Peter and Paul

Bartender R at 3 Seasons in Palo Alto, on February 23rd:

That would be robbing Peter to Paul Mary.

A complex error, in which one fixed expression, the proper name Peter, Paul, and Mary, interferes with the production of another sort of fixed expression, the idiom to rob Peter to pay Paul. The two expressions share the parts Peter and Paul (in that order), so R’s error is an inadvertent blend of the two.

The simplest sort of error with to rob Peter to pay Paul would be an exchange (transposition, metathesis at a distance, whole-word Spoonerism) — parallel words in accented positions, of the same syntactic category, and in fact sharing phonological properties:

to rob Paul to pay Peter

and this is attested, both as an accident and as an intentional transposition:

Do we rob Paul to pay Peter? (link, on Peter and Paul as the foundation stones of the Catholic Church)

Very much less likely would be a word exchange between pay and Paul, even though they’re adjacent; they’re of different syntactic categories:

to rob Peter to Paul pay

[Digression on the idiom. My Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1981 ed.) says this:

To take away from one person in order to give it to another; or merely to shift a debt — to pay it of by incurring another. Fable has it that the phrase alludes to the fact that on 17 December 1540 the abbey church of St. Peter, Westminster, was advanced to the dignity of a cathedral by letters patent …; but ten years later was joined to the diocese of London, and many of its estates appropriated to the repairs of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But it was a common saying long before and was used by Wyclif about 1380: How should God approve that you rob Peter, and give this robbery to Paul in the name of Christ. — Select Works, III, 174]

On generalizations about the relative likelihood of errors: Linguists and psychologists have long used such generalizations to propose models of language production in which the planning process works in terms of linguistic units of several sorts (among them, phonological onsets, syllables, words), organized into larger routines (generally obeying constraints like the same-category restriction noted above).

What’s striking about R’s error was its violation of the same-category restriction, in to Paul Mary, rather than, say, to pay Mary. That’s a pretty clear signal that something else is going on — in this case, an inadvertent blend of two different formulas.



2 Responses to “Peter and Paul”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    My father in law (peace to his memory) used to refer to Peter, Paul & Mary Ford. Pretty funny, if your musical experience spans the right periods.

  2. Bob Richmond Says:

    I remember around 1967 a pathologist (of blest memory) I worked with came in brimming over with laughter because his 13 year old daughter had just asked him “What has four balls and menstruates?” – “Peter, Paul, and Mary”.

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