A new AI problem

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Here's a task that I haven't heard about: recognizing mixed metaphors and idiom blends.

For example, from Bob Ford, "Eagles season can go one of three ways", Philadelphia Inquirer 8/2/2015:

If the Eagles win big this season, they will get bonus points for degree of difficulty. The tightrope over which success is stretched is very narrow.

And at the end of the piece:

Those are the three doors, and, admit it, the Eagles could open any of them this season. As training camp begins, there is no way to tell. There could be opportunity knocking or a doorbell tolling. Finding out which will take a while, though.

The Farberisms page presents a nice collection of (mostly) idiom blends:

We need to rein in our horns.
A problem swept under the table occasionally comes home to roost.
From here on up, it's down hill all the way.
Don't look a charlie horse in the mouth.
He's cornered on all sides.
I don't trust him farther than you can bat an eye.
Don't talk to me with your clothes on.
Put yourself in his boat.
If that happened to me, I'd clean my ears out with a pistol.
It's a white elephant around my neck.

I've found a few small collections of things presented as "mixed metaphors" out there, e.g. here,  here,  here, here. These are mostly idiom blends and eggcorns, it seems to me, but there aren't clear boundaries between these categories.

The classic study of idiom blends is J. Cooper Cutting and  Kathryn Bock, "That’s the way the cookie bounces: Syntactic and semantic components of experimentally elicited idiom blends", Memory & Cognition 1997.

Some relevant earlier LLOG posts:

"Mixed metaphor of the month", 4/13/2004
"The way the cookie bounces", 12/20/2004
"Blending in", 12/23/2004
"Beating back those Gordian hurdles", 10/12/2008
"'Green behind the ears': the untold story", 10/15/2008
"Idiom entanglements", 10/5/2011

Update — in fact there's at least one paper proposing recognition of mixed metaphors as an AI problem: Mark Lee and John Barnden, "Mixing Metaphors", Proceedings of the AISB'99 Symposium on Metaphor, Artificial Intelligence, and Cognition:

Mixed metaphors have been neglected in recent metaphor research. This paper suggests that such neglect is short-sighted. Though mixing is a more complex phenomenon than straight metaphors, the same kinds of reasoning and knowledge structures are required. This paper provides an analysis of both parallel and serial mixed metaphors within the framework of an AI system which is already capable of reasoning about straight metaphorical manifestations and argues that the processes underlying mixing are central to metaphorical meaning. Therefore, any theory of metaphors must be able to account for mixing.

But there doesn't seem to have been any significant uptake over the past 16 years.


  1. Leo said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 2:00 am

    What is the non-literal reading of "Don't talk to me with your clothes on"?

    [(myl) I wondered about that myself.]

  2. maidhc said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 4:06 am

    Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was famous for these. Also for people making them up and attributing them to him. Prizes if you could get it into one of the famous Hollywood gossip columns of the time. One winner: "It rolls off my back like a duck".

    [(myl) I'd forgotten about him. Some lists: here, here, here, here.]

  3. Oop said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 5:08 am

    I once met a nice one I'm not entirely sure how to translate, perhaps "the flagship of Estonian journalism landscape" – I think you get the drift. It reminded me of an old story about how one should not throw away the cut nails because the devil will build a ship out of them that can be sailed over both land and sea. Maybe, in some cases of mixed metaphors, there is some unclear mythological or folkloristic background supporting the mix.

  4. languagehat said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 8:31 am

    What is the non-literal reading of "Don't talk to me with your clothes on"?

    It's not a matter of non-literal readings; those aren't odd metaphors, they're mangled idioms and blends. For example, "I don't trust him farther than you can bat an eye" is a blend of "I don't trust him farther than I can throw him" and "faster than you can bat an eye." "Don't talk to me with your clothes on" starts out as (presumably) "Don't talk to me with your mouth full," but the "clothes on" part has so far defeated my attempts to reconstruct an original (unless it's simply "put your clothes on").

  5. bks said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 9:32 am

    Don't talk to me with your clothes on:
    In the 1970's there was a business in downtown Berkeley called "Diane's Nude Rap Sessions". –bks

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    While we're at it, "If that happened to me, I'd clean my ears out with a pistol" looks like normal unmixed rhetoric to me.

    "Don't talk to me with your clothes on" reminds me of Heinlein's "Women should be obscene but not heard."

  7. Gunnar H said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 2:41 pm


    That saying sounds like a version of the ship Naglfar from Norse mythology, built from the nails of the dead, which on its completion will set sail and carry the giants and other forces of chaos to do battle with the gods on Ragnarok.

    (In Norse religion, the moral of the tale was that you need to trim the nails of the dead before burial, so as not to hasten the end of the world.)

  8. Sniffnoy said,

    August 2, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

    Better yet of course is a multiply-mixed metaphor. :) For instance, the famous one from Futurama: "If we can hit that bull's-eye then the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards… Checkmate."

    Or this one (quoted here) apparently due to spots columnist Jerry Izenberg: "He was marooned in the jaws of a human minefield, and with every step the noose grew tighter."

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