Chapter 10. A corpus-based study of ‘mixed metaphor’ as a metalinguistic comment

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This chapter investigates the use of the expression ‘mixed metaphor’ as a metalinguistic comment in the two-billion-word Oxford English Corpus. I consider the co-text of 141 occurrences of ‘mixed metaphor’ in the corpus, in order to shed light on the kinds of uses of metaphors that writers opt to explicitly draw attention to as involving ‘mixing’. I show how folk understandings of ‘mixed metaphor’ include phenomena that do not correspond to the technical use of the term in the specialist literature, and reflect on the implications of these findings for metaphor theory. Some attention is given to the use of the phrase ‘mixed metaphor’ in different genres, the relevance of grammatical boundaries to perception of ‘mixing’ between metaphors, and the possible pragmatic motivation for using ‘mixed metaphor’ as a metalinguistic label. The study broadly confirms the prevailing view that the notion of ‘mixed metaphor’ often involves a negative evaluation of a particular stretch of language and of the speaker/writer who produced it. However, in a substantial minority of cases, the phrase is used humorously to point out what are in fact creative, witty and highly effective uses of metaphor.


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