Conflation occurs when the identities of two or more individuals, concepts, or places, sharing some characteristics of one another, seem to be a single identity — the differences appear to become lost. In logic, it is the practice of treating two distinct concepts as if they were one, which produces errors or misunderstandings as a fusion of distinct subjects tends to obscure analysis of relationships which are emphasized by contrasts. However, if the distinctions between the two concepts appear to be superficial, intentional conflation may be desirable for the sake of conciseness and recall.
Communication and reasoning
The result of conflating concepts may give rise to fallacies of ambiguity, including the fallacy of four terms in a categorical syllogism. For example, the word "bat" has at least two distinct meanings: a flying animal, and a piece of sporting equipment (such as a baseball bat or cricket bat). If these meanings are not distinguished, the result may be the following categorical syllogism, which may be seen as a joke (pun):
- All bats are animals.
- Some wooden objects are bats.
- Therefore, some wooden objects are animals.
Selecting an illustrative example from the panorama of current events, the international press features recurring news stories about the G8, which refers to a "group of eight" composed of nine members. The initial "Group of Six" has been conflated with the subsequent "Group of Seven" and today's "Group of Eight".
While it may be obvious that the G7 and the G6 were explicitly distinguishable in 1976, and the G8 and the G7 were readily differentiated in 1998, something unforeseen happened in the years since then. The 2008 summit of G8 leaders held in Hokkaido, Japan was identified as the "34th G8 summit" and the "35th G8 summit" in Italy as well as the "36th G8 summit" in Canada were also widely reported in the international press and elsewhere. These ordinal numbers imply a process of counting backwards through the years, which requires conflating the G6 and the G7 and the G8, deliberately ignoring that each of the terms refer to distinct and different amalgamations.
G6 members, 1975
G7 members, since 1977
G8 members, since 1997
- ‡ European Communities (EC) were reformed into the European Union (EU) as the Maastricht Treaty came into effect in November 1993.
Conflating words with different meanings can help to clarify or it can cause real confusion. The elasticity of verb meaning in English can be illustrated by instances in which a conflation of motion is merged with manner or a conflation of causation with manner, e.g. The bride floated towards her future.
In an alternate illustrative example, respect is used both in the sense of "recognise a right" and "have high regard for". We can recognise someone's right to the opinion that the United Nations is secretly controlled by alien lizards on the moon, without holding this idea in high regard. But conflation of these two different concepts leads to the notion that all ideological ideas, for example, should be treated with respect, rather than just the right to hold these ideas. Conflation in logical terms is very similar to, if not identical to, equivocation.
Deliberate Idiom conflation is the amalgamation of two different expressions. In most cases, the combination results in a new expression that makes little sense literally, but clearly expresses an idea because it references well-known idioms. All conflations fit into one of two major categories: "congruent" conflations and "incongruent" conflations.
Congruent conflations are the more ideal, and more sought-after, examples of the concept. These occur when the two root expressions reflect similar thoughts. For example, "look who's calling the kettle black" can be formed using the root expressions "look who's talking" and "the pot calling the kettle black". These root expressions really mean the same thing: they are both a friendly way to point out hypocritical behavior. Of course, "look who's calling the kettle black" does not directly imply anything, yet the implication is understood because the conflation clearly refers to two known idioms.
An illustrative conflation brings together two Roman Catholic saints named Lazarus. One, a lame beggar covered with sores which dogs are licking, appears in a New Testament story at Luke 16:19–31. The other, Lazarus of Bethany, is identified in John 11:41–44 as the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. The beggar's Feast Day is June 21, and Lazarus of Bethany's day is December 17. However, both saints are depicted with crutches, and the blessing of dogs (associated with the beggar saint) usually takes place on December 17, the date associated with the resurrected Lazarus. The two characters' identities have become conflated in most cultural contexts, including the iconography of both saints.
Incongruent conflation occurs when the root expressions do not mean the same thing, but share a common word or theme. For example, "a bull in a candy store" can be formed from the root expressions "a kid in a candy store" and "a bull in a china shop". The former root expression paints a picture of someone who is extraordinarily happy and excited, whereas the latter root brings to mind the image of a person who is extremely clumsy. The conflation expresses both of these ideas at the same time without making the speaker's intention entirely clear.
An illustrative conflation seems to merge disparate figures as in Santería. St. Lazarus is conflated with the Yoruba deity Babalu Aye, and celebrated on December 17, despite Santería's reliance on the iconography associated with the begging saint whose Feast Day is June 21. By blending the identity of the two conflated St. Lazarus individuals with the identity of the Babalu Aye, Santería has gone one step further than the conflation within Catholicism, to become the kind of religious conflation known as syncretism, in which deities or concepts from two different faiths are conflated to form a third.
Idiom conflation has been used as a source of humor in certain situations. For example, the Mexican character El Chapulín Colorado once said
- "Mas vale pájaro en mano que dios lo ayudará...no, no...Dios ayuda al que vuela como pájaro...no... bueno, la idea es esa."
- "A bird in the hand will get the worm...no, wait...The early bird is worth two in the bush...no... well, that's the idea."
by combining two popular expressions:
- "Más vale pájaro en mano que cientos volando" ("A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.")
- "Al que madruga Dios lo ayuda" ("The early bird gets the worm.")
This was typical of the character, and he did it with several other expressions over the course of his comedy routine.
"We can get 2 birds stoned at once."- Ricky (Trailer Park Boys)
In popular culture, identities are sometimes intentionally conflated. In the early 2000s, the popular American actors Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were dating, and the tabloid press referred to them playfully as a third entity, Bennifer. As this is not a religious concept, it is an example only of conflation, not of syncretism. This process of combining the names of the two participants in a relationship, be it fact or fiction, is an example of shipping (itself an example of verbing).
- Haught, John F. (1995). Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, p. 13.
- Haught, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, p. 14.
- European Union: EU and the G8
- Brown, Stephen et al. "Italy revamps G8 as UK makes G20 financial crisis focus," Reuters. 15 January 2009.
- Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA): List of summits, 1–25; G7/8 summits.
- Mateu, Jaume and Gemma Eigeu. (2002). "A Minimalist Account of Conflation Processes," in Theoretical Approaches to Universals, pp. 211–212.
- Luke 16:19–31 in Roman Catholic New Advent Bible.
- John 11:41–44 in Roman Catholic New Advent Bible.
- With sackcloth and rum, Cubans hail Saint Lazarus, December 17, 1998. Reuters news story.
- Money talks: folklore in the public sphere December 2005, Folklore magazine.
- Sigman, Michael (September 10, 2010). "Inflation May Be Under Control, But Watch Out for Conflation". Retrieved 25 April 2011.
- Malone, Joseph L. (1988). The Science of Linguistics in the Art of Translation: Some Tools from Linguistics for the Analysis and Practice of Translation, p. 112.
- Alexiadou, Artemus. (2002). Theoretical Approaches to Universals. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. 10-ISBN 90-272-2770-5; 13-ISBN 978-90-272-2770-6; OCLC 49386229
- Haught, John F. (1995). Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. New York: Paulist Press. 10-ISBN 0-8091-3606-6; 13-ISBN 978-0-8091-3606-3; OCLC 32779780
- Malone, Joseph L. (1988). The Science of Linguistics in the Art of Translation: Some Tools from Linguistics for the Analysis and Practice of Translation. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. 10-ISBN 0-88706-653-4; 13-ISBN 978-0-88706-653-5; OCLC 15856738
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