I've been reading Nevil Shute books recently, and they are set in late-1940s Britain. As a consequence, the characters are always using expressions such as "frightfully good", "terribly good" and "awfully nice". In the negative this becomes "perfectly awful" or "perfectly frightful".

I feel sure that this figure of speech must have a name. Could anyone tell me what it is?

  • possible duplicate of How and why have some words changed to a complete opposite? Commented Aug 11, 2011 at 1:29
  • @FumbleFingers, not a duplicate for sure - only related; other question is about etymology, this one is about figure of speech.
    – Unreason
    Commented Aug 11, 2011 at 9:29
  • @Unreason: The only difference I can see is that this one asks for a name for the meaning reversal, but clearly if there was a specific grammatical term it would have come out on the other question. I'm ignoring the "oxymoron" issue because it's effectively meaningless to compare and contrast the meaning of one word a long time ago when used in conjunction with another word and meaning today. Commented Aug 11, 2011 at 16:25

4 Answers 4


I don't think that there's a name for this figure of speech—each phrase uses an adverb in an accepted form. For example, take the definition of "awfully":

1. very; extremely: That was awfully nice of you. He's awfully slow.

2. in a manner provoking censure, disapproval, or the like: She behaved awfully all evening.

3. Archaic.

  • a. in a manner inspiring awe: shouting awfully the dreaded curse.
  • b. in a manner expressing awe: to stare awfully.

The phrase "awfully nice" uses the first meaning of awfully—"very; extremely". I think that the phrases you quoted are perfectly good English; they don't employ a figure of speech.

However, one might be able to call them oxymorons, but they will not be fully accepted as such. From this list of figures of speech:

OXYMORON: Using two terms together, that normally contradict each other

One example as given is awfully nice and awfully good.

  • 3
    I don't think awfully nice or awfully good can be defined oxymorons. "Awfully" in 2 dictionaries I've checked means "very, extremely". There is no contrast with good or nice. An oxymoron would be... well, oxymoron.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 18:37
  • @Alenanno Which is why I wrote that the phrase is an accepted form. If he really wants to call it something, though, it could be an oxymoron.
    – user10893
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 18:39
  • @Alenanno, in rhetoric and literature oxymoron is not necessarily meaningless; if characters consistently use words that can be interpretted as 'bad' to attribute 'good' things and if they consistently use words that are 'good' to attribute 'bad' things, then the oxymoron is at least suggested at some level of language.
    – Unreason
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 18:52
  • @Unreason: What do you mean "meaningless"? I didn't get that part... But anyway, my point was that an oxymoron is when you put two words next to each other that are opposite in meaning or that contradict each other. The OALD gives deafening silence as an example. All of this is why I said that "awfully good/nice" couldn't be defined oxymoron, also considering the meaning of "awfully".
    – Alenanno
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 20:06
  • awfully nice would presumably have been an oxymoron hundreds of years ago, except that I don't think nice back then meant anything like it does now either. It's silly to apply such a label when you need all this time-travel to justify it. Commented Aug 11, 2011 at 1:34

I think that your confusion stems from the colloquially-negative connotations of the word. However, their actual meaning is far broader. I would go so far as to say that such usage is not uncommon, even today.


Following the trail of oxymoron, I found an example in wikipedia that lists

pretty ugly

as a special kind of oxymoron, which they label apparent oxymoron. (there is a note that it is debatable if strictly speaking these are oxymora or not).

So, while not truly consisting of contradicting words, it does have a connotation of contradiction.

I think we have the same situation here, words that are not strictly oxymora, only apparent oxymora.


"Awfully" originally was so spelt only to distinguish it from "aweful", and meant "awe-inspiringly". There's a passage in a First World War book [Dunsany's collection Tales of War [?], long out of print]:

The night was awfully still. I use the word not as Private Smith would have used it.

But,like so many adjectives, the meaning was gradually chipped away, by Private Smith among others, to mean very.

Did you mean the process by which slang reduces everything to either very or good/ bad (or sometimes both)? Or the inevitable result of this, by which "perfectly awful" and "awfully perfect" become opposites? If the second, I think it's too transient to have a name, since hardly anybody now uses either phrase, and no doubt when one of them becomes fashionable slang in twenty years the meaning will be different again.

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