Proverbs & Language

6 June 2016

By surveying four idiom dictionaries (CCDI, LDE1, LID, OD1), I collected a total of 91 expressions, selecting the units labelled as ‘British’ or without any geographical label: 69 idioms, 5 binomials, 11 similes and 6 formulae, l or each unit, I provided usage labels, when found in dictionaries (‘derogatory’, ‘euphemistic’, ‘humorous’, ‘colloquial/informal’, ‘formal’, ‘dated’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘archaic’, ‘slang’, ‘literary’). The manner of arrangement chosen to present the list of data is by- phraseological type and syntactic structure.

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Phraseology appeared in the domain of lexicology and is undergoing the process of segregating as a separate branch of linguistics. The reason is clear- lexicology deals with words and their meanings, whereas phraseology studies such collocations of words (phraseologisms, phraseological units, idioms), where the meaning of the whole collocation is different from the simple sum of literal meanings of the words, comprising a phraseological unit. F.e. ‘Dutch auction’ is not an auction taking place in Netherlands. The meaning of this phraseological unit refers to any auction, where instead of rising, the prices fall (compare “Dutch comfort”, “Dutch courage”, “Dutch treat'” reflecting complicated historical factors).

Phraseological units are (according to Prof. Kunin A.V.) stable word-groups with partially or fully transferred meanings (“to kick the bucket”, “Greek gift”, “drink till all’s blue”, “drunk as a fiddler (drunk as a lord, as a boiled owl)”, “as mad as a hatter (as a march hare)”).

According to Rosemarie Glaser, 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 cam’ connotations, and may have an emphatic or intensifying function in a text [Glaser 1998: 125].


Phraseology has attracted rapidly increasing interest from a wide range of language related disciplines (see Cowie 1998 for a comprehensive survey), which has yet to coalesce into an agreed set of terms and frameworks. It will be treated here within the ‘combination’ rather than the neo-Firthian “co-occurrence” tradition of lexicology. In other words, phraseological units are identified by means of their internal form and external function rather than being observed to emerge from texts via
automated analysis of their frequency of occurrence (see Howarth 1996, 1998),

This approach is regarded as necessary in studies focussing on stylistic features of phraseology, which inevitably require close analysis of the production of individual speakers and writers rather than the processing of large coiporaen masse.

Phraseologists no longer have to defend themselves from accusations that they are wasting their time on trivial phenomena: phraseological units of all kinds permeate everyday language use throughout all linguistic registers: in everyday speech, journalism, academic prose, literature, political or diplomatic speech and writing etc.

Phraseology plays important psychological and cultural roles in language processing and social cohesiveness. The use of phraseology can be seen to contribute to clarity of expression and ease of comprehension in formal registers, and ease of linguistic composition in spontaneous speech. The use of phraseology contributes to a socially convergent style of speech or writing. Pawley (1985) points out that «probably the large majority of customary institutions are denoted by phraseological expressions)) (101) egfront door/back door, go to church, leave school etc.

Furthermore, considered reading reveals that native language users have a high degree of awareness of the stylistic potential of phraseology and sometimes of the problems it poses, even though of course they cannot generally explain what makes it salient or problematic: for example,


Do not for that singular interval, one moment, think that I have been overlooking this new Intoxicating Liquor Bill. I am arranging to have an amendment tabled because it appears that there is absolutely nothing else you can do with an amendment.

(O’Brien, 1990: 100)


I found myself chatting in the train the other day to a distinguished-looking if somewhat pompous and long-winded man … at one point he was adumbrating a theory about the future of Europe.

‘I find it hard to lend credence to that,’ I said.

‘You will find it impossible in a year or two,’ he murmured. [… j ‘The expression will be illegal.’ He took it on himself to explain that the government department in which he works is planning to phase out all non-profit-making and unproductive phrases between now and 1992, and to make the English language streamlined and efficient.

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