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Different types of classification of English idioms

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1) Phraseological units are (according to Prof. Kunin A.V.) stable word-groups with partially or fully transferred meanings (e.g. "to kick the bucket"). An idiom is a common expression that has acquired a meaning that cannot easily be understood from the ordinary meanings of the words, as in “It’s raining cats and dogs" meaning "it's raining very heavily". In modern linguistic literature there is a confusion of terms – the term “phraseological unit” was established by V.V. Vinogradov who did a lot for the theory of Phraseology in Russia. Western scholars widely use the term “idiom” but this term is applied to a certain number of phraseological units.

The characteristics of specialized phraseological expressions have been established, among other authors, by Bevilacqua (2001). The criteria for their identification include the common features established by Corpas Pastor (1996: 19-20) for the simple phraseological units: these units are institutionalized and stable expressions formed by various words, whose elements have some syntactic or semantic peculiarity.In the case of specialized phraseological units, at least one terminological unit is added, as well as its usage in a specific scope and a relevant frequency in specific texts (Bevilacqua, 2001). Phraseological units are word-groups convening a single concept (whereas in free word-groups each meaningful component stands for a separate concept).

Bengt Altenberg states that phraseology is a fuzzy part of language. It embraces the conventional rather than the productive or rule-governed side of language, involving various kinds of composite unites and “pre-patterned” expressions such as idioms, fixed phrases, collocations and proverbs.

An idiom is an expression, that is a term or phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions and the arrangement of its parts, but refers instead to a figurative meaning that is known only through common use. In linguistics idioms are widely assumed to be figures of speech that contradict the principle of compositionality; however, this has shown to be a subject of debate. It may be better to refer to idioms as John Saeed does: words collocated together happen to become fossilized, becoming fixed over time. This collocation -- words commonly used in a group -- changes the definition of each of the words that exist. As an expression, the word-group becomes a team, so to speak. That is, the collocated words develop a specialized meaning as a whole and an idiom is born e.g. He really threw me a curve when on our first date he asked if I could pay for the dinner. Note, in some cultures, when a man and a woman are courting each other, the male is traditionally the one who takes up the bill or pays the bill; however, times change and in many modern societies, a lot of couples go Dutch (yet another idiom).

In the English expression to kick the bucket, for example, a listener knowing only the meaning of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's actual meaning, which is to die. Although it can refer literally to the act of striking a specific bucket with a foot, native speakers rarely use it that way. It cannot be directly translated to other languages – for example, the same expression in Polish is kopnąć w kalendarz (to kick the calendar), with the calendar being as detached from its usual meaning as the bucket in the English phrase is. The same expression in Dutch is het loodje leggen (to lay the piece of lead), which is entirely different from the English expression, too. Other expressions include break a leg and fit as a fiddle. It is estimated that William Shakespeare coined over 9,000 idioms still in use today (the green-eyed monster –for jealosy)

Idioms hence tend to confuse those not already familiar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions the way they learn its other vocabulary. In fact many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but have been sufficiently assimilated so that their figurative senses have been lost.

An idiom is generally a colloquial metaphor — a term which requires some foundational knowledge, information, or experience, to use only within a culture where parties must have common reference. Idioms are therefore not considered a part of the language, but rather a part of the culture. As cultures are typically localized, idioms are more often not useful for outside of that local context. However some idioms can be more universally used than others, and they can be easily translated, metaphorical meaning can be more easily deduced.


The most common idioms can have deep roots, date back many centuries, and be traceable across many languages. Many have translations in other languages, and tend to become international.

While many idioms are clearly based in conceptual metaphors such as "time as a substance", "time as a path", "love as war" or "up is more", the idioms themselves are often not particularly essential, even when the metaphors themselves are. For example, "spend time", "battle of the sexes", and "back in the day" are idiomatic and based in essential metaphors, but one can communicate perfectly well with or without them. These "deep metaphors" and their relationship to human cognition are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By.

In forms like "profits are up", the metaphor is carried by "up" itself. The phrase "profits are up" is not itself an idiom. Practically anything measurable can be used in place of "profits": "crime is up", "satisfaction is up", "complaints are up" etc. Truly essential idioms generally involve prepositions, for example "out of" or "turn into".

Fixed phrases -from fixed phrases you can get the meaning by direct translating of its words, in contrary to idioms whose hidden meanings you simply have to know. Not all fixed phrases are idioms. For example, close your eyes is a common fixed phrase, but it is not an idiom, because each word in it is used in its standard meaning. The phrase keep your shirt on is an idiom, however, because the phrase does not mean “do not take off your shirt” – it means “stay calm.”

Collocation is defined as a sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.

Collocation refers to the restrictions on how words can be used together, for example which prepositions are used with particular verbs, or which verbs and nouns are used together. Collocations are examples of lexical units. Collocations should not be confused with idioms. When the expression is heard often the words become 'glued' together in our minds. 'Crystal clear', 'middle management', 'nuclear family', and 'cosmetic surgery' are examples of collocated pairs of words.

Collocations can be in a syntactic relation (such as verb-object: 'make' and 'decision'), lexical relation (such as antonymy), or they can be in no linguistically defined relation. Knowledge of collocations is vital for the competent use of a language: a grammatically correct sentence will stand out as 'awkward' if collocational preferences are violated. This makes collocation an interesting area for language teaching.

The processing of collocations involves a number of parameters, the most important of which is the measure of association, which evaluates whether the co-occurrence is purely by chance or statistically significant. Due to the non-random nature of language, most collocations are classed as significant, and the association scores are simply used to rank the results. Commonly used measures of association include mutual information, t scores, and log-likelihood.

Rather than select a single definition, Gledhil proposes that collocation involves at least three different perspectives: (i) cooccurrence, a statistical view, which sees collocation as the recurrent appearance in a text of a node and its collocates, (ii) construction, which sees collocation either as a correlation between a lexeme and a lexical-grammatical pattern, or as a relation between a base and its collocative partners and (iii) expression, a pragmatic view of collocation as a conventional unit of expression, regardless of form. It should be pointed out here that these different perspectives contrast with the usual way of presenting collocation in phraseological studies. Traditionally speaking, collocation is explained in terms of all three perspectives at once, in a continuum:

Proverbs– are sentence with stable semantics of didactic character, performing communicative function in speech.

A proverb (from the Latin proverbium), also called a byword, is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. They are often metaphorical. A proverb that describes a basic rule of conduct may also be known as a maxim. If a proverb is distinguished by particularly good phrasing, it may be known as an aphorism.

Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible (Book of Proverbs) and medieval Latin have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Europe, although almost every culture has examples of its own.

The study of proverbs is called paremiology (from Greek παροιμία - paroimía, "proverb") and can be dated back as far as Aristotle. Paremiography, on the other hand, is the collection of proverbs. Currently, the foremost proverb scholar in the United States is Wolfgang Mieder (a claim based on the fact that he has written or edited over 50 books on the subject, edits the journal Proverbium, has written innumerable articles on proverbs, and is very widely cited by other proverb scholars). Mieder defines the term proverb as follows:

"A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.” (Mieder 1985:119; also in Mieder 1993:24)

Subgenres include proverbial comparisons (“as busy as a bee”), proverbial interrogatives (“Does a chicken have lips?”) and twin formulas (“give and take”).

Another subcategory are wellerisms, named after Sam Weller from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1837). They are constructed in a triadic manner which consists of a statement (often a proverb), an identification of a speaker (person or animal) and a phrase that places the statement into an unexpected situation. Ex.: “Every evil is followed by some good,” as the man said when his wife died the day after he became bankrupt.

Yet another category of proverb is the "anti-proverb" (Mieder and Litovkina 2002). In such cases, people twist familiar proverbs to change the meaning. Sometimes the result is merely humorous, but the most spectacular examples result in the opposite meaning of the standard proverb. Examples include, "Nerds of a feather flock together", "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and likely to talk about it," and "Absence makes the heart grow wander".

A similar form is proverbial expressions (“to bite the dust”). The difference is that proverbs are uncaneable sentences, while proverbial expressions permit alterations to fit the grammar of the context.

Another close construction is an allusion to a proverb, such as "The new broom will sweep clean."

Typical stylistic features of proverbs (as Shirley Arora points out in her article, The Perception of Proverbiality (1984)) are:

alliteration (Forgive and forget)

parallelism (Nothing ventured, nothing gained)

rhyme (When the cat is away, the mice will play)

ellipsis (Once bitten, twice shy)

Internal features that can be found quite frequently include :

hyperbole (All is fair in love and war)


personification (Hunger is the best cook)

2) According to Rosemarie Glaeser, a phraseological unit is a lexicalized, reproducible bilexemic or polylexemic word group in common use, which has relative syntactic and semantic stability, may be idiomatized, may carry connotations, and may have an emphatic or intensifying function in a text.

The earliest English adaptations of phraseology are by Weinreich (1969; within the approach of transformational grammar), Arnold (1973), and Lipka (1974). In Great Britain as well as other Western European countries, phraseology has steadily been developed over the last twenty years. With regard to bibliographical publications, the voluminous bibliography by Joachim Lengert (1998-1999) is an inventory of studies on phraseology (in a wide sense) in Romance philology “from the beginning until 1997". It comprises 17,433 titles. Bibliographies of recent studies on English and general phraseology are included in Welte (1990) and specially collected in Cowie/Howarth (1996) whose bibliography is reproduced and continued on the internet and provides a rich source of the most recent publications in the field (About the principles of classification see Antrushina and other p.p.242 – 251).


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