Metaphors Following the Model ‘N of a N’

| January 8, 2014

August 2007. Volume 2 Issue 1

Metaphors Following the Model ‘N of a N’

Anastasia Khudyakova
Barnaul State Pedagogical University, Russia

Anastasia Khudyakova is a postgraduate student in Germanic languages at Barnaul State Pedagogical University, Russia, and a teacher of English and Technical Translation. Her research areas are cognitive linguistics and metaphor studies.

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This paper is concerned with a certain type of metaphors which follow the model ‘N of a N’. It discusses semantic and grammatical features of the nominal constructions consisting of two nouns connected with the preposition of in the English language. These constructions have reversed subject-predicate relations, so that the first noun is the predicate and the second is the subject. The examples of these phrases are: ‘a hell of a trip’, ‘a giant of a man’, ‘a nut of a body’, ‘a box of a room’, ‘a whale of a time’, ‘a pearl of a song’ and the like. The first noun in this phrase denotes a property or a quality of the referent of the second noun.

The phrases of this type are not very frequent in English, as the analysis of the contemporary fiction literature shows: the examples are very scarce, in average around three instances per book.
These constructions have a very high degree of expressiveness and show unlimited capacities for creating new unexpected images. This structural model N of a N, together with such models as AN and NN, occupies one of the leading positions in the stock of idiomatic phrases. (Barchenkov 1981, p. 6)

We should recognize two types within the stock of these phrases: metaphorical and literal. Literal constructions are merely categorizing, that is the first noun presents the category to which the second noun belongs. Most of the phrases, based on these patters insults and contain offensive vocabulary, which are expressed either by the first noun, such as in ‘a fool of a driver’, ‘a bitch of a secretary’, ‘a bastard of a blackmailer’, ‘a fart of a bishop’, ‘a slut of a schoolteacher’, ‘pighead of a commander’, ‘a dummkopf of a husband’; or by both nouns ‘sonuvabitch of a moron’; the less numerous instances that cannot be strictly referred to as insults are nevertheless highly evaluative, with prevailing negative assessment, such as in ‘thief and robber of an agent’, ‘a failure of an attorney’, ‘creative genius of a financial officer’, ‘a crack of a sound’, etc. .

Contrary to Gluckesberg-Keysar theory that suggests literal understanding of metaphors, equals metaphoric processes with categorization and treats metaphoric expressions as class-inclusion statements, metaphorical expressions are understood here as those involving mapping of the structure of one domain onto the structure of the other, as in, ‘great white beast of a car’, ‘a mountain of a woman’, ‘sweet and perfect peach of a day’.

The formal test for the distinction between literal and metaphorical expressions is the removal of the of a-sequence, which results in the loss of metaphorical meaning, while literal constructions, on the contrary, retain their meaning even with the of a deletion. For example, ‘a bastard of a blackmailer’ and ‘a bulldog of a man’. The first example is a literal construction and it allows compression to ‘a bastard blackmailer’ without the loss of meaning, while with the second example such compression (‘a bulldog man’) is problematic.

Even though the primary concern of this paper is the metaphorical nominal phrases, it should be emphasized that all the constructions of this type are highly expressive and can be easily referred to as the instances of creative use of language. This is revealed, for example, in the comparison of literal constructions with their AN counterparts (cf. ‘a fool of a driver’ and ‘foolish driver’).
The group of metaphoric phrases is not homogenous either, it comprises idiomatic coinages (e.g. a hell of a…, a heck of a…) and free coinages (e.g. ‘a whisper of a giggle’, ‘a scarecrow of a house’, ‘a bird’s-nest of a plan’). It is hard to draw a clear borderline between them, but Aarts (1998) proposed a criterion for such distinction. According to him, idiomatic phrases unlike free coinages do not allow adjectival premodification of the first noun that easily.
“Thus, although we can have, for example, an absolute hell of a problem, with an intensifying adjective, we can hardly say *a dreadful hell of a problem or *a tiresome heck of a journey which contain descriptive adjectives.” (Aarts, 1998, p. 122)

This criterion sounds reasonable and the examples prove the tendency of these idiomatic phrases not to be combined with a descriptive attribute. Although one can come across instances like ‘a hard bony hell of a huge claw’, ‘a screaming hell of a battle’, ‘a whole heck of a lot of damage’ that show that such premodification is not impossible, the overwhelming number of examples where such idiomatic phrases are not preceded by a modifying adjective shows that instances with premodification are statistically insignificant.
Further the grammatical and stylistic properties of this structural type of metaphor will be discussed in more detail.

Main properties of “N of a N” metaphors
First of all, the main characteristics of this kind of metaphors relevant for their further analysis will be pointed out. The first feature that can be easily derived from the structure of these metaphors is their nominal nature. In nominal or noun metaphors both source and target belong to the same lexico-grammatical class of words – nouns.

Nominal metaphors are probably the most largely studied and there can be several reasons for this. First of all, they are easy to recognize in the text, because of the structure that obligates both vehicle and topic to be explicitly present, and therefore they are easier to analyze than metaphors expressed by verbs, for example. Secondly, they occur in the text more often, which is easily explained by the fact that they are expressed by the most frequently used part of speech – every fourth word used in the English language is a noun. But the more important reason is that nouns have a more expressive potential than any other part of speech. This is achieved due to characteristic features inherent to nouns. Some linguists (e.g. A. Peshkovsky, O. Jespersen) point out the ability of nouns to create in the mind of the speaker and the listener a multidimensional image of an object. This ability is determined by such characteristics of nouns as the multiplaned character of their semantic features, which in its turn is manifested in the existence of a special connotative or implicative zone in their semantic structure which includes so-called potential sememes. . These semantic components play a very important role in semantic enrichment of the vocabulary, because they serve as a platform in the processes of creating metaphors and idioms. These potential sememes are actualized in the context, which enables them to express additional information, showing the concept in the new aspect or emphasizing and enriching its known features. Thus, nouns can express a wide range and different shades of features.
The view of this type of metaphors as noun metaphors is based on traditional surface language grammar approach. This approach contradicting the prevailing cognitive paradigm in the study of metaphor is worth discussing because nouns, verbs and adjective are still employed for linguistic realization of the novel concepts.

“Poets consciously or unconsciously grasping the feature of life or the world seek to convey their insights in the most meaningful, vibrant and fresh manner. They select words and juxtapose them to form metaphors that both express their intuition and suggest new possible meanings”. (MacCormac, 1985, p. 46)
One of the most profound studies of metaphors within this framework was produced by Christine Brooke-Rose (1958) who describes 5 classes of noun metaphors: 1) simple replacement; 2) the pointing formulae (A… that B); 3) the copula (A is B); 4) the link with ‘to make’ (C makes A into B); and 5) the genitive (B is a part of, is attributed or is found in C, from which we can guess A).
Even that the structural type of nominal metaphors, where two nouns are connected with the preposition ‘of’, as in ‘a nightmare of a trip’ or ‘an angel of a daughter’,is not present in this classification, it is clearly most close to the third group with the form ‘A is B’ (cf. ‘This trip was a real nightmare!’ or ‘My daughter is an angel’). The copula model has been the most common model for the metaphor research, but according to Brooke-Rose the literary metaphors occur very rarely in this form (Brooke-Rose, 1958, p.128). The structural type of metaphor ‘A of a B’ is even less frequent (maybe that is the reason for its absence in the classification), but it definitely lacks that degree of attention.

These metaphorical constructions viewed from their deep structure can be referred to the group of predicative metaphors. The two nouns involved in the construction are in subject-predicate relationship with each other.

It is worth noting that unlike most nominal phrases, it is the second noun in this phrase that is the head, not the first one. This fact is not immediately obvious and becomes misleading for some scholars (Abney, 1987; Napoli, 1989) who treat this construction as a nominal prepositional phrase headed by the first noun.
The notion of the head is important for the analysis of this construction, because the head not only ‘determines the internal composition of the phrase, but is also responsible for its external distribution’ (Wright, 2003, p. 373). The semantic contribution of the entire nominal phrase is provided by the element that is the head. And it can be shown that in the type of the construction under study the second noun functions as the head both syntactically and semantically.

This can be proved by a simple transformation, e.g.:
hell of a headache → hellish headache
sponge of a brain → sponge-like brain
clown of a groom → clownish groom
where ‘headache’, ‘brain’ and ‘groom’ are the heads of the phrases, not the modifiers.
To determine headedness one could also apply the criteria for establishing headedness to the analysis of the construction. We will use some of the criteria proposed by Zwicky (1993). The first criterion that he uses in his classification is the semantic argument, which applying it to the noun phrase means that ‘in a combination X + Y, X is ‘the semantic head’ if, speaking very crudely, X + Y describes a kind of the thing described by X’ (Zwicky, 1985, p. 4).
For example, in:
He was a shrimp of a boy, about six years old.
She stood with her grim purse of a mouth wide open.

Clearly in both examples it is the second noun that determines the reference of the whole phrase. A shrimp of a boy describes a kind of a boy, not a kind of a shrimp. Likewise, her grim purse of a mouth refers to a type of a mouth, not a purse.
All predicative statements, metaphorical and non-metaphorical, are used to convey information about concepts. The difference lies in the way this information is conveyed: in non-metaphorical predicate statements this information is presented explicitly, while in predicative metaphors it is expressed implicitly with the help of mapping of one domain onto the other.
In predicate metaphors the interaction between the subject and predicate nouns involves modifying the subject in order to create a novel concept. For example, in the metaphor ‘knob of a nose’, the subject noun nose is modified by knob, creating the image of a small rounded knob-like nose.

This phrase presents a vivid example of the ability of nouns to be transposed into the domains of other parts of speech.

The analysis of semantic relations between phrase components gives grounds to assume that the mechanism of creation of this construction is a metasemiotic transposition. Metasemiotic transposition is a semantic mapping, as a result of which a word with a certain part of sentence function actualizes a secondary semantic function for this part of sentence. This transposition leads to functional rapprochement of different parts of speech on the level of semantic structure of the sentence. In the case of the construction under study there is a functional rapprochement of noun and adjective.
In terms of Halliday (2000) such rapprochement of two parts of speech can be treated as grammatical metaphor. Grammatical metaphor is based on the reconstruction of one grammatico-semantic domain in terms of another. For example, in ‘a peach of a day’ quality is represented as a thing. Thus, in case of this phrase, lexical and grammatical metaphors go together.
While grammatical metaphors cover a wide range of phenomena involving all lexico-grammatical classes of words, it seems more reasonable to use a more specific term that would cover the grammatical nature of the nouns in this type of phrases. The term ‘adjectival nouns’ is perfectly suitable for this function. This term was first introduced by J. Ross (1973) and later developed in the works of J. McCawley (1988). Adjectival nouns occupy an intermediate position between adjectives and nouns, they have ‘a meaning of a type that is normally expressed by an adjective but nonetheless belongs to the lexical category noun’ (McCawley, 1988, p. 741).
The nouns in this position ‘mimic’ adjectives:
He had a hell of an accident.
He had a terrible accident.
In this example both hell and terrible perform the function of a semantic modifier of accident and stand in the adjectival position preceding a noun. But to be able to be in this position, the adjectival noun is followed by a preposition of, thus complying with the syntactic rules of the English language.

This shift from nominal to adjectival functions in this type of phrases was observed by many scholars, but it should be made clear that this functional transposition of nouns into the sphere of adjectives is not equal to conversion and does not allow adjectival nouns to be called adjectives. ‘No transposed substantive can be called an adjective unless it has received a categorial marker’ (Marchand, 1969, p. 361). Thus, the special status of the nouns in this construction does not change their part of speech characteristic.
Further in this article the emphasis will be placed on semantic properties of this construction and the analysis of certain metaphorical expressions following this model.

Typology of ‘N of a N’ metaphors
Before turning to the analysis of semantic properties of this construction, it is important to present the underlying explanation theory that will be employed for this purpose.
With the emergence of cognitive perspective there has been a considerable shift in understanding of metaphor, from assigning it a purely stylistic function to a cognitive function. Metaphors have come to be treated not just as an extraordinary or figurative use of language, employed to achieve particular aesthetic effects, but rather as a form of thought, a conceptual phenomenon, whose essence is “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 5). Metaphor in its cognitive function is widely used in different spheres of human activity in order to broaden our knowledge and create new meanings through juxtaposition of different concepts. And since metaphor is always aimed at creating new concepts its meaning cannot be literally paraphrased. On the other hand, metaphorical meaning is not some special sort of meaning, it is more important that this meaning results from a special process of constructing meaning.
There are two generally recognizable frameworks within cognitive tradition of metaphor study. The first one, which is usually referred to as ‘conceptual metaphor theory’, was developed by Lakoff and his colleagues and originally presented in Lakoff and Johnson’s book “Metaphors we live by” (1980). In this book they introduced such notions as ‘source domains’, ‘target domains’ and ‘mapping’, where source domain is the one that is better-known, experienced or practiced and it supports the literal meaning of the whole metaphor; target domain is lesser-known and is usually more abstract and it is the main focus of metaphor; and mapping is the process that “sanctions the use of source domain language and inference patterns for target domain concepts” (Lakoff, 1998, p. 208). It should be pointed out that metaphor in this theory is not equal to metaphoric expression – an individual linguistic expression sanctioned by the conceptual mapping. According to Lakoff these mappings are conventionalized among the members of the speech community and form a part of our conceptual system.
The second framework, referred to as ‘blending theory’ or ‘conceptual blending theory’, was suggested by Fauconnier and Turner (1995). This theory operates not with a pair of ‘conceptual domains’ but with four ‘mental spaces’. The four mental spaces have the following roles: two input spaces can be equaled to source and target domain as understood in conceptual metaphor theory, a generic space is the one that contains structure applicable to both input spaces, and a blended space which inherits partial structure of the input spaces and has the emergent structure of its own. They claim that their four-space model is more general and sensitive than the two-domain model and includes the latter one as its special case.
Blending theory adds to the understanding of metaphor the point that conceptual metaphor theory lacks, namely that “a metaphor involves not only the activation of 2 domains, not only correspondences, but also a species of blending of 2 domains” (Croft 2004: 207). Another important contribution of the blending theory is that this model allows projection of the material from both the source and target spaces into the blend, whereas in conceptual metaphor theory only simple directional projection from source to target is possible. This difference can be explained by the different areas of interest of these two theories: conceptual metaphor theory is concerned mostly with recurring conceptual relations represented in stable conceptual system, while blending theory seems to be more interested in novel individual cases which are formed dynamically. Thus, the two frameworks addressing different aspects of metaphoric conceptualization complement each other and can be useful for the analysis.
There is one major restriction to this analysis: the direction of our analysis is not from concepts to their language realization, but from individual metaphoric expression to their conceptual relations.
The two-part structure of the metaphors under study corresponds to the source-target domain model, where the second noun and the first nouns are the referents for the source and target concept respectively.
In principle, there is an open-end number of possible linguistic realizations, but the infrequency of these constructions allows to point out the basic tendencies.
We will start from the classification of target domain concepts. The main groups of the target domain concepts that are realized linguistically in the form of ‘N of a N’ metaphor are the following (in the order of frequency):

  • PERSON, which has a wide range of linguistic expression, including

– prototypical nouns like ‘person’, ‘human’, ‘human being’ (e.g. ‘a speck of a person’, ‘a naught of a human’, ‘a shadow of a human being’ etc.);

– nouns specifying gender, age or family relationship like ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘fellow’, ‘guy’ ‘child’, ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘nephew’, ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘grandfather’, ‘grandson’ and so on (e.g. ‘a bull of a man’, ‘a cabbage of a woman’, ‘a prince of a fellow’, ‘a scrap of a girl’, ‘a popinjay of a boy’, ‘a crow of a wife’, ‘a doll of a child’, ‘a witch of a grandmother’, etc.);

– nouns specifying profession, nationality or other background, like ‘doctor’, ‘secretary’, ‘nurse’, ‘bishop’, ‘captain’, ‘cop’, ‘Belgian’, ‘Christian’ (e.g. ‘a hell of an officer’, ‘a hell of a salesman’, ‘brute of a German’, ‘a devil of a gypsy’, etc.);

  • BODY, whose linguistic expressions include the following:

– prototypical nouns like ‘body’ (e.g. ‘hulk of a body’, ‘nut of a body’, etc.);

– nouns referring to body parts, like ‘head’, ‘hand’, ‘face’, ‘nose’ (e.g.
‘squashed-tomato of a face’, ‘sponge of a brain’, ‘slot of a mouth’,
‘mouse of a mustache’, ‘a blade of a nose’, ‘a claw of a hand’, ‘a water-barrel of a chest’, ‘wash-rag of a back’, ‘a cannonball of a stomach’, etc.);

– visual body actions/reactions, such as ‘smile’, ‘grin’, ‘frown’, ‘blush’ (e.g. ‘a stone of a frown’, ‘a gape of a grin’, ‘a twist of a smile’, etc.);

– audible body actions/reactions, such as ‘laugh’, ‘whistle’, ‘giggle’, ‘scream’ (e.g. ‘boom of a laugh’, ‘wheep of a whistle’, ‘croak of a scream’, ‘a whisper of a giggle’, etc.);
BUILDING, represented by the nouns referring to the whole building or its part, like ‘building’, ‘house’, ‘hospital’, ‘hotel’, ‘church’, ‘prison’, ‘room’, office’, ‘place’, ‘garage’ (e.g. ‘a mausoleum of a place’, ‘an ashtray of a room’, ‘a blister of a building’, ‘a duck of a house’, ‘a box of a cabin’, ‘a warehouse of a church’, ‘a palace of a hospital’, etc.);

  • CREATION, expressed by nouns like ‘book’, ‘novel’, ‘song’ and the like, for example, ‘a mess of a novel’, ‘ a sugar lump of a song’, ‘a roast beef of a comedy’, ‘a quiet beauty of an album’, ‘a mixed-bag of an album’, ‘a fountain of a picture’, ‘the heartbeat of a picture book’, ‘hurricane of a novel’, etc.;

*…….*PERIOD, which has a linguistic expression with the help of ………prototypical nouns like ‘time’, ‘day’, ‘night’, ‘week’, ‘season’, ………as well as nouns like ‘life’, ‘lifetime’, ‘trip’, ‘job’, ‘show’, ………‘battle’, ‘marriage’, for example ‘a hell of a time’, ‘a peach of ………a day’, ‘a deuce of a life’, ‘a devil of a morning’, ‘a heartbreak ………of a marriage’, ‘a bitch of a journey’, ‘pest of an interview’, ………etc.;

  • VEHICLE, with the nouns like ‘car’, ‘ship’, ‘boat’, ‘bus’ representing this concept, for example, ‘a battleship of a car’, ‘a sick whale of a bus’, ‘a runt-duckling of a boat’, ‘a mountain of a ship’, ‘a junk heap of a plane’, etc.;
  • NOISE, represented by nouns like ‘noise’, ‘racket’, ‘crack’, ‘click’, ‘ring’, for example, ‘one hell of a crack’, ‘a hell of a racket’, etc.;
  • PROBLEM, expressed by nouns like ‘problem’, ‘mess’, ‘fix’, ‘nuisance’, ‘burden’, ‘scandal’, ‘row’, for example, ‘a hell of a mess’, ‘a heck of a problem’, ‘a devil of a nuisance’, etc.

This list does not cover all the concepts, but the instances with the mapping of concepts that are not mentioned in this classification are very rare and therefore not relevant for generalization purposes.

Now let’s consider the source concepts

  • HELL, with the nouns like ‘hell’, ‘heck’, ‘deuce’, ‘devil’, representing it, for example ‘a hell of a gift’, ‘a hell of a headache’, ‘a deuce of a price’, ‘a heck of a place’, etc.;
  • ANIMAL, which is represented with different groups of words:

-nouns referring to different kinds of animals, like ‘bull’, ‘beast’, ‘dog’, ‘whale’, ‘bear’, ‘hawk’, ‘shrimp’, ‘colt’, ‘fish’, ‘mouse’, ‘pig’ (e.g. ‘a rat of a captain’, ‘a dog of a case’, ‘a lamb of a child’, ‘a ferret of a man’, ‘a cow of a girl’, ‘a crab of a hand’, ‘a duck of a house’, ‘a moose of a lady’, etc.), as well as

– nouns referring to some parts of animal body ‘claw’, ‘swine’s-end’ for example, ‘black claw of a hand’, ‘a swine’s-end of a face’, etc.

– nouns referring to the sounds animal make, like ‘hiss’, ‘bark’, ‘neigh’, ‘twitter’, ‘croak’, for example, ‘a bark of a laugh’, ‘a croak of a scream’, etc.,

– nouns referring to animal habitats, like ‘beehive’, ‘nest’, ‘kennel’, for example, ‘a beehive of a mall’, ‘a kennel of a room’, etc.;

  • CONTAINER, having linguistic representation by nouns like ‘box’, ‘barrel’, ‘pot’, ‘can’, ‘bag’ and so on, for example, ‘a pot of a belly’, ‘the melting pot of a playground’, ‘a purse of a mouth’, ‘a pocket of a dream’, ‘a box of a cabin’, ‘a beautiful Chinese box of a novel’, ‘an ashtray of a room’, ‘a tin can of a spacecraft’, ‘a barrel of a chest’, ‘a Turkish bath of a hall’, ‘a mixed bag of a year’, ‘a rag-bag of a policy’, ‘a rust-bucket of a ship’, ‘a frying pan of a forehead’, etc.;
  • PARAGON, which is represented with different nouns, like ‘ideal’, ‘masterpiece’, ‘beauty’, ‘wonder’, ‘pearl’, ‘gem’, ‘dream’, ‘love’, ‘angel’ and so on, for example, ‘a child’s picture–book dream of a city’, ‘a coquettish little love of a hat’, ‘one angel of a man’, ‘wonder of a day’, ‘a doll of a girl’, ‘a baby of a thing’, ‘a gem of a resort’, ‘a pearlof a job’, ‘an ideal of a house’, ‘a masterpiece of a headline’, ‘a beauty of a project’, etc.;
  • MYTHOLOGICAL CREATURE, presented linguistically by such words as ‘monster’, ‘giant’, ‘gnome’, ‘leprechaun’, ‘dragon’, ‘siren’ and others like in ‘a troll of a DJ’, ‘a sylph of a journalist’, ‘a leprechaun of a man’, ‘an ogre of a boss’, ‘a monster of a hang-over’, ‘a dragon of a housekeeper’, ‘an elf of a husband’, ‘a behemoth of a wave’, ‘a titan of a club’, ‘a hell-cat of a bride’, ‘a colossus of a defender’, ‘the Goliath of a newspaper’, ‘a siren of a song’, ‘an imp of a movie’, ‘a sprite of a man’, ‘a demon of a voice’, etc.
  • SWEET, expressed by such nouns like ‘honey’, ‘sugar’, ‘peach’, ‘cake’, ‘pudding’, ‘cherry’ and others, for example, in ‘a wedding cake of a hotel’, ‘a pudding of a film’, ‘a cherry of a role’, ‘honey of a house’, ‘a soufflé of a programme’, etc.;
  • HOLE, represented linguistically by words like ‘hole’, ‘hollow’, ‘slot’, ‘void’, for example, ‘a black hole of a marriage’, ‘a hell-hole of a prison’, ‘rat-hole of a bed’, ‘a well of a voice’, ‘hollow of a swimming pool’, ‘the charm-void of a script’, ‘a slot of a mouth’, etc.;
  • WEATHER, expressed by the nouns like ‘hurricane’, ‘blizzard’, ‘breeze’, ‘storm’, for example, ‘a hurricane of a row’, ‘a hurricane of a comedy’, ‘a warm breeze of a love song’, ‘a storm of a life’ ‘a blizzard of a movie’, ‘a tornado of a player’, etc.;
  • UNHEALTH, expressed by nouns like ‘headache’, ‘spasm’, ‘blister’, ‘bruise’ and so on, for example, ‘a headache of a car’, ‘a bruise of a melody’, ‘a scratch of a new moon’ ‘another ache of a story’, ‘a spasm of a curriculum’, ‘a blister of a building’, etc.

This list of source domain concepts, as well as the list of target domain concepts, is not meant to include all possible instances, but is nevertheless useful for the purposes of analysis.
The next stage of our analysis will be the attempt to draw the main directions of interactions of target and source domains.

Table 1: Interactions of target and source domains


metaphoric expression



one hell of a guy, the poor devil of a millionaire, a heck of a team player


his quiet mouse of a wife, one silly peacock of a vocalist, this cold fish of a man, an excitable puppy of a TV host


a huge tank of a man, a deluded sad-sack of a man, 
the greying-at-the-temples sad-sack of a teacher


a porcelain doll of a woman, a gem of a girl


a scholarly gnome of a man, that new monster of a boss, your ogre of a boss, a gentle giant of a barman


this cyclone of a man, the American typhoon of a tenor-saxist, a tornado of a player, his whirlwind of a mother



its piggish snout of a nose, great raptor’s beak of a nose, a mouse of a moustache, a claw of a hand


a barrel of a chest, his tank of a mouth



a glass box of a house, the rusting old tin can of a stadium, this padded coffin of a dining room, the goldfish bowl of a small embassy


a great white whale of a hotel, a giant butterfly of a building, the cash cow of a spanking new stadium


this gem of a neighbourhood restaurant, a peach of a place, an ornate, secluded pearl of a church


a canary-yellow wedding cake of a building, honey of a house


a hell-hole of a prison, a rat-hole of a hotel, a rough, sparse hole of a place, a cold, dark, damp hole of a room




a hell of a life, one hell of a night, a deuce of a game, 
a devil of a time, one heck of a conference, a devil of a week


a real pig of a week, a swine of a season, a dog of a Sunday, a whale of a time, the horse of a lifetime


the cake of a heavenly morning, a peach of a ride, 
a huge cut-and-come-again fruit cake of a life


the cyclone of a century, a funny, sad whirlwind of a journey



some modern box of a car, his sardine can of a car, 
a grubby old tub of a boat


a dream of a car, the aesthetic beauty of a car



one hell of a tale, one hell of a record, a heck of a tune


a great baggy elephant of a poem, a leg-lifting dog of a movie, a wet fish of a critique, this old war horse of a ballet


this Chinese box of a film, merry bubbling pot of a text, this little poo bag of a programme, a sad sack of a performance, a warm bath of a record


a quiet gem of a novel, a small wonder of a book


a peach of a show, a peach of a book, Rachmaninov’s lollipop of a second piano concerto


a monster of a bestseller, a one-eyed giant of a movie, 
an old, sweet siren of a song


a dark, swelling bruise of a melody, another ache of a story


a fiercely punky cosmic hurricane of a song, this whirlwind of a story, this emotional desert storm of a film, a special-effects-drenched blizzard of a movie

NOISE IS             HELL

a hell of a noise, a heck of a noise


a heck of a mess, a hell of a row, the devil of a lot of trouble, a devil of a problem, one heck of a hangover

These directions supplied with an extensive list of examples are definitely helpful for the understanding of this construction, but being just schematic representations they give little idea about the emergent structure that comes as a result of this mapping. Emergent structure according to the four-space model is one of the most important components of the blended space, because letting the blend to be linked to the conceptual network as a whole, it is adding the features missing in both input structures, and thus, it is novel and dynamic.

In order to do discover this emergent structure, we will analyze some individual metaphoric expressions that follow the above-mentioned conceptual mappings.
It is quite impossible to cover all metaphoric expressions, that is why the emphasis will be made on a few that are the most characteristic.

As one can see from the list of the mappings, there is almost no source concept whose structure cannot be mapped on a target concept HELL. That is why the first example we will analyze will be the one involving this concept. It has been already mentioned that metaphoric expressions with this concept as a target domain are idiomatic and the mapping concerning it are highly conventionalized among the members of a speech community.
Let us consider the metaphoric expression ‘a hell of a day’. It can be presented with the help of the following schematic model (fig.1):

Figure 1: ‘a hell of a day’: conceptual blend model

The cross-space correspondences of the two input spaces constitute the mapping between them. The common structure of target and source input spaces, that is, the period during which some kind of activity is performed, is revealed in the generic space. The blend inherits some structure from each of the inputs: from the target input space, structured by the domain DAY, it inherits the temporal characteristic of a short temporary period, the identity of a person acting during that period of time; from the source input space, structured by the domain HELL, it inherits the means of performing the activity by the agent. But for this inherited structure, blend forms an emergent structure, which results from juxtaposition of 2 input elements: the goal from DAY space and the means of achieving it from HELL space, whose incompatibility leads to the idea of the day being stressful. This idea can be demonstrated in the examples like: ‘I’ve been awake all night and I’ve got a hell of a day ahead, meetings from morning till night’; ‘I had a hell of a day at work, everything I touched seemed to crash and burn’; ‘It’s been a hell of a day for Abby Barlow: in just a few hours, she’s survived an explosion and watched her employer die’, where days are described as full of stress, rush, accidents and other minor troubles.

Figure 2: ‘a hell of a day’: conceptual blend model

But this explanation cannot shed any light on the examples like: ‘Hope you’re having a hell of a day!’; ‘Wow, hell of a day. So many cool things going on today it’s impossible to list them all’ or ‘A hell of a day! It’s a lonnng day, but a good day. I can’t explain it. Just one of those days, I guess. My lucky day’, where the juxtaposition of two domains gives a completely different result. It means that the conceptual blending here is based on a different relationship between source and target input domains. The model of this blending process could be presented like shown in figure 2.
Just as in the previous model, we have correspondences between target and source input spaces, which make up mapping. Generic space represents a common structure of a period for undertaking some kind of activity, which follows a certain pattern. The blended space inherits from target input space its temporal property of a short time period, the role of a human performing the activity, from the source domain it inherits the pattern of the activity. The emergency of the property like unexpected excitement is the result of juxtaposition of two elements: the goal from the input space DAY and the pattern from the input space HELL. Using this model as a means of explanation allows understanding of the examples above.

Another reason for analyzing these two models is to show the importance of context for constructing of meaning of the metaphor. It becomes obvious from the examples like these that context has a considerable influence on the selection of the relevant elements that make up the structure of the input domains. This function of context is emphasized by scholars (Stern 2000; Croft & Cruse, 2004), but so far the mechanism of this selection has not been proposed.
Some more examples following the above mentioned conceptual mappings will be discussed in the following.

The metaphoric expression ‘an ogre of a boss’ represents a mapping HUMAN IS MYTHOLOGICAL CREATURE. This expression is rather common for the description of inconsiderate, unjust employer, who is exploiting rather than properly managing the employees. For example, “Picture the scene: it’s Monday morning, your ogre of a boss has been gruffling round the office tearing up work and biting off heads”, where this metaphoric expression gets further contextual development, or like in “I would rather work with a fair minded intelligent peer than a big ugly stupid ogre of a boss”, where the juxtaposition of intelligent peer and stupid ogre of a boss, makes the image of the latter even more repulsive.

Figure 3 shows the model of conceptual blending taking place in this metaphoric expression. The common structure of two domains formed in generic space presents an agent performing some activity in a definite work space using particular means. This common structure is a result of the correspondences in the structures of two input space domains BOSS and OGRE. The elements of the blend structure acquired from target input space are the identity of a person occupying a managing position in the company and the work space, where this activity takes place; from the source input space the blend acquires the role of the hideous monster. As a result of the juxtaposition of such elements, ‘managing’ and ‘cruelty’ emerges as a novel structural element: ‘abuse’ of ‘power’, which was not present in either of the input domains.

Figure 3: ‘an ogre of a boss’: conceptual blend model

The next example ‘a peach of a song’ follows the conceptual mapping CREATION IS SWEET. The model of its conceptual blending is shown in figure 4. In generic space we have a structure shared by both input spaces, which presents an object that comes into existence as a result of activity performed by another entity and is affecting some senses of humans. The cross-space correspondences of the two input spaces SONG and PEACH constitute the mapping between them. The blend inherits from the target input domain structure such elements as the identity of a musical piece, the situation of entertainment and the sense of hearing it affects, from the source input domain it inherits the role of a sweet fruit. As a result of the structure developed in a blend we have a new emergent element of extraordinary strong kind of enjoyment absent in both input domains.

Figure 4. ‘a peach of a song’: conceptual blend model

This characteristic of a song being enjoyable can be marked in the following examples:
‘Been around the World’ is a beautifully uplifting ballad, fleshed out with Smith’s fluid guitar lines – a peach of a song!
“Cry to be Found” is a peach of a song and is how songs really should be – soulful, heartfelt and, hey! call me a traditionalist, tuneful.

The mapping BUILDING IS HOLE can be represented by the metaphorical expression ‘a rat hole of a hotel’. This mapping is frequently used for creating an image of a highly uncomfortable place lacking basic facilities, like in the following examples:
I’m staying in a shitty rat-hole of a hotel room on the outskirts of Cannes.
I was staying at a rat hole of a hotel in New York this week, because all the good hotels were taken by people in town for Fashion Week, the US Open, and the UN meeting.

Figure 5: ‘a rat-hole of a hotel’: conceptual blend model

Figure 5 shows the model of the conceptual blending ‘a rat-hole of a hotel’. The cross-space correspondences of the two input spaces HOTEL and RAT HOLE constitute the mapping between them and their common structure of a space with certain conditions intended for living of some inhabitants is reflected in the generic space. The target input domain donates to the blended space structure such elements as the identity of an establishment providing lodging, the identity of inhabitants as guests; the source input space gives a role of a rat hole.
The emergent element ‘hideous’ in the structure of the blended space arises from the juxtaposition of two incompatible elements: the function of ‘accommodation’ and the conditions ‘acceptable for rats’.
The last metaphorical expression under analysis ‘a tank of a man’ follows the mapping HUMAN IS CONTAINER. The four-space model of its conceptual blending is shown Figure 6.

Figure 6. ‘a tank of a man’: conceptual blend model

The cross-domain correspondences of role, function and form create the common structure organizing the generic space. The emergent element ‘fat’ in the blended space structure is a result of incompatibility of the form of ‘large container’, inherited by the blend from the TANK input space and the function of ‘consuming’ inherited from the MAN input space. This emerging element is vividly seen in the examples like:
He is a huge massive tank of a man who could probably drink a whole keg without getting a shine.
She married a tank of a man, meaning he was about as wide as he was tall.
The list of the examples following the mappings listed above and presented in the form of the construction ‘N of a N’ could be rather long. But the aim of this paper was not to analyze all possible instances, but rather to show that this construction, being not very frequent, is quite productive, capable of creating new unexpected images and the instances of its use are not limited to idiomatic expressions.

The metaphoric constructions built according to the model ‘N of a N’ have not been given a great deal of attention in linguistic literature yet, but this fact is probably not the result of their syntactic or semantic simplicity, but rather due to the low frequency of their use, especially in written texts.
This paper concentrated on both grammatical and semantic relations within this construction. From a grammatical point of view, ‘N of a N’ phrase is characterized by subject-predicate relationships between its parts, where the second noun, not the first one, is the head. The first noun according to its functional characteristics is very close to an adjective, which gave rise to a term adjectival noun in reference to this specific use of that part of speech. Viewed either from the position of functional transposition or headedness this construction could be used for further research.
The nominal nature of the phrase adds to its semantic capacities, giving to it a more creative potential and expressiveness. Although metaphoric expressions in the form of this construction are mostly used as insults, the analysis shows that this model is capable of expressing both positive and negative evaluation.

The attempt to reveal the mechanisms of emergence of metaphoric meaning in these constructions was undertaken in this paper with the use of conceptual metaphor theory and blending theory as an explanatory base. The suggested classification of target and source concepts could be further elaborated. It could also be interested to look into the realization of this construction in other languages, e.g. Dutch, German, French or Spanish, and see the selection of concepts used there.

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