For example, paraphrasing "Devil's advocate" as "Satan's lawyer" or saying that something would "cost several limbs". I'm pretty sure there is a term but I can't remember it or Google it successfully.

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    If anyone is thinking of down-voting this, just remember that homo sapiens who reside in vitreous accommodations should refrain from morbid acts of antidisestablishmentarianism via igneous projectile discharge.
    – cobaltduck
    Aug 9, 2016 at 17:33
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    @cobaltduck People who live in glass houses shouldn't. Aug 9, 2016 at 21:57
  • Moon in 'Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach' lists the 'fulldeckism' (one series of snowclones) 'three fish short of a lawnmower' as what could be interpreted as 'fixed expression / idiom' subclass [FEIs allowing] variation subclass 'free realisation' subclass 'surrealism'. Aug 9, 2016 at 22:30

2 Answers 2


The phenomenon you describe is related to the so-called anti-proverb, "the transformation of a standard proverb for humorous effect".

Although your examples involve transformations of idioms, rather than proverbs, the phenomena are similar enough that you might call your examples anti-idioms.

Wikipedia gives J. K. Rowling's "don't count your owls before they are delivered" (a play on "don't count your eggs before they hatch") as an example of an anti-proverb. This is very similar to your example of "Satan's lawyer" (a play on "devil's advocate"). In both cases, the humor is the result of substituting synonyms in the original expressions.

Another example might be "she kicked the pail" (a play on "she kicked the bucket").

But anti-proverbs and anti-idioms aren't limited to synonym substitution. Any wordplay on a proverb or idiom creates an anti-proverb or anti-idiom. For example, inserting extra words into a fixed phrase like "vicious circle" would count as an an anti-idiom. For example, "vicious Arctic Circle" (Lubin calls examples like this phrasal tmesis).



an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly - Google definitions

an implied or indirect reference especially in literature; also : the use of such references - Webster

Your Usage (allusion + gestalt): Idioms act as preset models designed to trigger a small emotional response within a certain spectrum so people will relate with minimal mental effort. You are trying to access the vault of a specific idiom with a creatively crafted and strategically placed expression. Gestalt comes in because you just made a little club. People feel exponentially more stupid the longer it takes to get a reference if it seems like everyone else is getting it. But when it clicks your audience gets a sense of accomplishment and unity. That extra effort makes the the joke funnier, they had to work for it and now they trust you because you gave them a situation where they could succeed.

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