What do the phrases “legal murder,” “jumbo shrimp,” and “same difference” have in common? They’re all examples of the rhetorical device known oxymorons, and we are going to explain five of the most common English oxymorons.

An oxymoron is made up of two or more words that either are, or seem to be, opposite from one another. The word oxymoron is, itself, an oxymoron, as well! It comes from the Greek word oxy, which means sharp, and the word moron, which means dull.

So if you hear the term oxymoron, we’re not insulting you! We might just be talking about the great deal on jumbo shrimp we found.

Here are 5 English oxymorons with some examples:

Cruel to be kind

Have you ever had to be cruel to be kind? This oxymoron was first used by Shakespeare (click here for other words invented by Shakespeare), and describes how sometimes, the best way to do something good for someone is to hurt them.

You can use this oxymoron most often when talking about a relationship. If someone is really, deeply in love with you, but you don’t feel the same way, you may decide to be cruel to be kind and stop talking to them completely. It will hurt them in the short term, but in the long term, it may end up being what’s best for them.

For example:

  • Jane had to be cruel to be kind when she broke things off with Tim. He was much more into her than she was into him.

Deafening silence

Sometimes, things are so quiet that the silence itself seems to be loud. This is what’s known as a deafening silence.

When I experience a deafening silence, it’s usually when I’m home alone. That’s when I hear all the small sounds I normally don’t notice, and think that someone has broken into my house!

For example:

  • There was a deafening silence after John accidentally insulted his aunt’s cooking at Christmas dinner.

Living dead

Do you ever experience insomnia (where you can’t sleep) so badly, that when you get up in the morning, you feel like a zombie? Someone at the office might tell you, “You look like the living dead!”

This means that you look very bad…almost as if you are the dead come back to life! This reminds me of some great English puns!

For example:

  • After only sleeping for an hour last night, I look and feel like the living dead.

Virtual reality

With the rise of virtual reality games, this is one of those English oxymorons that is becoming more and more prevalent. This is a strange oxymoron because you would assume that reality cannot also be virtual (fake, in digital form).

For Example:

  • Have you tried these new virtual reality glasses? Everything seems just like real life!

Noticeable absence

Is someone so important to you that you notice (realize, feel a difference) when they’re not around? Then there’s a noticeable absence when they’re gone. Maybe it’s your work best friend, or your partner, but it’s great to have someone you care about so much that you really take notice when they’re not there.

For Example:

  • Sam is usually so happy and cheery, that there’s a noticeable absence in the office when she’s not here.

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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher,  yoga instructor, and finds the concept of having to be cruel to be kind so tragically Shakespearean!