Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Posts Tagged ‘oxymorons

Love set you going

with 37 comments

A stain glass window representation of Polonius.
Image via Wikipedia

Brevity, says the tediously garrulous Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the soul of wit.

Polonius is an exponent of neither brevity nor wit, but his assertion is correct. The flexibility of language means we can use just a few words to express a complex emotion, idea or thought that might otherwise take several paragraphs to convey.

Similes and metaphors can be used in this way, but what is the difference between them?


Similes always use ‘as’ or ‘like’. I remember this by thinking that the word ‘simile’ has an ‘s’ as does ‘as’ and an ‘l’ as does ‘like’. More simply: Liking metaphors makes you simile (geddit?).

Everyday examples of similes include:

  • As green as grass
  • Tremble like a leaf
  • As brave as a lion
  • Swim like a fish
  • As cold as ice

‘Simile’ is derived from the Latin ‘similis’ meaning ‘like’.


Metaphors do not use ‘as’ or ‘like’. They describe someone or something in a way that cannot be literally true. There are many everyday examples, sometimes referred to as ‘dead metaphors’ because we no longer notice them as metaphors. Examples include:

  • On top of the world (meaning to feel very happy)
  • Bottleneck (as in, for example, a section of road where traffic is often held up)
  • Snowed under with work
  • The eye of a storm
  • This neck of the woods

‘Metaphor’ originally derives from the Greek ‘metapherein’ meaning ‘to transfer’.

Rising like balloons

All those everyday examples are a bit boring. But similes and metaphors can be strikingly original and hugely evocative. In the poem Morning Song about her newborn child, the American poet Sylvia Plath makes highly effective use of similes:

Love set you going like a fat gold watch

And later in the same poem:

And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Another poet, the Englishman Edward Thomas, ends his poem The Glory with an arresting metaphor to convey a sense of overwhelming dissatisfaction, and profound frustration:

I cannot bite the day to the core.

And here’s a wonderfully concise poem by the American poet W.S. Merwin that uses a highly original simile to convey multi-layered meanings:


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Find out about oxymorons

Read more about metaphors at Sentence first

The dehumanising effect of driving-related metaphors in the UK’s NHS


Written by Wordwatch

23/09/2010 at 5:31 pm

Nothing much

with 13 comments

NYC - Central Park: Romeo and Juliet
Image by wallyg via Flickr

The future perfect I have always regarded as an oxymoron.

Tom Stoppard

The Invention of Love (1997)


An oxymoron is not an unintentional contradiction in terms but a figure of speech in which contradictory terms are deliberately combined, as in bitter-sweet.

The Economist Style Guide



A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction (for example, faith unfaithful kept him falsely true*)

Oxford Dictionary of English

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­* Although unattributed in the dictionary, this is from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.


‘Climate science’ is an oxymoron.

Opinion piece heading in The Telegraph


Well, where do we start? Intentional? Unintentional? Either? Contradictory or only apparently so?

You only have to consider the Stoppard line above to realise how hard it would be to come to a meaningful conclusion. (And as Goethe said, to be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.)

So I think it’s much more fun to look at examples of oxymorons than to try to squeeze the word into a definition straitjacket.


The word comes from Greek and Latin: ‘oxus’ meaning ‘sharp’ and ‘mōros’ meaning ‘dull’ or ‘foolish’. So the word itself is an oxymoron. The ‘Greek’ plural is ‘oxymora’.


First of all we have the unthinking everyday oxymorons that many of us use such as:

  • Pretty ugly
  • Same difference
  • Open secret
  • Deliberate mistake

Then there are expressions which we may choose to interpret as oxymorons to express an often unflattering opinion, for example:

  • Military intelligence
  • Adult male
  • Postal service
  • Fast food

Oxymorons are a common literary device often giving rise to some of the most moving and thought-provoking expressions in the English language. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a rich source of oxymorons, including the following extract from a speech by Romeo:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

And this extract from one of Juliet’s balcony scene speeches in which the famous oxymoron ‘sweet sorrow’ is used to encapsulate both the joy and the pain involved in loving someone:

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Technical stuff including nouns, adjectives and verbs

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