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An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be determined by the literal definition of the phrase itself, 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.

John Saeed defines an idiom as words collocated together happen to become fossilized, becoming fixed over time.[1] 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. An idiom is a group of words in which the meaning of this group is different than what would be expected. If the actual words of an idiom were understood as they appear, the entire meaning would be changed and the group of words would make no sense in its context as if it was understood as to be an idiom. When a person uses an idiom, the listener might take the actual meaning wrong if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before.[2]

An idiom is not really considered to be set in a language. They are more in one's culture.[citation needed] Idioms don't usually cross language boundaries. In some cases, when an idiom is translated into another language, the meaning of the idiom is changed or does not make any sense as it once did in another language. Idioms are probably the hardest thing for a person to learn in the process of learning a new language.[citation needed] This is because most people grow up using idioms as if their true meanings actually make sense.


[edit] Background

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. Another kind of idiom is the use of a single word to have multiple meanings, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes one meaning to be discerned from context. This can be seen in the (mostly uninflected) English language in polysemes, the common use of the same word for an ability, for those engaged in it, the product, place, or time of an activity, and sometimes for a verb.

Idioms 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. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but have been sufficiently assimilated so that their figurative senses have been lost.

[edit] Idioms and culture

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 often not useful 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.

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. 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".

Interestingly, many Chinese characters are likewise idiomatic constructs, as their meanings are more often not traceable to a literal (i.e. pictographic) meaning of their assembled parts, or radicals. Because all characters are composed from a relatively small base of about 214 radicals, their assembled meanings follow several different modes of interpretation - from the pictographic to the metaphorical to those whose original meaning has been lost in history. It may be a feature that helps everyday life.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell. Page 60.
  2. ^ Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

[edit] External links

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