December 20, 2004

The way the cookie bounces

Neal Whitman at Literal Minded points out that "page-burner" is not a typical old-fashioned malapropism, since it doesn't involve simple subsitution of one word for another. Instead, there's a sort of exchange of parts between two similar phrases, "barn burner" and "page turner", where "A B-er" and "C D-er" are hybridized to form "C B-er" (and perhaps "A D-er").

This exchange process has been studied experimentally by J. Cooper Cutting and Kay Bock, who used the naturally evocative term idiom blend rather than malapropism in referring to it: "That's the way the cookie bounces: syntactic and semantic components of experimentally elicited idiom blends", Mem Cognit. 1997 Jan;25(1):57-71. Neal cites a 1/2004 post by Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions, asking for the right terminology for similar cases, and (independently of Cutting and Bock) Neal suggests the term idiom blending.

Here's the Cutting & Bock abstract:

Idioms are sometimes viewed as unitized phrases with interpretations that are independent of the literal meanings of their individual words. Three experiments explored the nature of idiomatic representation with a speech-error elicitation task. In the task, speakers briefly viewed paired idioms. After a short delay they were probed to produce one of the two idioms, and their production latencies and blend errors were assessed. The first experiment showed greater interference between idioms with the same syntactic structure, demonstrating that idiomatic representations contain syntactic information. The second experiment indicated that the literal meaning of an idiom is active during production. These syntactic and literal-semantic effects on idiomatic errors argue against a representation of idioms as noncomponential lexicalized phrases. The final experiment found no differences between decomposable and nondecomposable idioms, suggesting that the lexical representation of these two types of idioms is the same.

Here's a reference that explains what they mean by decomposable vs. non-decomposable. I suspect that their use of the term "blend" derives from what Dwight Bolinger called syntactic blends (Syntactic Blends and Other Matters," Language, 37 (1961), 366-381), though Bolinger doesn't discuss idiom blends as such in the cited article. I dimly recall that he has written about idiom blending in some other place, but a brief search didn't find it, and I might be wrong. Other relevant examples can be found in the list of Farberisms on the Icon site, many of which are idiom blends ("he flipped his cork", "that's a different cup of fish"), while others are just malaprops ("this report reads like a bleached whale", "he's as ugly as godzilla the hun"), or other sorts of modifications of fixed expressions ("let's solve two problems with one bird").

Unfortunately, Memory and Cognition is not yet available on line before 2001.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2004 07:09 PM