Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Idiom Blending

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2004

Geoff Nunberg at Language Log has noticed what he judges to be a malapropism: the word page-burner , used to refer to an exciting new novel by Michael Crichton. The word the writer probably was searching for is page-turner; the word that sounded just similar enough and shared enough of the excitement-related semantics to cause the interference is barn-burner. I’m not sure I’d call this a malapropism, though. A malapropism is the inappropriate substitution of one actually existing word for a phonetically similar one–for example, testicle analysis instead of statistical analysis. As far as I know, page-burner was not an actually existing word that got used instead of page-turner. There are ~8400 hits for page-burner on Google, many of which refer to a particular kind of software, and some of which refer to what Nunberg and I would call a page-turner. But I found none that had some more legitimate earlier meaning of page-burner, unlike the situation with testicle and statistical. The only way I could call it a malapropism was if I just looked at the burner for turner substitution.

Of course, you could define the term malapropism to cover both kinds of situations, but I think the situation here happens often enough, and is different enough from the other kind of malapropism, to merit its own name. Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions ran across it back in January and was wondering if there was a name for it, having decided it was neither eggcorn nor snowclone. His example: It’s not rocket science + It’s not brain surgery = It’s not rocket surgery.

I commented at the time that I’d heard my high school English teacher use the phrase from day go, which I assumed was an error, blending from the word go (or from the get-go) and from day one. Now that I check on Google, I see that he wasn’t the only one to say from day go, though I’m not sure if I’m seeing a robust enough presence to call it a part of some people’s language, or continue to consider it a production error:

  • from day one: 1,030K
  • from the word go: 101K
  • from the get-go: 396K
  • from day go: ~32

To refer to this kind of mixing of words from two phonetically and semantically similar multi-word expressions, I will use the term idiom blending. And here’s the most recent example of idiom blending that I came across. Only a couple of weeks before Nunberg’s page-burner catch, a friend of mine sent me a message telling me to wish my significant half a happy birthday, and to be sure to bake her a cake. (I’m off the hook for that, since her mom made her one when we visited for Thanksgiving!) I think significant half still falls on the error side of the ledger: As opposed to the 633K hits for significant other, and the 266K for better half, there were only 5K hits for significant half, and most of them really were talking about math. The only other attestation of significant half that I found was this meaning was this one, but it came from a Singaporean web site:

The single biggest fear of every spouse after being stood up at the altar is: your new significant half taking leave the next day and not coming back.

I’m betting that any time you have two syntactically and semantically similar idioms, there will be some idiom blending out there somewhere. So far, the only example that’s attested enough that we could reasonably call it part of the language instead of dismissing it as an error or a joke is Busch’s rocket surgery, which got 4820 Google hits. (It’s not brain science got about 260.) But I’ll be looking for others. In fact, I’ll look for one right now, one that I’ve never heard before. Let’s check Google to see if behind the eight ball and under the gun get us under the eight ball….

  • behind the eight ball: 37.1K
  • under the gun: 180K
  • under the eight ball: ~43

(Behind the gun has too prominent a literal meaning for me to do a meaningful check for it.) Hmm, not too impressive.

Well, no more time to look for more of these now. But if you notice some, or think of some to check out yourselves, let me know!

UPDATE: Mark Liberman at Language Log writes that there is already a name for this kind of mixing, coined in a paper by Cutting and Bock. The name is… idiom blend. Oh, well, great minds, you know. Read Liberman’s post for a link to the paper and a summary.

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8 Responses to “Idiom Blending”

  1. bkmarcus said

    My favorite idiom blend was from the college drama club, combining “looking for fresh talent” and “needing new blood” into “We’re looking for fresh blood!”

    One after-college acquaintance told me a certain iconoclast had been “totally hanged at the stake.” (But that was the same acquaintance who, when told that J. Edgar Hoover was a closeted homosexual, said “Wow, a gay president!”)

  2. Neal said

    Thanks for the extra data points, bk!

  3. From the third post in this thread discussing a character type from the City of Heroes MMORPG:

    “The sad sad thing is ITS ALL TRUE, and the devs are to short minded to realise anything is wrong.” [sic]

    short sighted + narrow minded = short minded :)

  4. cleek said

    my wife collects these, too.

    one of her favorites: that’s a whole ‘nother ball of worms

  5. [...] A thread on the Eggcorn Forum talks about a puzzling phrase some of the participants have seen: the war wages on. One poster speculates that the war-related verb wage is an eggcorn for rage; others think it’s an idiom blend of wage war and the war rages. Either of those is a possible explanation, but neither of them is the first one that occurred to me. The war rages on reminded me of a time about five years ago, when — oh, wait a minute… [harp music, wavy screen] [...]

  6. [...] If you liked It’s not rocket surgery!, That’s the way the cookie bounces, under the eight ball and page-burners, then head on over to Noncompositional and check out this post from Russell Lee-Goldman, and this paper by Liz Coppock that he links to. Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized [...]

  7. [...] idiom blends like it’s not rocket surgery, that’s the way the cookie bounces, under the eight ball, and more recently, green behind the ears have been discussed before, and show that idioms with [...]

  8. […] sort of thing has a name: an idiom blend.  This post gives some other examples: page-burner, “It’s not rocket […]

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