Idioms – how to understand them
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Idioms – definition
Idioms are fixed phrases which are only meaningful as a whole.
All languages contain idiomatic phrases.
Native speakers learn them and remember them as a complete item, rather than a collection of separate words.
IDIOM MEANING a red herring a false trail raining cats and dogs raining very hard fly in the ointment spoiling the effect
Idioms often break semantic conventions and grammatical logic – as in I’ll eat my hat [I’ll be amazed if …].
The object of the verb ‘to eat’ is conventionally something edible, but as part of this idiom it is something definitely inedible.
Non-native speakers find the idiomatic side of any language difficult to grasp.
Native speakers of a language acquire idioms from a very early stage in their linguistic development.
NB! You’re getting this advice straight from the horse’s mouth.
Idioms are generally impossible to translate between languages, although some families of languages use idioms based on identical ideas.
In French, for example, the idiomatic phrase ‘mon vieux’ is parallel in its meaning with the English ‘old chap’.
Idioms very often contain metaphor, but not always. For example, ‘How do you do’ is an idiomatic greeting but it is not a metaphor.
Idioms are not always used or recognised by the whole of the language community. Sub-groups of speakers employ idioms peculiar to themselves.
Teenagers, occupational groups, leisure groups, and gender groups all employ idioms or special phrases. These will mean something within the context of the group and its communication.
Medicine I went to the GP for a check-up Sport He was caught leg-before-wicket Gender She was at her sister’s hen-party
Idiom also determines the way that certain combinations of words make meaningful statements, but not others.
For instance, we are ‘in a quandry’ but ‘at a loss’; we are ‘out of sorts’ but ‘in low spirits’; whereas the expressions ‘at a quandry’ or ‘in sorts’ would have no meaning in English.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2003
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