"exchange X for Y"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Dec 3 14:28:36 UTC 2005

Like Ben, the more I think about this the more confused I get. One source of
  difficulty for people like me (whatever that means) may be the use of the word "exchange."

  I'd have written the sentence as "to trade porn for Bibles."  Why, or whether, this would make any logical difference I don't know. But it does seem more immediately understandable.


Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Benjamin Zimmer
Subject: "exchange X for Y"

A recent item on Wonkette begins...

An atheist student group in Texas has set up shop on
their campus offering to exchange porn for Bibles.

I was momentarily confused until I continued reading the story and
realized that the group was trying to get students to drop off their
Bibles and get porn in return. To me, the sentence reads like it
should be the other way around. Is "exchange NEW for OLD" a new
phenomenon? I know Arnold Zwicky and others have looked at similar
reversals with "substitute" and "replace", but I don't recall
"exchange" being discussed.

The more I think about this the less sure of my intuitions I get, so
just to confirm that "exchange OLD for NEW" is the default, I found
this passage, appropriately enough in a salacious section of the New
American Bible (Romans 1:22-27):

While claiming to be wise, they became fools
and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image
of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.
Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of
their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the
creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females
exchanged natural relations for unnatural,
and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned
with lust for one another.

Any thoughts on the matter? (Pure and natural ones, of course.)

--Ben Zimmer

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