The use of oxymoron and figure of speech phrases
Considered dumbMy 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. 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 downIn 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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