Malaphors, aka idiom blends

From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, a link to a Malaphors site, featuring

Unintentional blended idioms and phrases – It’s the cream of the cake!

The site (managed by someone who identifies himself only as Davemalaphor) keeps a running inventory of “malaphors” — the term came to the site’s compiler from Douglas Hofstadter (1989), who got it from a 1976 newspaper article; Hofstadter also cites Gerald Cohen’s work on “syntactic blends” (generally, not specifically those involving idioms).

[Recent items on the Malaphor site: He’s a black horse in all of this (dark horse + black sheep); The client is one of those hard-moving targets (hard to hit + moving target); I’m going to give him a taste of my mind! (a piece of my mind + a taste of his own medicine).]

In a separate development, inspired by postings on “idiom blends” in Language Log starting in 2004, I’ve been keeping an inventory of my own. Again there’s an earlier history, going back to a 1997 Memory and Cognition article on “syntactic and semantic components of experimentally elicited idiom blends”, whose ultimate antecedent is a 1961 Language article by Dwight Bolinger on “syntactic blends” (which, however, doesn’t take up the special case of idiom blends).

Malaphors. From Douglas Hofstadter and David J. Moser, “To Err is Human; To Study Error-making is Cognitive Science” Michigan Quarterly Review 28.2.185-215 (1989) on “malaphors”:

An extremely common form of speech error in which spreading activation plays the key role is that of “malaphors”. English speakers, like the speakers of any language, have at their disposal an enormous repertoire of stock phrases, linguistic chunks, metaphors, idioms, clichés, proverbs, and colorful images from which to draw. These phrases float around in “semantic space”, some clustered together in close proximity, others drifting isolated in the furthest reaches of linguistic limbo. Some share similar syntactic structure, others exploit a common pool of cultural myths and archetypes. Some have as key components words that, via homonymy, synonymy, antonymy, or any number of other types of associations, can link them to a host of other such phrases. Given the complexity of human experience and the time pressures of everyday speech, it is not surprising that often two or more of these phrases can bubble up in the mind and interact with each in unexpected ways, as in the following example:

“That was a breath of relief”

in which “a breath of fresh air” and “a sigh of relief” were inadvertently spliced together by the speaker.

Hofstadter & Moser trace the term malaphor –- a portmanteau of malapropism and metaphor –- to the writer Lawrence Harrison (an official in the Agency for International Development), who coined it in a humorous op-ed piece that he wrote for the Washington Post in 1976. And they cite a series of articles by Gerald L. Cohen on syntactic blends, eventually assembled into his 1987 book Syntactic Blends in English parole.

Digresssion on Hofstadter. From Wikipedia:

Douglas Richard Hofstadter (born February 15, 1945) is an American professor of cognitive science whose research focuses on the sense of “I”, consciousness, analogy-making, artistic creation, literary translation, and discovery in mathematics and physics. He is best known for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, first published in 1979.

… Hofstadter collects and studies cognitive errors (largely, but not solely, speech errors), “bon mots” (spontaneous humorous quips), and analogies of all sorts

Idiom blends. The Language Log story starts with Mark Liberman’s posting of 12/20/04, “The way the cookie bounces”, which mentions the example

page-burner: barn burner + page turner

and discusses J. Cooper Cutting & Kay Bock, “That’s the way the cookie bounces: syntactic and semantic components of experimentally elicited idiom blends“, Memory and Cognition 1997 25.1.57-71, which uses the term idiom blends. Mark notes that Neal Whitman, on his Literal Minded blog, cites a 1/2004 post by Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions, asking for the right terminology for similar cases, and that (independently of Cutting & Bock) Neal suggests the term idiom blending.

In a follow-up posting to Mark, I noted the now-famous blending in BE NOT rocket surgery (BE NOT rocket science + BE NOT brain surgery).

In any case, all of this discussion follows on Dwight Bolinger on syntactic blends — Syntactic Blends and Other Matters,” Language, 37.366-81 (1961) — though Bolinger doesn’t look specifically at blends involving idioms and other formulaic expressions.

On more recent history, see my 12/13/31 posting “Dogbert’s idiom blend”, with this note:

On idiom blends, see Ben Zimmer on Language Log, 10/15/08, with an assortment of examples, including the archetype rocket surgeon; a 9/25/11 posting on this blog on dead as a bag of rocks; and a 11/07/12 posting on this blog on toolbook (and other examples).

[Added 4/8/16: Under the name Dave Hatfield, Davemalaphor has now published a book. He writes:

I have … just published a collection of my favorites, entitled “He Smokes Like a Fish and other Malaphors”. It is available on Amazon at ]

2 Responses to “Malaphors, aka idiom blends”

  1. davemalaphor Says:

    Reblogged this on Malaphors and commented:
    Excellent discussion of malaphors on “Arnold Zwicky’s Blog” by Arnold Zwicky, Stanford Professor of Linguistics.

  2. More Tips Says:

    More Tips

    Malaphors, aka idiom blends | Arnold Zwicky's Blog

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