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Conflation happens when the identities of two or more individuals, concepts, or places, sharing some characteristics of one another, seem to be a single identity, and 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.
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):
Using words with different meanings can help clarify, or can cause real confusion. English words with multiple (verb) meanings can be illustrated by instances in which a motion is merged with or a causation with manner, e.g. The bride floated towards her future. In this example, the bride may: Be married on a boat, airplane, or hot-air balloon, etc. --not all marriages occur in a church. She could be gracefully walking the aisle towards matrimony. The verb "float" has multiple meanings, and both verb meanings in the example may be proper uses of a bride "floating" toward a future. The "manner" of the scene, described by further context, would explain the true meaning of the sentence.
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 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 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 the New Testament (Luke 16:19-31). The other, Lazarus of Bethany, is identified as the man whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:41-44). 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 bull in a china shop" and "a kid in a candy store". The latter expression paints a picture of someone ("a kid") who is extraordinarily happy and excited, whereas the former brings to mind the image of a person ("a bull") who is extremely clumsy, indelicate, not suited to a certain environment, prone to act recklessly, or easily provoked. The conflation expresses both of these ideas at the same time. Without context, the speaker's intention is not 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
by combining two popular expressions:
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.
to rest or move in a liquid, the air, etc.
to move lightly and gracefully
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