Definition and Examples of Conceptual Blending

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Conceptual blending refers to a set of cognitive operations for combining (or blending) words, images, and ideas in a network of "mental spaces" to create meaning.

The theory of conceptual blending was brought to prominence by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner in The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (Basic Books, 2002). Fauconnier and Turner define conceptual blending as a deep cognitive activity that "makes new meanings out of old."

Examples and Observations

  • "Conceptual Blending Theory assumes that meaning construction involves the selective integration or blending of conceptual elements and employs the theoretical construct of conceptual integration networks to account for this process. For example, the process of understanding the sentence In the end, VHS delivered a knock-out punch to Betamax would involve a basic network consisting of four mental spaces . . .. This includes two input spaces (one relating to boxing and another to the competition between rival video formats in the 1970s and 1980s). A generic space represents what is common to the two input spaces. Elements from the input spaces are mapped to each other and projected selectively into the blended space, to derive an integrated conceptualization where the video formats are seen as being engaged in a boxing match, which VHS eventually wins.
    "Blending Theory can be seen as a development of Mental Space Theory, and it is also influenced by Conceptual Metaphor Theory. However, unlike the latter, Blending Theory focuses specifically on the dynamic construction of meaning."
    (M. Lynne Murphy and Anu Koskela, Key Terms in Semantics. Continuum, 2010)
  • "To monitor public opinion, and to sway it, Time Warner had, in November, launched a campaign called 'Roll Over or Get Tough,' which asked customers to visit a Web site of the same name and vote on whether Time Warner should 'give in to their demand for massive price increases' or keep 'holding the line.' Eight hundred thousand people had done so. (Ninety-five percent of them thought that Time Warner should 'Get Tough.')"
    "Mark Turner, a professor of cognitive science at Case Western Reserve, explained that Time Warner’s use of the forced-choice device was wise from the standpoint of behavioral economics. In order to make choices, people need their options narrowed in advance."
    "Turner saw other cognitive precepts at work in the 'Roll Over' campaign. He explained, 'The purpose of the ad is to try to get you off your duff and realize, "Hey, the situation around me is changing, and I better take action."' And the campaign’s militaristic echoes, 'You’re either with us or against us', incorporated, Turner said, a technique called 'blending,' in which a rhetorician exploits what is already in people’s minds. 'Everybody’s got terrorism on the brain, so if you can have a little hint of that issue in your advertising about cable service: great!,' he said."
    (Lauren Collins, "King Kong vs. Godzilla." The New Yorker, January 11, 2010)
  • "[B]lending theory can address the meaning of construction in metaphorical expressions that do not employ conventionalized mapping schemes. For example, the italicized portion of this excerpt from an interview with philosopher Daniel Dennet involves a metaphorical blend, 'There's not a thing that's magical about the computer. One of the most brilliant things about a computer is that there's nothing up its sleeve,' (Edge 94, November 19, 2001). The input domains here are Computers and Magicians, and the blend involves a hybrid model in which the computer is a magician. However, the connection between these two domains arises purely from the context of this example, as there is no conventional COMPUTERS ARE MAGICIANS mapping in English."
    (Seana Coulson, "Conceptual Blending in Thought, Rhetoric, and Ideology." Cognitive Linguistics: Current Applications And Future Perspectives, ed. by Gitte Kristiansen, Michel Achard, René Dirven, and Francisco J. Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006)

    Blending Theory and Conceptual Metaphor Theory

    "Similarly to conceptual metaphor theory, blending theory elucidates structural and regular principles of human cognition as well as pragmatic phenomena. However, there are also some noteworthy differences between the two theories. While blending theory has always been more oriented toward real-life examples, conceptual metaphor theory had to come of age before it was put to the test with data-driven approaches. A further difference between the two theories is that blending theory focuses more on the decoding of creative examples, whereas conceptual metaphor theory is well known for its interest in conventional examples and mappings, i.e. in what is stored in people's minds.

    But again, the difference is one of degree and not an absolute one. Blending processes can be routinized and stored if their outcome proves to be useful on more than one occasion. And conceptual metaphor theory is able to explain and accommodate novel figurative linguistic expressions as long as they are compatible with the more general metaphorical makeup of the human mind. Another, perhaps somewhat less important difference lies in the fact that while from the start conceptual blending has pointed to the importance of metonymic construals and thinking for cognitive processes, the conceptual metaphor paradigm has long underestimated the role of metonymy."
    (Sandra Handl and Hans-Jörg Schmid, Introduction. Windows to the Mind: Metaphor, Metonymy, and Conceptual Blending. Mouton de Gruyter, 2011)