LINGUIST List 11.2415

Wed Nov 8 2000

Sum: Creative Modifications of Idiomatic Expressions

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Flor Mena, creative modififications of idiomatic expressions

Message 1: creative modififications of idiomatic expressions

Date: Tue, 31 Oct 2000 17:43:00 +0100
From: Flor Mena <>
Subject: creative modififications of idiomatic expressions

Dear linguists,

Some weeks ago I posted a query to the list (Issue 11.1952). I wanted
to know if anyone knew where (books, magazines,etc..) I could find
creative modifications of idiomatic expressions (examples: 'Logic is
in the eye of the logician' --> 'Beauty is in the eye of the
beholder'; 'the whale truth'--> 'the whole truth' ....).I received
very useful answers and I would like to thank everybody for their
help. Here are some of the answers:

James Vanden Bosch (Calvin College) was really helpful and gave me the
title of a book: Mieder & Litovkina (1999)Twisted wisdom: Modern
Anti-proverbs, which has proved to be really interesting. He was also so
kind as to send me a list of published material in New York magazine with
some curious expressions.

Daniel Sokol (University of Oxford) told me about contemporary French
 "the poet/ singer Georges Brassens uses a large number of modified
idioms...... If your research is not strictly limited to English, I
would seriously take a look at the works of Brassens since you'll find
plenty of examples. There is also a useful appendix listing a fair number
of modified expressions and adapted literary borrowings in Loic Rochard's
"Brassens, orfevre des mots" published by Arthemus in 1996.

Lena Pigrova suggested that I should look in any corpus of spoken speech,
especially children's spoken speech.

Here is John E Koontz's answer:
I'm not sure if "idiom" is the expression you want here. An idiom is a
particular arbitrary by more or less obligatory or customary phrasing,
usually smaller than a sentence, e.g., "by and large" y"in all/most
cases', or "to take the bull by the horns" y"to try a direct solution to
a difficult problem', or "on the one hand ..., on the other ..." y"in one
case ..., in the other case ...'. Some idioms are complete utterances, to
be sure, with expressions of greeting, parting, thanks, etc., being common
cases. An idiom is essentially a lexical item larger than a phonological

What you're dealing with here, however, are commonly called 'sayings' or
'aphorisms' or 'apophthegms' and many other such things. They not only
have a customary form and meaning, but encapsulate some sort of
traditional wisdom or knowledge. As far as I know they are invariably a
full sentence.

Pete Unseth was very kind and gave me Mieder's e-mail address.

Margarita Balamakov said that a great source for modified idioms could be
Reader's Digest.

Rachel Giora (Tel Aviv University) told me that she and some of her
students are interested in the topic from processing and aesthetics
perspectives. She was really kind and sent me an attachment of one of the
sections of her book (in press), which I must say was also really helpful.

Christine Michaux (Univesit� Libre de Bruxelles)suggested Mieder�s book too
and she also sent me a chapter of her dissertation PhD which "consisted in
elaborating a linguistic theory of proverbial utterances and that included
looking at what some people have called "perverted proverbs", that is
proverbs like those you cite in your mail"

This was Gill Philip's (Universit� di Bologna) answer:
"I'm working on these with colour idioms, and I know that Rosamund Moon
(ex-Cobuild, now Longmans, I think) has done loads. (she mentions
variations in her book Idioms and Fixed Expressions in English - it's
available on Amazon, but isn't cheap - see if your departlent will buy
it...). We both work with corpora. If you have access to a corpora, you
can try this:
search for the canonical expression
search for structures that are in a canonical expression - fixed
collocations, frameworks, and so on, and try separate searches for
these. It's time consuming, but quite good fun. I published a paper this
year on 'red rag to a bull' . The paper's out, but not in the public
domain yet - it's part of a tribute to John Sinclair that was presented
to him in May, but hasn't yet gone through all the distribution
What I did was this:
canonical phrase - like a red rag to a bull
fixed collocations - red rag; red...bull; rag...bull
structure - like a ** to a **

and so on. You then have to sift through the stuff that's not relevant,
but you often find leads to other idioms (especially in the structures).

As far as books are concerned, I'm not sure if there are any. You may
well find web pages with collections of idiom oddities, though".

Elizabeth J Pyatt's anwser was really interesting:
I suspect your best bets are humorists columnists and advertisements.
Some columnists you may want to try are Dave Barry, P.J.O' Roarke
("Give war a chance!"),the late Erma Bombeck ("The grass is greener
on the other side of the septic tank"), Molly Ivins, the late Lewis
Grizzard, George Will, and, of course, Mark Twain in the U.S. There
are probably some collections on the web, and certainly in the U.S.

As for advertising, there are some site that talk about trends in
advertising including John Garfield's Ad Review You can find
downloadable video ads at

Finally you can try looking at collections of memorable quotes. An
English standard is "Bartlett's" but there are lots of other
collections out there.

A.Rosta sent me some examples stored in his memory:
1. You are my tower of Gibraltar
	You are a tower of strength
	+ You are my rock of Gibraltar

2. burning the midnight oil at both ends
	burning the midnight oil
	+ burning the candle at both ends

3. I've got a mouth like (the inside of) a turkish wrestler's birdcage
	mouth like the inside of a birdcage
	+ mouth like a turkish wrestler's jockstrap

4. It's cold enough to freeze your brass monkeys off
	It's cold enough to freeze the bollocks off a brass monkey
	+ It's cold enough to freeze your bollocks off

5. I'd trust her as far as I can throw a house on fire
	I'd trust her as far as I can throw her
	+ We get on like a house on fire

And an adapted idiom:

6. We get on like a house
	< We get on like a house on fire

(1) was originally said inadvertently by my wife but has since
become a family idiom. (2-6) are deliberate formations used for
humorous effect. The blends in (1-4) have a meaning compatible
with their ingredients, whereas (5-6) have ambivalent meaning
that subverts the source idiom.

Finally Cornelia Tschichold sent me this message:

I recently published my PhD (see the attached file) and while working
on it, these modifications were really my biggest problem. I was
working on phraseologisms in the wider/widest sense, and finding any
information on possible modifications is very difficult. The only
dictionary that comes close to giving some is Cowie's two-volume one,
but modifications like the ones you mentioned are not in it (obviously
maybe). I think the only way to find examples is by reading and
collecting them yourself. Newspapers and especially headlines are
certainly a good source. As such expressions are a notorious
difficulty for computer programs, I do not see any way to filter these
out of a corpus electronically (so far)."

Thanks a lot to everybody
Flor Mena

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