An Online Journal of Modern Philology ISSN 1214-5505

Some functional differences between idioms and ‘single words’


Marek Havrila


The article presents a selective overview of functional and pragmatic differences between idiomatic and ‘single words’ expressions. The author focuses on differences in stylistic and cultural values, semantic implicatures, and effects on facilitation and organization of communication.

Idiomatic expressions create a significant portion of our everyday communication. Even at present modern times we use expressions whose original sense lies far away from their present communicative function. Why do we often speak of spilling the beans when we actually mean revealing a secret, or chewing the fat when we actually mean chatting and gossiping? The following pages shall offer some answers to why we sometimes use the opaque word combinations that are in apparently ´senseless´ relation to the intended purpose of our utterance. The present paper shall give a basic outline of the functional and pragmatic differences between idiomatic and transparent ´single word´ expressions.

Stylistic and cultural value of idiomatic expressions

An idiomatic unit comes into existence from a figurative expression describing situations, phenomena, or human traits that usually exceed limits of neutral perceptions. Referring to Miko (1989) and his view of idiom as an expressively more mouldable and more tangible expression than a literal naming unit, idiomatic images enable the speaker to cover sensitive pictures and phenomena hiding and mildening the unpleasant and undesired positions of everyday life expressed by linguistic means. In other words, idiomatic units can grasp the meaning of complex positions of life in a more re-fined communicative manner. Similarly, Gibbs in his Idioms and formulaic language (In: Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007) reports that people use idioms (mostly with an underlying metaphorical concept) to politely communicate subjective opinions and so in an indirect manner avoid responsibility for what is communicated. For example, under the ´guise´ of an objectively common physical situation of throwing in the towel we can indirectly communicate the negative act of giving up a fight. Thus we can use a figurative image to represent the meaning proper of an expression.

As to the cultural status of idiomatic expressions, this is reflected by the extra-linguistic motivation that offers a deeper insight into the origin of the term and provides more complex information on cultural and historical status than literal single ´words´ do. Idiom takes on an objective demonstration of the cultural origin of the expression. Consider the example of an idiomatic expression for an intensive downpour in Slovak leje ako z krhly (literally: it is pouring like from a watering can) and in English it´s raining cats and dogs.

Idioms facilitate communication

Becker (In: Wray 1998) made an observation that successful communication is often at odds with the production of novel utterances. Idiomatic and formulaic language can provide a basis for an interweaving network for embedding novel proposition, which results in the fact that a lengthy utterance is likely to contain more prefabricated frames and routine structures. Thus, one of the purposes of the use of formulaic and idiomatic structures is keeping the focus on formulation of one’s novel ideas while maintaining fluency through holistic retrieval of prefabricated complex structures from mental lexicon.

As the introductory lines imply, one of the principal goals of using formulaic and idiomatic language is to facilitate communication in the sense that idiomatic and formulaic language based on holistic processing of phenomena came to be the preferred strategy for coping with a wide range of troubles that could arise in the course of language communication. Where interaction fluency of processing complex utterances might be in danger, formulaic language is drawn upon to meet the communicational shortfall. Wray (1998:47) argues that prefabricated and holistic units are functionally used as a “way of maximising the processing space available for the novel referential and descriptive creativity that is unique to analytic language”. It is simply a natural human tendency to economize the effort of communication about recurrent human affairs through generation of stereotyped formulae and so avoid processing overload. Wray & Perkins (2000:18) say also that formulaic recurrent phenomena better suit to be communicated through idiomatic prefabricated language, because “a hearer is more likely to understand a message if it is in a form he/she has heard before, and which he/she can process without recourse to full analytic decoding”. Thus it seems that we use routine sequences as a way of minimizing the risk of mismatch between our linguistic capabilities and the information to be expressed. Similarly, Bolinger, Fillmore, Coulmas, or Sinclair propose that “we do not have to go through the labour of generating an utterance all the way out from ´S´ every time we want to say something” (Becker In: Wray 1998:63). In terms of keeping and enhancing fluency, Pawley (In: Skandera 2007) reports that some language learners attempt to gain language command fluency in that they instinctively memorize larger language chunks, and among those also formulaic and idiomatic phrases that might be useful in particular contexts. This phenomenon is not that illogical for one simple reason: idiomatic expressions or any other type of prefabricated speech structures enable the speakers to fix their attention to larger content units of the discourse. In other words, if speakers were supposed to focus on individual words as they are pronounced one by one, the desired idiomatic fluency of a native-like speech would be endangered (Nattinger and DeCarrico In: Kavka 2003).

Concentration on larger (preferably holistically processed) meaning units makes it possible for language user to use larger language chunks to communicate recurrent stereotypes of everyday life without losing time with permanent re-formulation of linguistic material. Instead, such units spare space for processing capacities for generation of completely novel analytic units describing new phenomena.

Idioms contain more meaning

Carter (1998) suggests that idioms not only facilitate communication of stereotyped phenomena and play a maintaining and stabilizing role in communication, but also allow for both, larger grammatical units to be built from their base, and modifications resulting in generation of a more creative and cognitively richer speech. According to Gibbs (1992), idioms appear to contain more meaning than roughly do their equivalent literal paraphrases. They convey more complex meaning entailments and implicatures at once than single ´word´ paraphrases could express in several sentences.

What shall we understand under ´more complex entailments and implicatures´? Following Gibbs (1997), idioms have complex meanings that seem to be motivated by independently existing lively and creative conceptual metaphors that are able to reflect the complexity of human thought better than single words can. Therefore, Gibbs refuses the assumption that idioms are dead metaphors. Many conceptual metaphors underlying idioms almost ideally encapsulate the stereotyped and recurrent patterns of experience. To elucidate the point of the difference between ´single words´ and idioms, let us compare the literal phrase to get very angry and its idiomatic counterparts such as flip your lid, blow your stack, or hit the ceiling. Encountering ´anger´ idioms, speakers / listeners infer that the cause of anger is an internal pressure, the expression of anger is unintentional, and anger ´exploded´ in an abrupt manner. However, they cannot comprehend such concepts from the phrase to get very angry. This is the reason why Gibbs says that literal expressions “do not convey the same inferences about causes, intentionality, and manner” (1992:487) as idioms do. He also adds that simple literal paraphrases of idioms are not by themselves motivated by the same set of conceptual metaphors and therefore do not possess the same kind of complex interpretations as idiomatic expressions.

We can widen our view of idiom also to other fixed expressions crutching on Baker’s assumption that encountering such expressions “conjures up in the mind of the reader or hearer all the aspects of experience which are associated with the typical contexts in which the expression is used” (Baker 2006:64). Idioms as well as other fixed expressions encapsulate the stereotyped aspects of experience. The view of broader contextual and experiential encapsulation is also supported by Gibbs (2007) arguing that idiomatic language helps the language user to remind their listeners of other related contexts more than literal phrases can. Idiomatic expressions possess a stronger capacity to retrieve mental concepts of broader contexts to be present in actual utterance, therefore their “cognitive benefits […] in providing mental shortcuts in both language production and comprehension“ (Gibbs 2007:702) of complex experiential content are irrefutable.

Idioms convey speaker’s commitment and evaluation

“The words of a language often reflect no so much of the reality of the world, but the interest of people who speak it” (Palmer In: Baker 2006:18). In other words, idiomatic figures not only express factual meaning but also convey certain evaluative aspect towards the relevant phenomenon. Expressing ideas through idioms communicates an evaluation of the situation that the speaker refers to. Miko (1989) says that the speaker puts him/herself into position of a judge of the situation. Idiomatic expressions convey a sort of aphoristic truth about the referred affairs. The speaker’s expressive commitment to the discussed matter via a figurative approximation with an emotional evaluative aspect of the phenomenon is more than a mere stating about the matter of fact. Similarly, Gibbs (In: Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007) states that speaking idiomatically conveys an interpretation and evaluation of the situation that the speaker refers to. Let us consider the idiom to skate on thin ice. The idiom conveys in itself the experiential image of movement on thin ice implying a dangerous situation. The perception of danger is strengthened through specifying the movements as intensive movement of skating, which increases the jeopardy of breaking the ice and drowning. Everybody knows that walking on thin ice is dangerous, and performing any more intensive movements on such a thin surface would be qualified (evaluated) as audacious boldness of the person about which the speaker would expresses his/her attitude.

Idioms support communication organization and textual coherence

“A traditional view of idioms and related speech formulas sees these phrases as bits and pieces of fossilized language […] speakers must learn by arbitrarily pairing each phrase to some non-literal meaning without any awareness of why these phrases mean what they do“ (Gibbs In:Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007:697). Yet Gibbs (In:Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007) also says that idiomatic expressions are not mere linguistic ornaments that facilitate social interaction, but they can be used also to enhance textual coherence and reflect fundamental patterns of human thought. Idioms have two principal organizational functions in discourse:

  • Idioms signal topic transition in conversation

Consider the following example from a conversation between a daughter and her mother where they talked about the death of someone they both knew (adapted from Drew and Holt In: Gibbs In:Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007:703):

Leslie: The vicar’s warden, anyways, he died suddenly this week, and he was still working.
Mum: Good grace.
Leslie: He was seventy-nine.
Mum: My word.
Leslie: Yes, he was.
Mum: You’ve got’s real workers down there.
Leslie: He was a, uh. Yes. Indeed, he was a buyer for the only horse hair factory left in England.
Mum: Good grace.
Leslie: He was their buyer. So he had a good innings, didn’t he?
Mum: I should say so. Yes. Marvelous.
Leslie: Anyways, we had a very good evening on Saturday.

Through the phrase he had good innings, Leslie not only summarizes the information from the prior turn, but she also refers to the whole topic of their conversation until that point. Her description also confirms that we often refer to more abstract concepts through idioms rather than through ´single words´, comparably with as if Leslie rather said only ´…he had a good life´. The idiom thematically summarizes the information discussed in the conversation and indicates the point at which one topic is terminated and subsequently moved on to another one. Idioms seem to be effective in terminating a topic because of their distinctive manner of substantiating abstract themes in concrete figures.

  • Idioms provide textual coherence

Let us consider the example of using the image of the proverb Don’t put the cart before the horse when talking about British economic problems (from The Guardian of July 1990, as cited in Moon 1998:126 In: Gibbs In:Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007:703-704):

To regard savings as the animating force in this scheme of things is to put the cart before the horse. The horse is the growth of national income, propelled by the level of spending, the harness linking horse and cart the financial system, and bringing up the rear is the cart of saving. The horse is larger the greater the level of investment, and the larger the horse the larger the cart of savings it can support.

The author applies here the surface image of putting a horse before the cart to draw out various entailments of the analogy between the proverb and the financial situation in England. In this way, the author uses a common figurative expression and its parts to provide coherence to his complex argument about an abstract topic giving it tangible features.

We can assume that the content of words can vary from one use to another. Different word combinations can carry different amounts of semantic surplus resulting in a manifold variety of surplus functions that locutors can convey into communication through their particular choices of language means. Paradoxically, more semantic surplus is conveyed by idiomatic combinations compared to literal ones. And this seems to be the reason why idiomatic expressions (often referred to as ´senseless´ combinations) make communication perfectly meaningful, easier, more appropriate and even faster. Regardless of how this is possible, the attribute ´senseless´ seems to be apparent only. Moreover, thanks to their underlying metaphorical concepts, such superficially ´senseless´ combinations (idioms) are often able to convey more meaning than their literal counterparts and so generate a more creative and cognitively richer speech.


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