Author Topic: The nature of true English idioms  (Read 13312 times)

Joe Carillo

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The nature of true English idioms
« on: October 04, 2017, 09:55:26 PM »
Idioms are collocations—the linguist’s term for certain common word arrangements—that don’t mean what the component words say literally. Learners of a new language discover this when they start encountering its idioms. Whether a phrasal verb, idiomatic expression, proverb, or euphemism, an idiom congeals into a fixed, indivisible form and sense 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 when it is said in Tagalog as “laklakin mo ang puso mo.”


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,” or “energy is up” or “energy 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. Today, this idiom is largely applied to serious interoffice 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.

(Next week: The need to know the English idioms)   October 12, 2017   

This essay appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the October 5, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: October 05, 2017, 07:09:06 PM by Joe Carillo »