Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2005

4.9. Transkulturelle Stereotype in den Kunst- und Literaturwerken
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Tamara Fessenko (Tambov/Russland)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The Role of Extended Metaphor and Phraseological Puns in Producing a Humorous Effect

Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan State University, Russia)



The aim of my research is to offer for consideration two main patterns of instantaneous stylistic use of phraseological units in discourse in general and in jokes in particular. The profound study of phraseological units cannot be confined to their meanings in core use only. Extended metaphor and phraseological puns can be regarded as an excellent means of producing a humorous effect in jokes and exercising one’s linguistic creativity. This paper presents a number of relevant examples illustrating my approach.


Introduction. General Outlook on phrAseology and Various Ways of Phraseological Unit Transformations

By phraseology I mean the branch of linguistics dealing with stable word-combinations characterized by a specific transference of meaning. Consequently, the term "phraseological unit" (PU) is defined as follows: "A phraseological unit is a stable combination of words with a fully or partially figurative meaning" (Koonin 1970:210). This definition stresses two distinctive and inherent features of phraseological units: their stability (lexical and grammatical) and integrity (or transference of meaning), which differentiate them from stable word combinations of non-phraseological character and free word groups.

Play on words and creative use of language have always been part of the English tradition, so it’s obvious enough that play on phraseological units in the English language continues an old tradition of puns and other types of play on words, characteristic of W. Shakespeare, O. Wilde, L. Carrol and many other writers. "The stylistic changes of PUs have been an accepted fact of language throughout the history of English, see, for instance, Shakespeare’s works which abound in the creative use of language. It is noteworthy that even Old English and Middle English writings present ample evidence of this phenomenon" (Naciscione 2001:8). So it’s no wonder that different types of PU transformations in speech catch the attention of modern linguists.

On the whole, we may speak about two different approaches to such transformations. The adherents of the first approach consider unusual forms of phraseological units in speech as something undesirable, incorrect and abnormal, while those in the other group treat them as a great source of exercising one’s linguistic creativity.

The "root" of such different and diametrically opposed opinions may be found in Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between la langue and la parole (Saussure 1915).

If the former is viewed as the system established by a form of social contract among the members of a community, as something necessary and unalterable by individual volition, the latter, on the contrary, is considered as an act of will and intelligence, serving individual ends. Developed by F. de Saussure’s pupil, Ch. Bally, the linguistics of la parole stresses "... the idea of language in the service of life, language as a function of life, soaked in human affections, mingled with human strivings, existing only to fulfill the purposes of life itself" (Hough 1969:125-126).

So the PU transformation's "right to live" is beyond question, stylistic changes of phraseological units, their novel forms are a normal phenomenon, revealing an ability of non-traditional thinking in actual language with its feelings, affections and strivings.

There have been several studies investigating different stylistic changes of PUs in la parole over the last three decades. Professor Koonin was the first to speak about occasional changes of phraseological units (Koonin 1970). This term is still used in the former Soviet Union nowadays.

Fraser’s work "Idioms within a Transformational Grammar" was devoted to the transformational potential of idioms (Fraser 1970). A six-level hierarchy or scale was proposed to "measure" the transformational behaviour of set expressions in actual speech. Undoubtedly, his research "... has resulted in practical applications evident in the two volumes of the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English (ODCIE) (1975, 1983), and the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (LDEI) (1979), which indicate the transformational constraints on all the idioms listed. Fraser’s work is useful in another way: by drawing attention to the variations an idiom may or may not undergo, he has also incidentally drawn attention to the stylistic effects that transformations of idioms, especially the less common ones, can achieve" (Chitra 1996).

Fernando Chitra (Chitra 1996) investigated different kinds of idiom transformations within sentences. Additions, substitutions or replacements, permutations and deletions were given careful consideration from the point of view of the communicative needs of language-users. These transformations were regarded as the means of decomposing the idiom as an expression with a quite transparent figurative meaning for native speakers.

Recent studies in discourse analysis have encouraged new and rather valuable investigations of a discourse-based behavior of phraseological units and their role in the creation of textual meanings. In this respect the book of A.Naciscione "Phraseological Units in Discourse: towards Applied Stylistics" (Naciscione 2001) is noteworthy. Describing PUs as extremely complex many-sided language units with endlessly varied manifestations in discourse, she distinguished the four most common patterns of instantaneous stylistic use of phraseological units in discourse: extended metaphor, phraseological puns, cleft use and phraseological allusion. She views the instantaneous use of PUs as both the process and the result of meeting the needs of a new discourse environment, thus making a significant contribution to the text organization of discourse and enhancing the creation of text unity.


Some Notes on Metaphor in Phraseology

Metaphor as a very powerful means in predominantly emotive communication has been the object of thorough investigation since the days of Aristotle. No wonder that there were and there are innumerable theories of metaphor, which the majority of linguists regard as the transfer of name or some quality of one object to another, based on the association of similarity and thus actually being a hidden comparison.

"...the standard vocabulary with its more or less fixed rules of application and mutual interchangeability - however comprehensive and detailed it may be - is (fortunately) not comprehensive and detailed enough to cover in advance every situation that may present itself in the external world as well as in the human mind" (Mooij 1976:13). Consequently, metaphors with their highly emotive connotation are powerful tools in discourse.

The literal meaning of a figuratively applied word does not disappear but plays a very important role in the interpretation of the metaphor. This statement is also true with regard to phraseological metaphor. Recent research demonstrates that the metaphors on which phraseological units are based are still alive for native speakers and are a prominent part of their everyday conceptual system (Gibbs 1994). According to these investigations, people attempt to do some compositional analysis when understanding idiomatic phrases and are able to assign the parts of an idiom with independent meanings, which contribute to a phraseological unit’s overall figurative interpretation. That’s why most idioms may be stylistically transformed (or instantaneously used) in various ways, according to the communicative needs of language-users.


Extended Metaphor and Phraseological Puns in English Jokes

According to the definition, a joke is "something said or done to amuse people and cause laughter, especially a funny story or amusing trick" (LDCE 1989:566). The majority of jokes are based on the clash of their inner parts. From the very beginning jokes are based on a definite system of logical connections, which must be abruptly juxtaposed with another principally different system. The result is the revealing of some inner senses, which were not previously accentuated and distinguished. In such a way the text of a joke acquires its logical completeness. In other words, a joke may be regarded as a genre of contrasting contexts, and their cross-section is possible only in the final phrase.

Metaphor, a very powerful means of extending the area of what can be expressed by means of language, can serve as an inner motivation of such a clash creating a humorous effect.

Extended phraseological metaphor is characterized by pervasiveness. The basic structure of a phraseological unit in jokes, as a rule, doesn’t undergo various changes, so we can observe a string of sub-image(s) clustering around the base metaphor of the PU:

Comic Dictionary: PHILOSOPHER - one who instead of crying overspilt milk consoles himself with the thought that it was over four-fifthswater.(1)

Instantial metaphoric use of PUs also serves the purpose of creating a humorous effect. "Each sub-image promotes and develops metaphorical links, which constitute a network of related figurative items, all going back to the PU. The sub-images are critical for the creation of texture, they can be interpreted only by reference to the base image of the PU" (Naciscione 2001:74):

"Isn’t our Kate a marvel! I wish you could have seen her at the Harrison’s party yesterday. If I’d collectedthe bricks she dropped all over the place, I could build a villa".

In phraseology pun or wordplay involves the relation between the PU with its transferred meaning and the corresponding free combination of words with their literal meanings. In jokes when the sharp change of meanings rules the clash, the process of phraseological metaphor realization in its literal and transferred meanings plays a great role connecting two things which can’t be logically connected. Metaphor is split because one of the participants of the joke doesn’t understand its non-transparent transferred code.

The following two examples illustrate the failure of little children and adults to recognize and see beyond the literal meaning of a string of words because they lack the necessary phraseological unit in their mental dictionary:

"Jonny, where do you think God is this morning?" asked the Sunday-school teacher. "In our bathroom", was the reply. "What on earth makes you say that?" asked the amazed teacher. "Because just before I left I heard pa say, "My Lord! How long are you going to be in there?"

He: Don’t you hate people who talk behind your back?

She: Yes, especially at the movies.

Since the ideal task of communication is reaching agreement between the participants while being fully understood by each other, numerous jokes are based on the realization of a completely different model. The traditional pattern of taking turns in joke dialogues allows a good opportunity of using phraseological puns. Metaphor splitting seems to be absolutely appropriate because of the process of misunderstanding the partner. Little children are good examples of such misunderstanding, as their mental luggage isn’t sufficient enough and they fail to see the metaphorical meaning of PUs "between the lines":

Little Johnie (crying): Mummy, mummy, my auntie Jane is dead.
Mother: Nonsense, child! She phoned me exactly five minutes ago.
Johnie: But I heard Mrs. Brown say that her neighbors cut her dead.

In the next example a little girl is apt to accept words at their face value, leading to an amusing misunderstanding between her and one of the adults:

Little girl: Oh, Mr. Sprawler, do put on your skates and show me thefunny figures you can make.
Mr. Sprawler: My dear child, I’m only a beginner. I can’t make anyfigures.
Little girl: But Mother said you were skating yesterday and cut aridiculous figure.

Not only children, but also adults are sometimes rather ridiculous and funny being unable to understand the transferred meaning of PUs. In such cases we witness two different emotionally psychological levels of the participants resulting in two different inner text levels:

Motorist: Well, how far is it to the next town?
Native: Nigh to five miles as the crow flies.
Motorist: Well, how far is it if a damned crow has to walk and carryan empty gasoline can?

In the following example the simultaneous realization of both phraseological and literal meaning of the phraseological unit "to kick the bucket" serves the purpose of producing a humorous effect:

The doctor had an inveterate punster and wit among his patients. One day he was late in making his rounds, and explained to the incorrigible humorist that he had stopped to attend a man who had fallen down a well. With a groan of agony, the wit mustered up strength enough to murmur: "Did he kick the bucket, doctor?"



In this paper I have tried to summarize the most important information about two most important patterns of instantaneous stylistic use of phraseological units. Extended metaphor and phraseological puns may be viewed as universal semantic phenomena of metaphorical transference of meaning. Their usage in English jokes serves as a good basis of producing a humorous effect. On the whole, the study of PU "behavior" in discourse helps us to understand the relationships of phraseological units in the eternal dichotomy between la langue and la parole, proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure.

Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan State University, Russia)


(1) All examples are taken from the book "English Lexicology" by G. Antrushina, O. Afanasyeva & N. Morozova.


  1. Antrushina, G., Afanasyeva, O., Morozova, N. 1999. English Lexicology. Moskva.

  2. Chitra, F. 1996. Idioms and Idiomaticity. Oxford University Press.

  3. Frazer, B. 1970. Idioms within a Transformational Grammar. Foundations of Language 6:22-42.

  4. Gibbs, R.W. 1994. The Poetics of Mind. Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge.

  5. Hough, G. 1969. Style and Stylistics. London.

  6. Koonin A.V. 1970. Angliyskaya frazeologiya: teoreticheskiy kurs. Moskva.

  7. Mooij, J. 1976. A Study of Metaphor. On the Nature of Metaphorical Expressions, with Special Reference to their Reference. Amsterdam.

  8. Naciscione, A. 2001. Phraseological Units in Discourse: Towards Applied Stylistics. Riga.

  9. Saussure, F. 1915. Course de linguistique générale.

4.9. Transkulturelle Stereotype in den Kunst- und Literaturwerken

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Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan State University, Russia): The Role of Extended Metaphor and Phraseological Puns in Producing a Humorous Effect. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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