The use of oxymoron and figure of speech phrases

In the period he served as Member of Parliament for Kibra Constituency, Ken Okoth’s achievements have been phenomenal. I grieve his passing on due to cancer; the killer disease is having a field day in a country ill-equipped to detect it in its early stages, leave alone managing it.

Given this state of affairs, many ordinary, poor Kenyans have suffered and died of cancer without even being aware of it. Unfortunately, ill (poor) health will continue to be a companion to millions of people unless corruption is dealt with to give them a fighting chance when diseases come calling. Whenever authorities look on bemused while corruption denies hospitals equipment, medicines and specialists capable of giving correct diagnosis as opposed to the expensive guessing games, they can be sure Kenyans have an axe to grind. Too often, people get the wrong treatment only to discover it was cancer when it is too late.

Where other leaders would have cringed and left it to family or friends to spill the beans about their ill health, Okoth personally broke the sad news. Cancer forced him, a man of the people, out on a limb except for that brief interlude when he came back to the country from treatment in France. Fare thee well, Okoth.

Even though we are mourning a man to whom leadership was a vocation, let us take time to remind ourselves of a few things in the English language.  In the passages above, you will have noted the use of oxymorons and figure of speech phrases.

Considered dumb

My first encounter with the word ‘oxymoron’ was in novel where it was used as an insult. Someone who had done what another considered dumb was ridiculed and called an oxymoron. In my mind, the word registered as an insult until I encountered it in a different context much later.

Oxymoron is a figure of speech in which contradictory words are used closely together.  The contradiction is referred to as a paradox. Thus, it is worth noting that context determines the meaning certain words take. Let us now consider some of the most common oxymorons.  “A handful of influential Kenyans are trembling in their boots as the DPP and DCI’s nooses draw tight. The only choice they have is to return stolen money”.  In this statement, the oxymoron is ‘only choice’.  Choice means having more than one thing to choose from. When we talk of ‘only’, we mean a lone thing; the absence of choices.

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The Treasury experienced a temporal leadership vacuum following the arrest of Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich on charges of corruption last week. That must have precipitated a minor crisis at the Treasury that caused the value of the Kenya shilling to drop marginally. Cognisant of this, the President moved quickly to appoint an acting CS to steady the rocking ship. In this statement, the oxymoron is ‘minor crisis’. A crisis is a time of extreme difficulty; hence, none is unimportant or minor (of no consequence).

Broke down

In South Sudan as elsewhere in Africa, brothers are fighting each other over what they know not. When such fights in which the number of casualties is extremely high are highlighted, the media refers to the situation as ‘civil war’.  Ideally, a war is armed conflict, yet to be civil is to be courteous or polite.

The contradictions in the examples given are apparent, yet the oxymorons are acceptable in the sense that they are figures of speech, not to be taken literally.  Figure of speech is used to denote phrases or words that mean something different from what they directly imply.

On the other hand, when something is taken ‘literally’, it means that thing happened as stated. For example; “When word of Ken Okoth’s death broke, many people shed tears’. Figuratively, the same would be;” When word of Ken Okoth’s death reached them, many who knew him broke down”.

Figure of speech phrases used at the start of this column include ‘out on a limb’, ‘spill the beans’ and ‘axe to grind’. The first is used to mean ‘isolated’ or ‘vulnerable’. The second means to inadvertently or prematurely cause something to be known while the third means to bear a grudge, grievance. Were the same to be taken literally, they would carry completely different meanings.

It would be clownish walking around with sacks or tins of beans to spill along the way. If one literally ground an axe in public, it would cause a scare, raise questions about his or her mental faculties or cause law enforcers to make the charge;  ‘Armed and acting in a suspicious manner’.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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Ken OkothMember of Parliament for Kibra ConstituencyCancer