Idiom

can of worms

kick the bucket

Idiom [id-ee-uhm] (Latin: idioma, ‘special property’) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made. There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language.

In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality; yet the matter remains debated. Linguist John Saeed defines an ‘idiom’ as words collocated that became affixed to each other until metamorphosing into a fossilised term. This collocation—words commonly used in a group—redefines each component word in the word-group and becomes an idiomatic expression. The words develop a specialized meaning as an entity, as an idiom.

Moreover, an idiom is an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply. The idiom ‘beating around the bush’ means to hint or discuss obliquely; nobody is literally beating any person or thing, and the bush is a metaphor. When a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before. Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated into another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.

In the English expression ‘to kick the bucket,’ a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression’s true meaning: to die. Although this idiomatic phrase can, in fact, actually refer to kicking a bucket, native speakers of English rarely use it so. Cases like this are ‘opaque idioms.’ Literal translation (word-by-word) of opaque idioms will not convey the same meaning in other languages – an analogous expression in Polish is translated as ‘to kick the calendar.’ In Bulgarian the closest analogous phrase is translated as ‘to kick the bell’; in Dutch, ‘to lay the piece of lead’; Finnish, ‘to kick nothing’; French, ‘to eat dandelions by the root’; Spanish, ‘to stretch the foot’; German, ‘to give the spoon away’; Portuguese, ‘to beat the boots’; Danish, ‘to take off the clogs’; Swedish, ‘to fall off the stick’; and in Greek, ‘to shake the horse-shoes.’

In Brazil, the expression ‘to kick the bucket’ has a completely different meaning (to give up on a difficult task, since a person coming to the end of their patience might kick a bucket in frustration).

Some idioms, in contrast, are ‘transparent idioms’: much of their meaning does get through if they are taken (or translated) literally. For example, ‘lay one’s cards on the table’ meaning to reveal previously unknown intentions, or to reveal a secret. Transparency is a matter of degree; ‘spill the beans’ and ‘leave no stone unturned’ are not entirely literally interpretable, but only involve a slight metaphorical broadening.

Another category of idioms is a word having several meanings, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes discerned from the context of its usage. This is seen in the (mostly un-inflected) English language in polysemes, the common use of the same word for an activity, for those engaged in it, for the product used, for the place or time of an activity, and sometimes for a verb.

Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but are assimilated, so losing their figurative senses, for example, in Portuguese, the expression ‘saber de coração’ (meaning ‘to know by heart,’ with the same meaning as in English), was shortened to ‘saber de cor,’ and, later, to the verb ‘decorar,’ meaning ‘memorize.’

An idiom is generally a colloquial metaphor —a term requiring some foundational knowledge, information, or experience, to use only within a culture, where conversational parties must possess common cultural references. Therefore, idioms are not considered part of the language, but part of the culture. As culture typically is localized, idioms often are useless beyond their local context; nevertheless, some idioms can be more universal than others, can be easily translated, and the metaphoric meaning can be deduced.

An idiom is an expression not readily analyzable from its grammatical construction or from the meaning of its component parts. It is the part of the distinctive form or construction of a particular language that has a specific form or style present only in that language. Unlike many other aspects of language, an idiom does not readily change as time passes. Some idioms gain and lose favor in popular culture, but they rarely have any actual shift in their construction. People also have a natural tendency to exaggerate what they mean sometimes, also giving birth to new idioms by accident.

Many idiomatic expressions are based upon conceptual metaphors such as ‘time as a substance,’ ‘time as a path,’ ‘love as war,’ and ‘up is more’; the metaphor is essential, not the idioms. For example, ‘spend time,’ ‘battle of the sexes,’ and ‘back in the day’ are idiomatic and based upon essential metaphors. These ‘deep metaphors’ and their relationship to human cognition are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in ‘Metaphors We Live By’ (1980).

In forms such as ‘profits are up,’ the metaphor is carried by ‘up’ itself. The phrase ‘profits are up’ is not an idiom; anything measurable can supplant ‘profits’: ‘crime is up,’ ‘satisfaction is up,’ ‘complaints are up,’ et cetera. Essential idioms generally involve prepositions, e.g. ‘out of’ and ‘turn into.’

Likewise, many Chinese characters are idiomatic constructs, since their meanings often not traceable to a literal (pictographic) meaning of their radicals. Because characters are composed from a small base of some 214 radicals, their assembled meanings follow different interpretation modes – from the pictographic to the metaphoric to those that have lost their original meanings.

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