"swap": inversion of meaning

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Jan 17 21:35:23 UTC 2005

"Blending" could account for the occasional slip of the tongue or pen, but Arnold is probably closer to explaining how such "slips" (if indeed that's how they originate) become "part of the language."  In simple terms, more young (I guess) people - including young people who wind up as print journalists - have failed to comprehend a big part of the established meaning of "swap" and "substitute" (and perhaps "trade" and "switch").

There's enough evidence to suggest that the shift is beginning to embrace this entire category of words.

"Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> wrote:
---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Arnold M. Zwicky"
Subject: Re: "swap": inversion of meaning

On Jan 17, 2005, at 8:24 AM, Gerald Cohen wrote:

> This looks like a blend: "subsitute whole grains for refined ones" +
> "swap/switch refined grains for whole ones."
> In my article "Contributions To The Study of Blending" (_Etymology
> And Linguistic Principles_, vol. 1---by Gerald Leonard Cohen, 1988;
> self-published but very favorably reviewed---pp.81-94), I comment on
> semantic change as a result of blending (p.89):
> "As a result of blending, words are often thrust into a new
> environment which changes the meaning of those words." (Then: two
> examples; Jonathan Lighter's example below seems to be a third one,
> albeit not from the standard language.).
> Original message from Jonathan Lighter, January 17, 2005:
>> This is much like the odd shift in the meaning of "substitute"
>> commented upon some weeks ago:
>> "New dietary guidelines coming out Wednesday are expected to place
>> more emphasis on counting calories and exercising daily, along with
>> swapping whole grains for refined ones and eating a lot more
>> vegetables and fruits." -- Gov't: Calories, Not Carbs, Make You Fat
>> (AP)
>> January 12, 2005
>> http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/333/7228/411784.html
>> This says to me (nonsensically) that if you're eating whole grains
>> now, you should switch to refined ones.
>> Thoughts?

to recap the old "substitute" discussion: there are three usages:
(1) original: substitute NEW for OLD
(2) encroached: substitute OLD with/by NEW
[an extension of the "replace" pattern]
(3) reversed: substitute OLD for NEW
[denison suggests that this is a blend of (1) and (2). note
that both (2) and (3) have the virtue of putting OLD before NEW,
iconically to the preferred sequence of old and new information]

now, the obvious analysis of lighter's "swap" example -- "swap NEW for
OLD", instead of "swap OLD for NEW" -- is that it's an extension of
the pattern in (1) to new verbs with semantics similar to "substitute"
("swap", and possibly, as cohen suggests, "switch" as well; i'd add
"trade"). this extension would be facilitated by the fact that "swap",
"switch", and "trade" are verbs of *mutual* substitution, for which (in
central uses) NEW replaces OLD and OLD replaces NEW: in "I
swapped/switched/traded my marbles for her baseball cards", the marbles
replace the baseball cards and vice versa. which participant is
expressed by the direct and which by the oblique object could be
entirely determined by matters of focus and topicality in the

so lighter's example could result from an extension of a construction
to new head verbs semantically similar to existing ones, a phenomenon
that is very widely attested.

cohen's syntactic blend analysis strikes me as pretty implausible. in
clear examples of syntactic blends, it's plausible to maintain that the
speaker (or writer) was entertaining two competing plans for expressing
the same meaning (or very similar ones) and ended up with elements of
each, usually in pretty simple ways (by splicing or substitution, to
use the terminology from davld fay's 1981 paper, "Substitutions and
splices: A study of sentence blends"). cohen's proposal is that "swap
NEW for OLD" results from blending
(1) substitute NEW for OLD
(2) swap/switch OLD for NEW,
which involves, at the surface, switches in three places, holding only
the preposition "for" constant. it is, of course, possible that
blending takes place at a more abstract level of analysis, in which the
allocation of OLD and NEW to syntactic arguments is separated from the
choice of "for" as the oblique marker.

extensions of constructions to new head items semantically related to
existing heads *could* always be analyzed as syntactic blends, with a
certain amount of ingenuity (as above). but this seems to me like the
wrong way to go, especially since people who produce these extensions
so rarely treat them as inadvertent errors; in general, the extensions
look like innovations in grammars, made independently by some number of
speakers and then spread to other speakers by the usual means.

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu
Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam?  Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

More information about the Ads-l mailing list