Author Topic: The nature of true idioms  (Read 10232 times)

Joe Carillo

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The nature of true idioms
« on: September 05, 2009, 12:14:10 AM »
Idioms are collocations—the linguist’s term for certain common arrangements of words—that don’t translate. Every learner of a new language discovers this when he or she starts encountering its idioms. Whether a phrasal verb, an idiomatic expression, a proverb, or a euphemism, an idiom congeals into a fixed, indivisible form once established, and it loses both cogency and meaning when we attempt to express it in different terms or in a different language. For instance, the idiom “eat your heart out” (be jealous) disintegrates when we change, say, “eat” to “chew”(“chew your heart out”), “heart” to “aorta” (“eat your aorta out”), or “out” to “bits and pieces” (“eat your heart to bits and pieces”). Worse, it becomes nonsense when translated into another language, as what happens when we say it as “laklakin mo ang puso mo” in Tagalog.

These things happen because idioms are essentially metaphors that draw their communicative power from shared knowledge or experience between the speaker or writer and the audience. It’s either we know and accept an idiom or we don’t, and it would be foolhardy to use it—much less to fiddle with it—without being sure that the audience knows it, too. True idioms are embedded in the culture of most native speakers of the language, which is why nonnative speakers can’t really get proficient in another language unless they make an effort to learn its most common idioms.

We must beware, though, that not every collocation is a true idiom. For instance, the expression “spirits are up” may sound like an idiom but it really isn’t. We can actually replace its operative words—“spirits” and “up”—with other words and it would still hold and be meaningful in other ways: “spirits are down” or “spirits are low,” “energy is up” or “energy is down,” or “motivation is up” or “motivation is down.” In contrast, the phrasal verbs “turn in” (hand over), “turn out” (to prove to be), “turn off” (to cause a loss of interest), “turn over” (to overturn), and “turn down” (to reject) are true idioms, each change in preposition giving the collocation an entirely different meaning.

Indeed, the true idioms of a language share three common features that differentiate them from plain and simple collocations: (1) They are not compositional, (2) Their words are not substitutable, and (3) They are not modifiable.

An idiom is not compositional. We can’t compose or construct an idiom from the individual meanings of its component words. For instance, the idiom “take a lot of flak” (get strongly opposed or heavily criticized) draws its metaphorical power from the quandary of combat pilots whose aircraft are met by bursting shells (the “flak”) fired from anti-aircraft guns. In its current form, however, this collocation no longer has anything to do with combat pilots, flak, or aerial warfare; only the aspect of strong opposition is retained in its meaning and it has since been largely applied to serious intra-office or political disputes.

The words of an idiom are not substitutable. When a word in a true idiom is replaced with a related word or even a close synonym, the idiom collapses and loses its intended meaning. This is what happens to “take a lot of flak” when we change “take” to “sustain” and “flak” to “gunfire” to form “sustain a lot of gunfire”—a different but purely literal collocation.

An idiom is not modifiable. Changing the way the words of an idiom are put together or inflected alters its meaning or, worse, changes it beyond recognition. Imagine the semantic consequences when we modify “take a lot of flak” to, say, “get flakked a lot” or “take so much flakking”!
True idioms are meant to make ourselves quickly understood through the common knowledge and understanding we share with our audience, so it doesn’t really pay to monkey around with them.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, July 23, 2007 issue © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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« Last Edit: March 20, 2010, 04:52:51 PM by Joe Carillo »