Combinations: at the heart of linguistic creativity

When we think of ‘creativity’ we tend to think of a number of things, anything from art and music to technological innovation. One thing that that all creative acts have in common is that they involve novel combinations – that is, the association in our minds of existing ideas to form new ones. Linguistic creativity is no exception.

When we think of a ‘creative’ person, what do we think of? Perhaps we think of artists, advertising executives, fashion designers, writers and web designers. Maybe, we think of people who ‘innovate’ (but don’t ‘imitate’!) and who take pride in thinking ‘outside the box’. Whomever we think of, as we sit in our offices hacking away at our daily pile of emails, we’re probably just a little bit jealous of them.

But what do creative people actually do that is so different to the rest of us?

Actually, without wanting to sound like a self-help book, we are all creative. In fact, we ‘create’ all the time, particularly in the language that we use.

Linguistic creativity, like all creativity, is about novel combinations. This is an idea that goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. In his ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, published in 1748, Hume wrote:

All this creative power in the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing the materials afforded to us by the sense and experience. When we think of a ‘golden mountain’, we only join two consistent ideas, ‘gold’ and ‘mountain’, with which we were formerly acquainted. A ‘virtuous horse’ we can conceive; because, from our own feeling, we can conceive ‘virtue’; and this we may unite to the figure and shape of a ‘horse’, which is an animal familiar to us. (Hume, 1910)

According to Hume, the creative act is about bringing together two or more existing ideas in our minds, making new connections (or associations) between them. We can think of our brain as a complex network of ideas, concepts and memories such as ‘horse’ and ‘virtue’. In creating, for existence the idea of a ‘virtuous horse’, we connect together existing nodes in this vast network in novel and inventive ways.

In everyday conversation, we constantly put words together in new and inventive ways, at the same time bringing together the concepts that they relate to. What we create might be as mundane as a sentence to tell our partner that Uncle George’s black and white cat has chewed through the electrics of his neighbour’s house – but it could very well be a sentence that no-one has ever uttered before. In combining words, within (and sometimes without) the constraints of our grammar, we are infinitely creative. The inherent linguistic creativity (or productivity), which means there are an infinite number of possible sentences that we can utter (Pinker, 1999), is a feature of all human languages.

Linguistically, some novel combinations are more satisfying than others. Who can resist a new punch-line to an old joke, a new spin on an old idiom, a novel metaphor, a neat rhyme, or a satisfyingly zingy put down? And what’s not to love about the elegant metaphors of Shakespeare, the pithy neologisms of the online community, and the groan-worthy headlines of the tabloid press? Though we don’t always know where they come from, we can find great enjoyment in these lexical combinations.

In this blog, I will look at the many aspects of linguistic creativity: that is, the novel use of language in books and magazines, theatre and broadcasting, but also in everyday conversation. It will look into the ‘nowhere’ of our minds to explore the linguistic and neurological roots of everyday verbal creativity, as well as the lexical, semantic and conceptual combinations that underpins it.

I love combinations, linguistic and otherwise. I like them so much that, when I’m out and about, I like to collect them. So to conclude, by way of a celebration of novel combinations, here are some of my favourites of last year:

1. The film ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Daniel Craig. You can almost feel the excitement in the room when Hollywood film execs came up with the idea of combining Stetson wearing six-shooters with little green men. Great concept. Shame about the film.

2. In a doctor’s waiting room, I saw this campaign poster for the British Heart Foundation encouraging us all to do 30 minutes of exercises daily, whether it be walking the dog, gardening, swimming or (ahem) sex. The poster’s image, of a women in swimming costume hugging her naked partner, cleverly combines the latter two. Apparently, it was one of the UK’s most complained about adverts in recent years.

3. The lexical collocation ‘Fiscal cliff’ that became ubiquitous in late 2012. The direct association of the concept of a ‘cliff’ with fiscal policy gives a very definite sense of impending doom. That said, I couldn’t help but picture Wile E. Coyote poised comically in mid air.

4. The ‘Mo-Bot’, as performed by the modest, gold medal winning, middle distance runner Mo Farah is an inventive translation of an existing dance move (from the disco classic ‘YMCA’) to a sporting celebration. This youtube clip of its inception gives a great example of how we can be extra-creative, linguistically and otherwise, in groups.

5. House hunting in London I came across the following combination of a block of apartments with what looks like a petrol station forecourt. It’s certainly a creative bit of architecture, but I’m not sure I would want to live there.

6. Finally, this clever, funny, slightly left-field mash-up of the 1980’s British children’s television character Bungle and the Spielberg film classic, Jaws. It was one of Youtube’s most watched clips of 2012, and features perhaps one of youtube’s least expected combinations.


Hume, D. (1910) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.vol. 37: Harvard Classics: P.F. Collier & Son.

Pinker, S. (1999) Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.