Idiom entanglements

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"It's a mare's nest of vipers," said a colleague of mine today, hopelessly entangling two nest-related idioms (intentionally, for the humor, I think). But it was no higher in rank than number 2 in the contest for worst idiom entanglement of the day, because this morning I heard on the radio a Conservative Party politician saying perfectly seriously that "the dénouement is about to hit the fan". (At least, it was either an idiom entanglement or the strangest excremental euphemism I ever heard. And yet I realize, even as I write this, that almost immediately I have begun to think it's rather cute, and I might adopt it: "I had to use the plunger this morning — had a dénouement that wouldn't go down.")

Just a few weeks ago the Christchurch Press in New Zealand said that the agriculture minister "expressed concern about farmers shooting themselves in the foot by axing industry levies" and a task force warned "that no silver bullet existed for restoring profitability" (The New Yorker, October 3, 2011, p. 81). Our idioms, like birds of a feather, just worm their way into the jellyfish of our consciousness and wrap their tentacles round its spine, don't they?

Added later: A friend wrote to me to say:

At one time I had a line manager who was an expert at creating such things intentionally, for the humor. Three I remember are "skating too close to the ice" (from "skating on thin ice" and "sailing too close to the wind"); "burning the midnight oil at both ends" (from "burning the midnight oil" and "burning the candle at both ends"; and my all-time favourite "shinning up the wrong bark" for "barking up the wrong tree" (with suggestions of "shinning up" meaning "climbing up", the bark of a tree, and barking one's shin).

These beautiful examples are of course exactly of the mare's nest of vipers type: genuine mangling together of distinct idioms, and if I'd had them at the time they would have been in the body of the post. The Christchurch Press example is (did you notice this?) a completely different phenomenon: an example of mixed metaphors. The spine in the jellyfish of consciousness is also a mixed metaphor. I hope you can clearly perceive the distinction between a confused amalgam of two distinct idioms and a mid-paragraph switch of metaphorical images. I was deliberately sloppy about this above, not bothering to draw the distinction. I should have, of course: you are Language Log readers, and you deserve the full seriousness of which I am sometimes, when I feel like it, capable.

It is for you to decide whether you prefer the posts I write before the second single malt scotch of the evening or after. (I should probably label the posts with a score indicated by a row of little sherry casks or whisky bottles.) You should also decide whether you want to read Language Log before or after your own second aperitif.

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