[New Favorite Things Friday] My Favorite Mistake


My favorite mistake this week was a small one that had very little impact on anything other than making two people laugh and a third person exclaim that they were happy to hear the laughter.

I was trying to say something about not rushing to think too far ahead in a situation–to make plans for something where the factors are not yet in place. I thought I’d use an idiom to communicate this. Before I share that idiom, I thought I’d share a definition:
In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality.[5] This principle states that the meaning of a whole should be constructed from the meanings of the parts that make up the whole. In other words, one should be in a position to understand the whole if one understands the meanings of each of the parts that make up the whole. The following example is widely employed to illustrate the point:
Fred kicked the bucket.
Understood compositionally, Fred has literally kicked an actual, physical bucket. The much more likely idiomatic reading, however, is non-compositional: Fred is understood to have died. Arriving at the idiomatic reading from the literal reading is unlikely for most speakers. What this means is that the idiomatic reading is, rather, stored as a single lexical item that is now largely independent of the literal reading.

I highlighted the line that applies most to this situation. This idea of parts making up the whole. The parts by themselves don’t add up to the same whole. 
So there I am, trying to make a point. Knowing I am going to use an idiom to do so. I start one, then switch in the middle…
          Me: “Not to count my chickens before the horse.” I say.
          She: “What!?!”

          Me: “Oh, you know… horses… carts… chickens… hatching?” 

          She: “I hope that’s your mistake for the day, because I don’t know WHAT you’re doing.”

At this point I fully understand the idea of compositionality. The parts were supposed to add up to a whole. I switched up the parts and they just became… parts. It’s true, I think my conversation partner in this case had at least a vague understanding of where I was headed since the parts added up to two semi-whole ideas that showed a pattern of thought. I probably could have gotten away with not clarifying. After a bout of laughter that drew in that third person., the conversation moved on successfully. No real issue, no real mistake.

I loved the laughter though. It was my favorite mistake. I hope I have a chance to laugh next time I bark up the wrong foot.

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