April 13, 2004

Lurking through holes

Fernando Pereira emailed to forward Leslie Kaelbling's observation of another apparently mixed-up headline in today's papers: "Hackers lurk through holes in hot spots". But Fernando points out that Google finds 1070 instances of "lurk through", and remarks "so much for our intuitions about 'lurk through'".

My first throught was that the cited headline is a malapropism for "leak through". After reading the story, I guess it's a sort of blend of "leak through" and "lurk throughout". Most of the google hits for "lurk though" seem to be genuine compositional uses of "lurk" and "through" (in the sense of "throughout", "along", "during" etc.).

By contrast, the several examples of "ignite a torrent" that Google finds seem to be ordinary mixed metaphors, caused by the use of one or both of the (content) words in extended senses that have been bleached of their original content. Thus when someone writes that "PUHCA repeal is expected to ignite a torrent of utility 'mega mergers'", they just mean to say "start a large number (of mergers)" in a more vivid way, and the implicit mixture of fire and water doesn't occur to them at all.

There's nothing really wrong with this, except that if the writer's language is more bleached than the readers' are, the readers get distracted (and amused). The word muscle originally meant "small mouse", but it doesn't bother us when someone writes a headline that says Intel adds more muscle to Xeon MP. No one makes fun of them for talking about adding mice to the cache, because only scholars and pedants remember the word's source.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2004 08:43 AM