In response to a Facebook post of mine in 2017, a friend introduced me to the word malaphor, which refers to a phrase that mixes two (or more) idioms.
My post used the phrase “The devil’s hands make light work.” A couple of other examples that friends gave in comments:
- The road to hell wasn’t built in a day.
- When in doubt, do as the Romans do.
Elliott Moreton calls this kind of thing a recombinant idiom, which on the one hand is more accurate (the items in question are often idioms rather than metaphors per se) but on the other hand isn’t as punchy/catchy to my ear. And the word malaphor also calls to (my) mind the word malaprop, which also seems appropriate.
I’ve been using the phrase recombinant idiom in Words & Stuff to refer to a wider range of items:
- Some reworkings/parodies of well-known phrases in an article about Sarah Palin. These ones don’t mix two idioms, though.
- A phrase from TechCrunch: "Don't shoot the gift horse that feeds you." (That one is a malaphor.)
- “a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs.”
- A discussion of the phrase laser sharp.
- A post that includes some Dr. Who quotes and some recombinant idioms collected by Elliott (mostly from news articles). Also notes that this sort of phrase is also known as a dundrearyism.
- “Opinions are like wishes…”
It turns out that there’s at least one website devoted to malaphors: malaphors.com. Their slogan: “It’s the cream of the cake!”
A few of their recent posts:
- Keep a pulse on that.
- Let’s get this show rolling.
- Cross bases.
- He’s way in over his skis. (I especially like that one.)
I had assumed that malaphor was a new word, but that site says “It is believed that the term was first coined by Lawrence Harrison, a government official in the Agency for International Development, in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post in 1976.”
A web search also led me to another list, which includes some that I particularly like, such as “He has a bee in his belfry.”