Learning Oxymorons + Take our Quiz!

oxymoronPicture this scenario: you’ve just received a big bonus at work and treated yourself to a flashy new car. Do you …

a) post a photo of it on all your social media forums, along with a comment about how pleased you are,
b) post a photo of it, but accompany it with a complaint about how much it will cost to run the car,
or c) not mention it at all on social media?

If you picked b), you might be accused of humblebragging: a faux pas that’s common on social media, and that seems to get peoples’ backs up as much as outright boasting. Humblebragging involves complaining or making a modest or self-deprecating statement, while at the same time drawing attention to something that you are in fact proud of. The word humblebrag, which currently appears in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online as a noun, can also be used as a verb, and somebody who humblebrags regularly can be called a humblebragger. Although these informal terms mainly appear as hashtags in social media posts, they also crop up elsewhere, as shown in the examples below:

She humblebragged about how ‘awful’ she looks without any make-up.

[…] social media has given the sport of humblebragging new life […]

The endless inspirational quotes, nauseating humblebrags, pics from far-flung exotic locations […]

[…] a humblebragger must always maintain the appearance of awe and disbelief at his or her success […]

According to online sources, the word humblebrag was coined in 2010, when the late comedy writer Harris Wittels created a Twitter account with that name and used it to poke fun at celebrities and others he considered to be humblebraggers. He then went on to write a book called Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty. Of course, false modesty isn’t a new phenomenon, and it has probably always been considered more socially acceptable to mask a boast than to be a braggart. But in an age when people can inform everyone they know about their achievements in a matter of minutes, it’s hardly surprising that the humblebrag seems to have become ubiquitous, at least for anyone who’s active on social media.

In linguistic terms, humblebrag is an oxymoron as it combines two words that seem to be the opposite of each other. The adjective humble, derived from the Latin humilis, meaning ‘low’ or ‘lowly, is defined in OALD as ‘showing you do not think that you are as important as other people’. The verb brag, on the other hand, means ‘to talk too proudly about something you own or something you have done’. The oxymoron has been used as a linguistic device for many years, as shown in this well-known speech from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. How many oxymorons can you spot?

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

And just to test you further, I wonder if you can match the words in the two groups below to form some of the most common oxymorons used in the present day? Click on the arrows to reveal the answers.

Group 1

  1. bitter
  2. original
    original copy
  3. old
    old news
  4. deafening
    deafening silence
  5. open
    open secret
  6. passive
    passive aggressive

Group 2

  1. silence
  2. secret
  3. aggressive
  4. copy
  5. news
  6. sweet

Well, on that note, I’d better wrap up this piece. It’s getting late and I still need to share it with my friends and followers on social media, of course with a comment about how hard it is to write a good Word of the Month blog post. (#humblebrag)

Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She doesn’t do much bragging on social media, humble or otherwise, but she doesn’t mind reading other people’s humblebrags.

This article was first published on 1 November 2018 on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries blog.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

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