What's so funny?: Conceptual integration in humorous examples

Seana Coulson

An 'Off the Leash' cartoon by W.B. Park depicts a dozen or so pigs feeding at a trough. One pig, however, has his head raised, as if addressing the approaching farmer. The pig's words are apparently expressed in the cartoon's caption which reads, "Garcon!" Thus the farmer in the cartoon has been compared to a waiter in a French restaurant, and the viewer is left to speculate about the nature of the correspondence between expensive French food and the contents of the feeding trough. Hofstadter & Gabora (1989) point to the analogical nature of this joke, and pose the term frame blend for a frame whose elements and relations are constructed from a combination of two frames which share some abstract structure.

Below, I explore the role of such frame blends in a number of humorous examples, focussing on political cartoons. In spite of their playful nature, the blends in such examples often deal with serious issues. Analysis points to some of the cultural concepts involved in these examples, and examines how processes of conceptual blending work. Processes of conceptual blending are shown to be extremely flexible, and consequently, play a central role in the extent to which our concepts change over time. I show how conceptual integration in humorous materials serves to both perpetuate and modify culturally relevant concepts.


Fauconnier & Turner (1994; 1998) have shown how frame blends occur in a wide variety of cognitive phenomena and have developed an elaborate theory of conceptual integration, or blending, to explain the representation of composite descriptions. Basic concepts in conceptual integration theory include mental spaces, frames, or cultural models, and mappings. Mental spaces (Fauconnier, 1994) can be thought of as temporary containers for relevant information about a particular domain. A mental space contains a partial representation of the entities and relations of a particular scenario as construed by a speaker. Spaces are structured by elements which represent each of the discourse entities, and simple frames to represent the relationships that exist between them. Frames are hierarchically structured attribute-value pairs that can either be integrated with perceptual information, or used to activate generic knowledge about people and objects assumed by default. Finally, mappings are abstract correspondences between elements and relations in different spaces.

1.1 Unsinkable Ships

For example, we might want to use mental spaces to understand how people can use the same word "Titanic" to refer to both the ship and the movie about the ship. Mental spaces are usually depicted with circles representing distinct spaces, and lines to represent the mappings between corresponding elements in different spaces. Thus figure 1 contains two spaces, one for the movie and one for the ship. This enables us to represent the fact that the ship and the movie have different properties, while the mappings between the two let us represent the non-arbitrary nature of their correspondence.

[INSERT figure 1 (ship.gif) ABOUT HERE]

Moreover, we might recruit conceptual integration theory to account for the comprehension of (1), a headline that referred to the number of Academy Awards received by the movie "Titanic." [1]

(1) "Titanic" unsinkable afterall!

Exploiting the mapping between the movie and the ship, (1) recruits the term "unsinkable" from the ship space, and applies it to an entity in the movie space. Fauconnier & Turner (1998) suggest mappings such as these routinely recruit blending, in which the imaginative processes of meaning construction are used to create novel conceptualizations of events. Importantly, (1) seems to require the construction of a blended space that contains a hybrid Titanic, with some of the properties of the movie (a critically acclaimed blockbuster), and some of the properties of the ship (being an object which can relevantly be called "unsinkable").

Blending is a set of operations for combining cognitive models in a network of mental spaces. Conceptual integration networks typically consist of two or more input spaces, a generic space, and a blended space. In the Titanic example, the input spaces are the ship space and the movie space, each of which contain information about their restricted domain. The generic space contains a very schematic representation of structure common to all spaces. In this example, the generic space contains a representation of a participant undergoing an event and an unspecified outcome. The blended space contains structure from both input spaces, and can contain its own emergent structure. In (1), the blended space involves a counterfactual ship voyage in which the fate of the Titanic maps metaphorically onto the success of the movie "Titanic," (see figure 2 ).

[INSERT figure 2 (titanic.gif) ABOUT here]

Although the meaning of the movie title "'Titanic'" can, in principle, be captured with only two spaces (as in figure 1), conceptual integration theory suggests that speakers in fact construct a more complex representation which includes a blended space with a hybrid ship/movie Titanic. This apparent violation of Occam's razor is tolerated because it affords a unified account of simple pragmatic functions (that is, the understanding that the movie title "Titanic" is conceptually linked to its historical topic) and creative examples like (1) which exploit such functions. Though the hybrid Titanic seems at first superfluous, it soon proves to be crucial for the conceptualization of an unsinkable Titanic.

As noted earlier, in default cases "unsinkable" applies to ships rather than to movies. However, "unsinkable" is pertinent to the movie space for two reasons. First it is significant because both the real Titanic and the represented Titanic sunk. [2] Second, it promotes a metaphoric conceptualization of the film, construed as an artistic creation, whose success or failure is established by ticket sales, critical acclaim, the awards it wins, and so on. This latter mapping is facilitated by the existence of entrenched connections between success and progress along physical paths (see Lakoff & Turner, 1990 on the event structure metaphor).

In theory, the Titanic in the blend could have been linked to the Titanic represented in the movie. However, because the continued progress of an unsinkable ship maps onto success, it suggests the Titanic in the blend must be linked to something which can be construed as successful: the movie. Thus the term "afterall" marks the structure in the blended space both as diverging from structure in the ship input, and as corresponding to the appropriate structure in the movie input (see also Turner & Fauconnier, in press for more Titanic blends).

1.2 Blending and Humor

Though not all blends are humorous, blending does seem to be an inherent feature of humor. In his discussion of comic creativity, Koestler (1964: 51) writes:

"The sudden bisociation of an idea or event with two habitually incompatible matrices will produce a comic effect, provided that the narrative, the semantic pipeline, carries the right kind of emotional tension. When the pipe is punctured, and our expectations are fooled, the now redundant tension gushes out in laughter, or is spilled in the gentler form of the sou-rire." [3]

With this somewhat cryptic reference to "bisociation," "matrices," and the "semantic pipeline," Koestler alludes to the simple fact that humor often involves the unlikely combination of related structures. For example, in Park's cartoon discussed above, part of the humor can be attributed to the juxtaposition of the pig-feeding scenario with a term more commonly associated with dining in a French restaurant. However, not just any combination of these frames results in a comic effect. Hofstadter & Gabora (1989) discuss several variations of the pig dining blend, some of which are funnier than the original, and some of which are not funny at all.

As Koestler suggests, both the content of the joke and the way in which it develops affect its comic potential. In the classic processing account of this phenomenon, joke appreciation involves first, the recognition of incongruity, and its subsequent resolution via the adoption of another set of assumptions (Suls, 1972). For example, consider the following joke, quite popular with the under-7 crowd:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To get to the other side.

Explaining the two-stage model of humor appreciation in this case, Lewis (1989) notes the incongruity in this joke: chickens aren't found on streets, and aren't customarily construed as having directional intentions. The resolution, in the answer, is so obvious it's funny. Moreover, he notes how the humor disappears when the chicken is framed congruously as a chicken:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the barnyard?

A: To get some scraps.

In the funny joke, the incongruity results from the blend involved in framing the chicken as a person (see figure 3). Moreover, Lewis' alternative joke shows that without the incongruity there can be no joke.

[INSERT figure 3 (chicken.gif) ABOUT HERE]

Interestingly, the resolution to the question of why the chicken crosses the road does not involve reconceptualizing the chicken to be more chickenlike! The chicken who crosses the road to get to the other side is still a chicken with human-like intentions. So while the chicken/person blend is incongruous enough to sustain humor, it need not be understood as fundamentally anomalous. In fact, it would seem that with a little sustained blending activity, it can be understood quite well on its own.

Similarly, Coulson (1996; 1997) discusses blending in the following joke about a computer virus with some decidedly human qualities:

Menendez Brothers Virus: Eliminates your files, takes the disk space they previously occupied, and then claims it was a victim of physical and sexual abuse on the part of the files it erased.

While ostensibly a warning about a computer virus, the rhetorical topic of this joke is the trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez. These two California teenagers confessed to the murder of their parents, and subsequently claimed they were only acting in self-defense against parents who had repeatedly abused them. Here the joke refers to elements in a blended space, in order to project structure to one of its inputs.

The inputs include the technical knowledge about real computer viruses, and the social knowledge of the Menendez brothers' murder trial. While the initial structuring of the blended space is quite congruent with knowledge about computer viruses, there is some structure projected from the social input with no sensible counterparts in the technical domain. While viruses often delete files, occupy disk space, and even have colorful names, the suggestion that a computer virus could be the victim of physical and/or sexual abuse is patently absurd. The inference that the virus's claim is ridiculous and false gets transferred back to the source domain where it triggers a similar inference for the Menendez Brothers Virus' social counterparts.

Coulson (1996) shows how blending in this joke results in two sorts of alterations of conceptual structure, one momentary and one which is more sustained. First, there is the momentary conceptual integration that enables us to conceptualize an abused computer virus. Moreover, the joke also highlights how this sort of disposable blended concept can reinforce a controversial construal of the social input space. In this case, the agentive construal of the computer virus has been used to reinforce a publicly available construal of the Menendez brothers as conspiring murderers with a phony excuse. In the sections below, we will see how blending is often similarly recruited in political cartoons. Conceptual integration processes allow us to construct bizarre, disposable concepts which in turn promote particular construals of their input domains.


The cartoon in figure 4 alludes to discrepancies in U.S. President Clinton's public statements about an alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In January of 1998, when first confronted with the issue, Clinton vehemently denied he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. However, as time went on, Kenneth Starr, the independant counsel who zealously pursued the case, managed to amass evidence from a number of White House insiders, including Clinton's private secretary, Secret Service agents assigned to guard the president, and Monica Lewinsky herself. In August 1998, lawyers led by Starr questioned Clinton for over five hours in the White House while a grand jury watched via a live video link.

[INSERT figure 4 (siers8_18.gif) ABOUT HERE]

Later that evening, Clinton publicly addressed the nation and admitted he had indeed had a relationship with Lewinsky that was "not appropriate," but asserted that statements he had made about the matter in the course of a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones had been "legally accurate." Although Clinton refused to answer direct questions about intimate details of the affair, testimony by Lewinsky revealed the basis for his defense. She testified that their relationship had included oral sex, but not sexual intercourse. Moreover, because the definition of "sex" in the sexual harassment suit was formulated from an agentive perspective, it was suggested that though Lewinsky had had sex with Clinton, he had not had sex with her.

The dialogue in Siers' cartoon (figure 4) thus involves a blend of the two topics of Clinton's grand jury testimony: his sexual dalliance and his honesty. Clinton, of course, never actually admitted to an adulterous affair with Lewinsky, only an inappropriate relationship. He did not admit to lying, either, only to misleading those around him. In fact, both issues remain to this day, somewhat equivocal. Moreover, the ambiguity is not primarily due to an absence of knowledge about the facts, but, rather, resides in our very understanding of what constitutes a "lie." Clinton's statement that he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky is precisely the sort of utterance that motivates the need for a prototype semantics of "lie."

Coleman and Kay (1981) note that when asked to define the word "lie," most people respond "a false statement." However, when asked to categorize various utterances as lies, people's "lie" judgments were consistent only in cases where first, the statement was, in fact, false; second, the speaker believed the statement to be false; and, finally, that the speaker uttered the statement in order to deceive the listener. In cases where only some of these conditions held, for example if the speaker actually believed the statement to be true, judgments of whether a "lie" had been told were more variable. Moreover, the supposedly essential condition of being a false statement, proved the least important of the three conditions to people's judgments about whether particular utterances should count as lies.

Sweetser (1987) suggests that this paradox can be resolved by understanding word meaning as occurring against the background of culturally shared frames, or cultural models, which structure social activity. She shows how the simple definition for the word lie, that is, the one offered by Coleman and Kay's informants, depends on the use of a simplified model of communication. In Sweetser's simplified speech act world, people speak in order to communicate potentially helpful information; their beliefs are adequately justified (and, as a result, are true); finally, people say what they believe. When the assumptions of this cultural model obtain, the definition of a lie as a false statement serves to clearly delineate lies from truths. However, when people's communicative behavior does not conform to that laid out in the cultural model, the definition of "lie" does not apply.

Thus while cultural models are widely shared among culture members, they need not correspond in a realistic way to the external world. We know that people do not always say what they believe; nor do they always speak with the intention of providing helpful information. Nonetheless, the simplified speech act world is an efficient representation for reasoners to use in the definition of speech acts that don't fit the model. For example, the word mistake marks a deviation from the norm in which the speaker's beliefs turn out to be untrue. Moreover, the term lie does not apply in speech act contexts (such as joking and storytelling) which diverge from the informational context defined by the model.

Thus Siers' cartoon, in depicting Clinton uttering words he never actually uttered, is not a case of misrepresentation. However, the point of the cartoon itself is that the real Clinton had made a number of statements which were deceptive, if not full-blown lies. Unfortunately for Clinton, while speakers consider deception to be less insidious than a bald lie, their listeners do not (Sweetser, 1987). Of course, in deception, the listener's own inferences render him an unwitting co-conspirator. However, in a lie, the blame falls squarely on the speaker.


Blending Clinton's scandal with another notorious presidential untruth, Mike Ritter depicts Clinton saying, "Read my lips. . . ." Moreover, in the picture, Clinton's mouth is surrounded by lipstick markings (see figure 5). The statement, "Read my lips," of course, was made famous by former U.S. President George Bush, who then followed by promising, "No new taxes." When taxes were subsequently raised, the remark was heralded as an emblem of the untrustworthiness of the politician's pledge. In the visual blend set up in the cartoon, Bush's modern-day counterpart Clinton has assumed his role, and uses his words. However, both the lipstick marks and contextual knowledge about the Lewinsky affair suggest Clinton's remarks pertain to his own sex scandal rather than to taxes.

[INSERT figure 5 (ritter0818B.jpg) ABOUT HERE]

In fact, Ritter's cartoon is a hyper-blend, since the expression "read my lips" is itself a blend. The appropriate time to use this expression is when someone asks you a question, you answer, then, not believing the answer, they ask the same question again. From the questioner's perspective, the repeated question is meant to indicate that the respondent's answer was not believable. From the respondent's perspective, however, the repeated question indicates a failure of the questioner to attend to, and/or understand the initial answer. In saying, "read my lips," the respondent suggests that the questioner cannot hear the answer to his own question, and therefore should resort to lipreading. But, while the hyperbolic blend intended by the speaker emphasizes the interviewer's deficiencies as a listener, the ultimate meaning of the expression acknowledges the real intent behind the interviewer's repeated question: suspicion of insincerity.

The understanding of the expression as marking the speaker's intended sincerity results from the fact that it is understood as a blend of both perspectives. The interviewer believes that the respondent's first utterance was a lie, while the respondent believes (or pretends to believe) the interviewer did not hear or understand the first utterance. In the blend, the words "Read my lips," get their relevance from the respondent's perspective where the questioner simply did not hear the first response. However, they are understood as the respondent's assurance of sincerity because the questioner's question repetition counts as a tacit accusation that the respondent is not being sincere. Even the generic event scenario associated with the phrase "Read my lips," then, involves an allusion to a somewhat unbelievable statement, a tacit accusation of insincerity, and the speaker's attempt to allay suspicion.

The blend in the cartoon capitalizes on this by evoking the particular scenario associated with Bush in which the speaker ultimately proved to be untrustworthy. Thus one way of unpacking the blend in the cartoon is to set up parallel structure in the two input spaces. In the Bush space, the president says, "Read my lips: no new taxes," and subsequently raises taxes. In the Clinton space, the president says "I never had sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky," and subsequently admits to a relationship with her. Moreover, the generic space includes a conception of an utterance offered in a show of sincerity, that proves to be false. The blend, too, involves an utterance offered as a show of sincerity, that proves obviously false. Unlike the input spaces, however, the blend depicted in the cartoon compresses the amount of time between the initial utterance and the proof of insincerity.

The point of the cartoon, presumably, is that the remark in the blend is self-referentially falsifiable. Besides evoking knowledge about former-President Bush, "Read my lips," provides the viewer with a cue to find the evidence to substantiate Clinton's reputation as a womanizer. Thus the blend differs crucially from the inputs in this respect. The proof of Bush's lie wasn't on his mouth, nor was the proof of Clinton's on his. Presumably, the cartoon-Clinton means the remark in precisely the way Bush did, as an assurance of sincerity. However, only the blend provides a context in which the untrustworthiness of such an assurance can be graphically depicted, and in such a way that it coincides temporally with the original utterance.

Many accounts of analogy and metaphor have emphasized the importance of abstract relational structure over features. In contrast, note here how seemingly incidental structure -- the fact that lip-reading involves scrutinizing the speaker's mouth, that the speaker has lipstick marks on his mouth, and the knowledge that it is at least remotely plausible that a man might have lipstick marks on his face after a sexual encounter with a woman -- has been exploited in a novel way in the cartoon to reinforce a negative framing of Clinton. Besides metonymically evoking the sex scandal, the lipstick on cartoon-Clinton's face is meant to indicate how transparent the real Clinton's lie was. Moreover, since it's completely implausible that anyone could unwittingly have lipstick all over his face, the cartoon exaggerates the extent to which Clinton had been caught in a lie.

The cartoon in figure 5 exemplifies some general characteristics of conceptual blending. Firstly, it presents the initial utterance, the assurance of sincerity, and the proof of the utterance's falsity as an integrated scenario. Second, the cartoonist uses hyperbole to convey his message. Moreover, while hyperbole here is part of what makes the cartoon funny, hyperbole in and of itself does not comedy make. For example, George Bush's original use of the hyperbolic phrase "Read my lips," was not at all funny. Perhaps one contribution to the comic appeal of figure 5 is the cartoonist's clever exploitation of incidental structure to convey his message.


A cartoon by Chip Bok points up a contrast in Clinton's alleged behavior and that attributed to his 18th-century political counterpart George Washington. On the left-hand side of the cartoon, George Washington says, "I cannot tell a lie." Addressing Washington from the right-hand side of the cartoon, Clinton says, "If everyone's on record denying it you've got no problem." In some ways the cartoon in figure 6 is similar to a blend discussed by Fauconnier and Turner (1996) in which a modern-day philosopher engages in an imagined debate with Immanuel Kant. In the Kant blend, the professor projects Kant into the modern era so that he can get the esteemed German's reactions to ideas composed after his death.

[INSERT figure 6 (bok4.gif) ABOUT HERE]

In figure 6, however, both lines were allegedly uttered by the parties in question. Washington's lines come straight from the historical record, while Clinton's were attributed to him by his former mistress, Gennifer Flowers. As for Washington, legend has it that when he was a boy, he chopped down a cherry tree on his father's farm. When Washington's father discovered what had happened, he went, furiously, to his family and demanded to know who had chopped down the tree. Knowing that he would likely receive a spanking for his efforts, Washington stood up and said, "I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree."[4]

On the other hand, Flowers attributed the remark in the right-hand panel of the cartoon to Clinton in her declaration in the Paula Jones harassment suit against him. Worried about whether people would perceive her relationship to then-Governor Clinton as contributing to her successful career in Arkansas state government, Flowers approached him to discuss whether she should admit to their adulterous affair. Flowers' declaration suggests Clinton told her to deny it, and that he said, "If everyone's on record as denying it, you got no problem."

The composition of the two men's utterances in the blend results in the activation of a conversation frame and provides a context in which George Washington and Bill Clinton can interact. The mere juxtaposition of the two statements points up a contrast between the two presidents: Washington claimed to be incapable of dishonesty, while Bok portrays Clinton as someone all too willing to lie. Moreover, knowledge that Clinton's remark was originally addressed to Gennifer Flowers allows the reader to set up a mapping between Washington in the blend, and Flowers in the Clinton input. This makes Clinton look bad because it reinforces the idea that he's told people to lie in the past, and, further, it suggests that he would attempt to corrupt someone as upstanding as George Washington.

Moreover, it is only in the blend -- where Clinton addresses Washington rather than Flowers -- that Clinton's remark can evoke a misunderstanding of Washington's chestnut. While "I cannot tell a lie," was presumably intended to mean that the guilt he would experience from lying precludes him from doing so, Clinton's remark suggests a different interpretation. Rather than guilt over lying, Clinton believes Washington fears reprisal for being caught. By offering Washington advice on how to lie without getting caught, the cartoon Clinton presents himself as someone likely to behave (and likely to have behaved) in accordance with his own advice. Consequently, it prompts retrospective projections to Clinton's input space, framing denials of the real Clinton's misdeeds as fabricated, and further framing him as untrustworthy. Though the cartoon is probably motivated by the disanalogy between the reputation each of the two political counterparts have for honesty, the interactive frame set up in the blend provides a context in which unique structure can arise.


A cartoon by Jeff MacNelly of the Chicago Tribune also exploits Clinton's and Washington's shared political role in a two-sided blend of the cherry tree story and Clinton's statements on the Lewinsky affair. In one input we have the historical tale about George Washington; in the other, the more recent account of Clinton's statements on the sex scandal. The blend is first suggested by the title, "William Washington Clinton and the Cherry Tree," which inserts Washington's surname in the place usually filled by Clinton's own middle name "Jefferson," which also happens to be the name of a former U.S. president (Thomas Jefferson), and like Washington a 'Founding Father.'

[INSERT figure 7 (macnelly_edtoon082198.jpg) ABOUT HERE]

In the cartoon we see a toppled tree and Clinton, dressed in Colonial garb, wielding an electric chainsaw. He says, "When I denied chopping down the cherry tree I was legally accurate." The blend places Clinton in a counterfactual scenario structured both by knowledge about Bill Clinton and by the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. The Clinton in the cartoon is not a clear-cut inhabitant of either the colonial era nor our own. His clothes and hat clearly evoke the former, but the electric chainsaw suggests the modern era. The name in the title banner "William Washington Clinton" also suggests non-trivial fusion between George Washington and Bill Clinton (see figure 7).

5.1 Analogical Counterfactuals

In this blend, the beginning of the story (involving the misdeed and the accusation) comes from knowledge about George Washington, while the end (involving the denial and the nature of the denial) comes from knowledge about Bill Clinton. Moreover, by putting Clinton in for Washington, it allows us to contrast how Clinton would perform in Washington's situation. In this respect, the blend is similar to (2), initially proposed by Fauconnier (1996).

(2) In France, Watergate wouldn't have harmed Nixon.

Meaning construction for (2) involves the establishment of mappings between elements in French and American politics and the construction of parallel structure in the two spaces. Moreover, (2) also requires the construction of a blended space in which an event from American history is blended with knowledge of the French political system. Although the blend is accessed from the American Politics space (i.e. we use terms such as ``Nixon'' and ``Watergate'' which come from American Politics), its elaboration is constrained by knowledge of French Politics. The contrast between Nixon's plight in the American Politics space and that of his blended counterpart triggers construction of a French Politics frame which can relate the scandal to the lack of ramifications. Consequently, (2) suggests inferences about the French political system and the temperament of the French populace.

Similarly, the William Washington Clinton blend projects structure to its inputs so as to point up the contrast between Washington's admission of guilt and Clinton's denial. As suggested in figure 8, the mapping between chopping down a tree and the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky only arises out of a larger mapping between speech acts surrounding the respective incidents. The commonality, that is, the structure in the generic space, is a story of committing a misdeed, being accused of committing the misdeed, and responding to the accusation. Though the plot involves some action, this blend is primarily a tale of speech acts.

[INSERT figure 8 (metaling.gif) ABOUT HERE]

Processes of conceptual blending here afford event integration so that all aspects of the scenario are brought together in one scene. Unlike our knowledge about the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky, the relationship between William Washington Clinton and the felled cherry tree is easily inferred from information present in the cartoon. Cartoon Clinton's placement in front of the fallen tree, the saw in his hand, and his indirect reference to the event all suggest his guilt. Further, the manner in which William Washington Clinton has apparently felled the tree is evident from the smooth tree stump and the chainsaw in his hand.

While the manner of felling the tree was of little importance in the original story about George Washington, the chainsaw takes on a key role in the blend. Besides linking Clinton to the modern era, it enables the legalistic distinction that links us to the Clinton space. The contrast between this manner of felling the tree and chopping it down, of course, are what the phrase "legally accurate" refers to in the blend. The verbiage, though, as well as the concept it refers to, has been inherited from the topic space of modern politics. There is no conception of a legally accurate remark in the Washington input, and, in fact, the idea of a legally accurate response to the query about the cherry tree is more than a little absurd. As in the joke about the Menendez Brothers Virus, this absurdity in the blend gets projected back onto the Clinton input, and reinforces an extant framing of Clinton's statements about the Lewinsky affair.

5.2 Hedges

Clinton's phrase, "legally accurate," is a hedge, a linguistic expression which marks the metalinguistic status of its utterance. For example, Kay (1987) suggests "loosely speaking" is a hedge which qualifies the utterance in which it appears in particular ways. It can reflect an incoherent description, as in (3), a coherent but wrong description, as in (4), the presence of an unintended presupposition, as in (5), or a combination of these factors, as in (6) (Kay, 1987).

(3) Strictly speaking, one can't really talk about "the first human beings," but loosely speaking, the first human beings lived in Kenya.

(4) Strictly speaking, we can only talk of the first human population known to science, but loosely speaking, the first human beings...

(5) Loosely speaking, in Kenya; strictly speaking, in the place now called Kenya.

(6) Loosely speaking in Kenya. Strictly speaking, we are dealing here with a complex situation involving sites mainly in Kenya, but also in Tanzania and Uganda, and with a set of fossils which may not all represent the same species... [5]

Kay argues that loosely speaking appeals to a folk model of truth in which words represent objects with feature sets that either do or do not match the properties of objects in the world. Moreover, in this model, the meanings of individual words are combined systematically to refer to complex objects and scenarios in the world. When a speaker precedes her utterance with the phrase, "loosely speaking," she marks its deviance from this model. Thus specifying the meaning of loosely speaking requires an appeal to the speaker's cultural models of language use.

In contrast to the Fregean concept of utterances which can be strictly speaking true or false, technically appeals to a folk model of language which has been dealt with more formally by Putnam. In the cultural model underlying technically, the meaning of words often relies on the existence of expert knowledge (e.g. chemistry in the definition of gold, or botany in the definition of an elm tree) that the individual speaker need not possess. Contrasting (7) and (8), (his 9a and 9b), Kay argues that (7) is pragmatically odd, because varmint is a colloquialism, and thus falls outside the domain where expert judgments are required for naming.

(7) Technically, that's a rodent.

(8) # Technically, that's a varmint.

Interestingly, (8) is fine as a joke, and seems to be a meta-meta-linguistic comment on the need for expert naming conventions for the creature, or perhaps the need for expert naming conventions full stop.

Clinton's use of legally accurate appeals to a cultural model similar to that employed in strictly speaking, but bearing some similarity to meaning model Kay associates with the hedge technically. In the legally accurate model, words and phrases represent objects and actions in the world via sets of necessary and sufficient conditions. However, the exact set of these conditions is subject to legal negotiation. For example, a New Yorker who is one-sixteenth Cherokee might call herself a Native American and be "legally accurate," while her half-brother, raised on a reservation in Oklahoma, but only one-thirty-second Cherokee, could not. Moreover, if the law which defines Native American as one-sixteenth were revised or overturned, it's quite possible that our New Yorker's claim would no longer be "legally accurate."

Like loosely speaking and technically, the acceptability of this hedge depends on the applicability of the underlying cultural model of meaning. For example, if squirrels are defined by law to be rodents (and thus subject to things like extermination), (9) would be acceptable but (10) would not.

(9) To call it a rodent would be legally accurate.

(10) *To call it a varmint would be legally accurate.

However, if there were no legal definition of rodent, (9) would also be pragmatically odd.

Because there was no legal dispute in the cherry tree legend, the blended Clinton in figure 7 makes an inappropriate appeal to the legally accurate hedge which gets projected back to the Bill Clinton input. This is somewhat curious as the legally accurate model is slightly more applicable in the Bill Clinton space since there was, in fact, a legal dispute. However, the blend also highlights the mappings between the incident (felling the tree with a chainsaw) and the accusation (felling the tree with an ax) and their consequences (a dead tree) and projects parallel structure to the Bill Clinton space. The point of course is that the veracity of the denial has almost no bearing on the morality of the act itself.


Lewis (1989: 34) writes, "humor embodies values not by virtue of its content alone but as a consequence of what it does with its materials. To get a joke we must resolve its incongruity by retrieving or discovering an image or idea that can connect its oddly associated ideas or images." Indeed part of the appeal of humorous examples is the fun of getting the joke. The cartoon presents itself as a puzzle for the viewer to solve. The challenge, it seems, is to activate the appropriate information in response to the imagery and the verbal cues, and to integrate it with abstract narrative structure. Unpacking the blend and structuring the input spaces allows the viewer to solve the puzzle, and the cartoonist to make his point.

Because the cartoonist must provide the viewer with just enough information to reconstitute the input spaces, humorous examples necessarily depend on viewers having relevant knowledge and shared understandings about these domains. Knowledge of entrenched metaphoric and metonymic mappings are routinely exploited in the comprehension of political cartoons. Moreover, they recruit blending processes known as completion and elaboration. First, completion occurs when we activate relevant bits of world knowledge given sparse clues. For instance, the utterance "Read my lips," in figure 5 is enough to activate a schematic representation of the scenario that involves George Bush and the U.S. tax code. Second, elaboration is the ability to animate eclectic models built with pieces from disparate domains. In figure 6, for example, the interactive frame set up in the blend provides a context that allows us to directly compare two presidents from different eras. Even more spectacularly, it allows us to observe Clinton's attempts to corrupt George Washington.

Hofstadter and Gabora (1989) insightfully compare the input frames in humorous blends to the notion of figure and ground in a piece of art. Thus the elements contributed by one frame can be interpreted against the ground of the other. MacNelly, for instance, projects Bill Clinton back in time and inserts him into the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. This seems to be a general function of blending in these examples: to project people into new contexts where the cartoonist's point can be clearly illustrated. The cartoons discussed above are a testament to our ability to derive meaningful information from partial, non-systematic correspondences in structure, and even, to exploit accidental characteristics of the input frames.

While there does seem to be a certain entertainment value in blending for its own sake, the humorous effect of these blends goes beyond their formal properties. Rather, it involves the role that frames and cultural models play in structuring our actions, reactions, and interactions in an ever-changing world. As Freud noted, joking provides a relatively safe arena for expressing aggressive, insulting, or otherwise socially unacceptable utterances. Blending and the cognitive abilities that support it, are crucial in this respect by enabling us to frame taboo topics in terms and domains which are not taboo. It is far more acceptable, for example, to discuss why William Washington Clinton did not chop down the cherry tree than to debate the actions of his real world counterpart.

However, even if the social implications of statements made in jokes are somewhat muted, the content of the emergent structure of humorous blends is important nonetheless. For the way that humor "embodies" values is by inviting the viewer to construct a particular framing of a current event. Because our construals of particular current events derive their social significance from the larger cultural models they evoke, framings implicitly reinforce the status of those models as interpretive resources. In the examples discussed above, the cartoons concern our cultural models of communication and seem to negotiate the import of the relationship between lying and authority.

Cultural models of the simplified speech act world underlie our actions as well as our words. They provide the context for both semantic distinctions between lies and mistakes, and moral distinctions between lies and deception. Besides framing Clinton's linguistic behavior as ridiculous, one function of these cartoons is to demarcate the limits of the application of the folk model of meaning that underlies legally accurate. Indeed one aspect of the Clinton sex scandal is that his linguistic gymnastics are only possible because his behavior with Lewinsky diverges from that specified in idealized cultural scripts for intimacy. Not only did this motivate the "misleading" utterances, it problematized the use of evaluative frames.

Because we rely on cultural models for the interpretation of both words and actions, it creates social pressure for people's behavior to conform at least somewhat, and in certain restricted circumstances, to the guidelines laid out in the cultural models. When models cannot be exploited our word meanings cease to function effectively. Moreover, Goffman (1974) suggests that when the legitimacy of a frame is challenged it can undermine its role in the structuring and interpretation of social activity. Because social reality is in some sense constituted by the use of these frames to organize experience, undermining a frame is no small matter. Thus the cartoons above can be seen as part of the larger social negotiation of which cultural models are to be allowed to apply when.

We have seen that humorous examples, especially in political cartoons, often have a serious rhetorical agenda. Did Clinton lie or merely deceive? Was the "legally accurate" remark a cover-up or a hedge? Indeed cartoons such as those described above often play on frames which share abstract structure but differ in the social and/or emotional responses they elicit. By projecting prominent personalities into new contexts, cartoonists can show us the ridiculous side of a serious situation, or, (as in many of the examples discussed above), the serious side of the ridiculous. Cartoons promote particular construals of events and personalities, they reinforce the availability of cultural models, and perhaps even police their use. Moreover, in exploiting the fortuitous structure that arises in blended spaces, humorous examples allow us to test the flexibility of our conceptual system, navigate the space of possible construals, and explore the radically different social and emotional consequences they can trigger.


[1] This example was pointed out by Mark Turner. See Turner & Fauconnier (in press) for more extensive discussion of Titanic blends.

[2] Actually, since I refused to see this film (on the grounds that one shouldn't feel obliged to see a movie just because a lot of money was spent to make it), I'm not positive that the Titanic sinks. But I think it's a safe bet.

[3] The unconventional hyphenation here is meant to highlight the etymology of the French word sourire, or smile. Elsewhere in The Act of Creation, Koestler suggests sourire comes from sous (below) rire (to laugh). Given a metaphoric interpretation of below, we can construe smiling as the registration of a comic event which is not quite funny enough to laugh at.

[4] In fact, this story is apocryphal. It was invented by George Washington's first biographer, Martin Weems, shortly after Washington’s death.

[5] Examples (3) - (6) are all from Kay (1987) where they occur as examples (2) - (5).




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Figure 1. Mental space configuration representing the pragmatic function connecting the ship and the movie about the ship.


Figure 2. Conceptual integration network to represent "Titanic" unsinkable afterall!

Figure 3. Conceptual integration network to represent the concept of a chicken which underlies the old joke about why the chicken crosses the road.

Figure 4. Cartoon by Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer.

Figure 5. Cartoon by Mike Ritter from Tribune Newspapers, Arizona

Figure 6. Cartoon by Chip Bok, The Akron Beacon Journal.

Figure 7. Cartoon by Jeff MacNelly, Chicago Illinois.

Figure 8. Conceptual integration network for the William Washington Clinton blend.