How (not?) to quote a proverb: The role of figurative quotations and allusions in political discourse

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Can a proverb be quoted against itself? Since its introduction into the British “Brexit” debate in early 2016, the proverbial notion of “having one’s cake and eat it” has had its meaning temporarily turned upside down from exposing the absurdity of wishing to consume and still retain the same goods or privileges, to serve as a reassuring promise (i.e., that in withdrawing from the EU, the UK could hold on to all or most of the membership benefits whilst shedding its obligations, which would equal ‘having one’s cake and eating it’).
Using a corpus of 180+ British media texts containing varying applications of the proverb, this article charts its pragmatic development 2016-19 and discusses the conditions of its change from an ironical condemnation into a reassuring promise (and back). We identify a metaphorical scenario with strongly implicated evaluations as a necessary condition for the interpretability of the proverb’s metarepresentations and analyse the emergence of competing scenario versions with reference to an iteration of ironical metarepresentations, which leads to a ‘layering’ of metarepresentations. In conclusion, we propose to include discourse-historical knowledge in the notion of metarepresentation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-144
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Early online date12 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • Discourse history
  • irony
  • Metarepresentation
  • metaphor
  • Quotation
  • Proverb
  • scenario

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