Non-canonical idioms

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Non-canonical idioms

Postby Richard » 08 Mar 2016 15:00

In the Linguistics lesson on formulaic phrases, I argued that non-canonical variants on idiomatic proverbs could be more frequent than the canonical forms. As an example of this, we all know the proverb 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away'. Entering "a day keeps the * away" into COCA produces 25 results. Of these in 17 the wildcard is filled by 'doctor' (other wildcard fillers include 'gerontologist', 'craving' and 'banana'!!). In the 17 'doctor' returns, in only 9 is the phrase preceded by 'apple' (alternatives include 'a clove', 'a slice of AppleCream Cheese Bundt Cake' and 'an orgasm'). In total then, only 9 of 25 (36%) of occurrences of the proverb are in full canonical form.

If this is representative of how people use idiomatic proverbs (and there are reasons to think that the number of non-canonical variants is underestimated given that these are probably common in informal conversation which is underrepresented in the corpus), a key question is: how do people know what the canonical form of the proverb is?
A second question is: do people perceive proverbs as potential gap-fill structures rather than fixed phrases?
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Re: Non-canonical idioms

Postby stevelouw » 15 Mar 2016 08:56

My feeling is that these variants of the canonical form are only used where the audience have background knowledge of the original, and it seems to me that these variants are only invoked because they carry with it the references associated with the original,and the variant builds on the original in some way to humorous effect (as in the bundt cake example, which I found laugh-out-loud-worthy).

The same thing happens with literary references, which are particularly well-known. Shakespeare's 'to be or not to be', probably not idiomatic but certainly widely understood to represent angst, occurs 89 times in COCA, but there are lots of variants if you put the wildcards in as placeholders for the verbs: ' to do or not to do' occurs 19 times, and others like 'buy', 'screen' and 'indict' occur as variants used for some sort of comic or literary effect.

In answer to Richard's first question, I don't think these variants would be used if the writer (or speaker) were unsure that the audience had access to the original canonical form. It is only by using the variant that the meaning of the original can be referenced, and the comic (or cultivated) effect is created. That means that these formulaic phrases are learned elsewhere, not through the interaction in which they are found. This is perhaps easier to see with a literary quotation from Shakespeare, which we all first encounter in their original during high school literature lessons, I would guess. Crating variants on these is then unproblematic as long as all the interlocutors have had the same high school literature lessons (which I think is a safe bet with Shakespeare). However, I'm not sure how someone would the the 'apple a day' canonical form if it occurs less frequently than the variants. Could it be that when these variants attempt to invoke the original, and the humor is lost on the listener, some helpful co-listener helps to co-construct the original?
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