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy
DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™ 
ASL resources by  ©  Dr. William Vicars