Wide asleep

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky has reported that her daughter Opal (then aged 4;10) says that when she is deeply asleep she is “wide asleep”. This makes some sense, though it’s not idiomatic.

It turns out that there’s a big pile of Google hits for “wide asleep” (illustrations to come), in a wide variety of senses. My favorite is for a baby sleeping with its eyes wide open.

“Wide asleep” is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone acquiring English as a first language or learning it as a second. After all, the language (like all languages) is packed with idioms, and piecing out these not entirely systematic pairings of sound with meaning is a huge task for someone coming on these things from the outside. “Wide awake” vs. “sound/fast asleep” is part of a set of idiomatic modifiers meaning (roughly) ‘completely’, each associated with a few specific adjectives: among them, “wide awake/open”; “sound asleep”; “fast asleep” (earlier: “fast ashore/aground”), “dead drunk”, “stone sober/deaf”.

So “wide asleep” is either some sort of mistake or it’s a play on words, based on “wide awake” (compare the title of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Eyes Wide Shut, playing on “eyes wide open”; thanks to Larry Horn for reminding me of Kubrick). But if it’s a mistake, WHAT SORT of mistake is it?

First, a collection of examples illustrating some ways in which “wide asleep” can combine references to both waking and sleeping (beyond Opal’s way). There’s ‘wide awake’:

So, I ask you, what do you do when you can’t sleep? After 3 cups of strong coffee around 8:30 tonight, I am W i d e A s l e e p. I want to go to bed but that’s not happening anytime soon. (link)

And ‘awake but mentally sleeping/unalert’:

“Most people live their lives in a Wide Asleep state. Are you one of them? They react instead of create. If we do not control our thoughts, there are plenty of people and things out there who will. Thoughts and ideas are things in our subconscious and conscious mind that create who we are. Wide Asleep, Slumber No More by Timothy Kendrick provides ways to wake up your life … (link)

And ‘in a coma’:

Wide Asleep [review of The Coma, a book by Alex Garland] (link)

And ‘asleep with eyes wide open’:

[of a baby]  Elliot likes to sleep with his eyes open … (link)

There are smaller number of hits for “sound awake”, for example:

When I woke up the next day, my hubby was sound awake and surfing the net via his mobile phone. (link)

After putting the kiddos to bed, I was feeling physcially very very tired but mentally I was sound awake. It was a torture. (link)

And a  still smaller number for “fast awake”, for instance:

Sleepily he moved his finger down the list. Three quarters of the way down the list he was jolted fast awake. It was his own name. (link)

Our digestive juices are jolted in that environment, fast awake and ready to perform their duty in a frenzy. At home, you need more cues. … (link)

Some of the hits for “wide asleep”, “sound awake”, and “fast awake” are obviously playful, but others are probably not. They’re some kind of non-standard innovation. Again, the question is: What kind?

Most linguists would probably classify “wide asleep” etc. as instances of ANALOGY, as if speakers were solving proportions like

awake : wide awake :: asleep : X

That is, “wide asleep” gets its form by analogy with “wide awake”. This is item-by-tem analogy: at the time of its first creation, the expression arose by a mental act of comparison between specific expressions. (Of course, the result can then diffuse to other speakers in the usual way. These other speakers aren’t analogizing afresh, just modeling their speech on the speech of people around them.)

There are situations in which item-by-item analogy looks like a reasonable account of the facts. (This is an account often given for “on accident” ‘accidentally’, rather than “by accident”, presumed to be an analogy to “on purpose” ‘purposely’ — a topic I intend to look at in another posting.) The question is whether it’s a good account of “wide asleep”. In a little while, I’ll suggest an alternative.

Before I get to that: some linguists would offer a different analysis of the situation, Gerald Cohen, who’s collected a great many “syntactic blends”, would no doubt suggest that “wide asleep” is a BLEND of “wide awake” and “sound asleep”. Over the years, he’s advanced many similar analyses of mistakes — on ADS-L, where I’ve disputed most of them.

Now, it’s clear that “wide asleep” is, or appears to be, composed of parts of two different expressions. It is, in my somewhat desperate terminology, a COMBO (a term intended to make no claims about the mechanisms that might have given rise to the expression, only to serve as a description of the form of the expression).

Here’s the problem: there are a number of ways in which combos could arise, and there’s a substantial psycholinguistic literature on what are there labeled blends. These are inadvertent errors resulting from a competition in production between two ways of “saying the same thing”, the result being something that has parts of both. People who produce such things do not intend them: they often correct them spontaneously, and usually deny that that’s what they intended to say.

That’s not what was going on in Opal’s “wide asleep”. I’m sure she thought that “wide asleep” was a fine way of conveying what she meant. That is, her mistake was advertent — a mistake from the point of view of some wider community, but not from her own viewpoint.

[Advertent vs. inadvertent is my terminology, for a distinction Erving Goffman labeled doesn’t-know-better vs. knows-better errors and Geoff Nunberg called thinkos vs. typos. Advertent mistakes range from the individual and idiosyncratic — classical malapropisms (including eggcorns), private meanings, and the like — to the large-scale, as with widespread non-standardisms, which are “mistakes” only from the viewpoint of the standard language, but not from the viewpoint of the communities that use them.]

The question again is what could give rise to things like “wide asleep”. So far I’ve considered playfulness (or, simply, intentional creativity), (implicit) analogy, and inadvertent error (a “blend”). Then there’s PATTERN EXTENSION. To show what might be going on here, I’ll have to say a bit about patterns.

Each speaker commands a huge assortment of conventional form-meaning pairings, including simple lexical items (dog ‘dog’) and a variety of patterns (which I called “complex sign types”, or comsits for short, in a paper from a few years ago): idioms (many with open slots in them) and constructions of various scales (there’s no clear line between idioms and small-scale constructions). Many of these patterns are complex and seem to exhibit considerable lexical specificity, and as a result there’s constant pressure to extend them to new lexical items that have the appropriate semantics.

So we find people who can use donate in the Dative Movement construction (“I donated the church a lot of money”), people who can use imagine in the Subject-to-Object Raising construction (“I imagined Carlos to be a spy”), people who can use come in the GoToGo construction (“She’s coming to San Francisco and talk on firewalls”), and so on.

As I noted early on in this posting, the

Modifier ‘completely’ + Adjective

pattern is, for most speakers of English, extraordinarily constrained as to which modifiers go with which adjectives. So it’s natural to extend the pattern in wide awake/open to the adjective asleep (and perhaps shut). And similarly for the other innovations above.

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