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No generally agreed common vocabulary
Different terms used to describe identical
or very similar kinds of unit or a single
term used to denote very different
Idioms multi-word phrases whose overall
meanings are idionsyncratic and largely
unpredictable, reflecting speaker
meanings that are not derivable by
combining the literal senses of the
individual words in each phrase according
to the regular semantic rules of the
Meanings od idioms
The typical meanings of idioms are not
fully compositional.
However most idioms also have
possible, though unlikely, literal
compositional interpretations along with
their idiomatic senses. Which meaning is
intended usually depends on the context in
which the expression is used.
Let the cat out of the bag = reveal a secret
Take the bull by the horns = take charge of a
These are commonly used idioms whose usual
meanings are not fully compositional, but have
to be learned as a whole.
However, these idioms also have possible,
though rarely intended, literal compositional
Fixed expressions
There are various groups of lexical combinations on the basis of
their degree of cohesion:
1. Free combinations: their components are the freest in regard to
combining with other lexical items, NOUN murder + to analyse,
boast of, condemn, describe
2. Idioms: are relatively frozen expressions whose meanings do not
reflect the meanings of their component parts. Proverbs and sayings
differ from idioms in that they convey folk wisdom or an alleged
general truth, and they are usually more frozen than idioms.
3. Collocations: are loosely fixed combinations, e.g. to commit
(Benson et al. Lexicographic Description of English, Amsterdam:
John Benjamins, 1986)
Fixed expression
Covers several kinds of multi-word lexical item or
phraseological unit, i.e. holistic units of two or more words:
frozen collocations (e.g. in retrospect, kith and kin; a foregone
conclusion, in effect, beg the question)
grammatically ill-formed collocations (break the conventional grammatical
rules of English, e.g. by and large, stay put)
proverbs (e.g. every cloud has a silver lining; first come first served)
routine formulae (e.g. alive and well, pick and choose, you know)
sayings (include formulae such as quotations, catch-phrases, and truisms,
e.g. an eye for an eye, dont let the bastards grind you down)
similes (e.g. as good as gold, like lambs to the slaughter)

Fixed expression also subsumes idioms.
Idioms - used to refer loosely to semi-transparent and opaque metaphorical
expressions, e.g. spill the beans, burn ones candle at both ends.
Narrower uses of idiom: idiom is a unit that
is fixed and semantically opaque or
metaphorical, or not the sum of its parts
(e.g. kick the bucket, spill the beans).
Broader uses of idiom: idiom is a general
term for many kinds of multi-word item,
whether semantically opaque or not (in
this use the term idiom is equivalent to the
term fixed expression)
Idiom an ambiguous term
In lay or general use idiom has two main
1. Idiom is a particular manner of expressing
something in language, music, art, etc., which
characterizes a person or a group
Ex.: the most fantastic (performance) I have
seen in the strict idiom of the music hall
2. Idiom is a particular lexical collocation
or phrasal lexeme, peculiar to a language:
Ex.: The French translations, however, of
my English speeches were superb (except
for rare instances where the translator was
unfamiliar with some out-of-the-way
English idiom I had used).
Main factors in defining FEIs
Idiomaticity is a universal linguistic phenomenon in natural
The fundamental question - whether a string of words can be
considered a unit (i.e. free combination) or FEI
3 principal factors in trying to define fixed expressions:
1. INSTITUTIONALIZATION: the process by which a string or
formulation becomes recognized and accepted as a lexical item of
the language. The main criterion is the frequency with which the
string recurs.
Problems: most fixed expressions occur infrequently; FEIs may be
localized within certain sections of a language community, and
peculiar to certain varieties or domains; some FEIs are no longer
current in the lexicon, but were institutionalized in former times
(e.g. put ones eyes together, swim between two waters).
Main factors in defining FEIs
some degree of lexical and grammatical
defectiveness in units, f.e. with preferred lexical
realizations and often restrictions on aspect,
mood, or voice (e.g. call the shots, kith and
kin, shoot the breeze).
Problems: by no means all FEIs are fully frozen
strings. Institutionalization and fixedness are not
sufficient criteria by themselves.
Main factors in defining FEIs
3. NON-COMPOSITIONALITY*: is a semantic criterion. The meaning
arising from word-by-word interpretation of the string does not yield
the institutionalized, accepted, unitary meaning of the string (typical
cases are metaphorical FEIs). To sum up, institutionalized strings
which are grammatically ill-formed or which contain words unique to
the combination may also be considered non-compositional.
There are also cases where the string is decodable compositionally, but
the unit has a special function in discourse, f.e. proverbs, similes,
sayings. This is called pragmatic non-compositionality.
Problems: apparently holistic FEIs (spill the beans, rock the boat)
may be partly compositional in relation to syntactic structure and
metaphoricity, i.e. we understand the pertinence of the image. Thus,
non-compositionality should be intepreted as indicating that the
component lexical items may have special meanings within the
context of the FEIs, not that the meanings can never be
rationalized, nor that they are never found in other FEIs.
Main factors in defining FEIs
* COMPOSITIONALITY of meaning (term
from semantics) = the meaning of any
expression is a function of the meanings of
the parts of which it is composed.
Other criteria in defining FEIs
1. Ortography: FEIs should consist of, or be written as, 2
or more words
2. Syntactic integrity: FEIs form syntactic or
grammatical units in their own right: adjuncts (e.g.
through thick and thin), complements (e.g. long in the
tooth), nominal groups (e.g. a flash in the pan),
sentence adverbial (e.g. by and large), clauses (e.g.
dont count your chickens before theyre hatched).
3. Phonological criterion: where strings are ambiguous
between compositional and non-compositonal
interpretation, intonation may distinguish: interword
pauses and word durations are longer in literal
readings, shorter in idiomatic readings.

Criteria are variables
Institutionalization, fixedness and non-
compositionality distinguish FEIs from other strings,
but they are not present to an equal extent in all items.
Degrees of institutionalization (e.g. from very frequent of
course to fairly rare cannot cut the mustard), of
fixedness (e.g. from the completely frozen kith and kin
to the relatively flexible and variable take stick from
someone, get a lot of stick from someone, give
someone stick), and of non-compositionality (from the
opaque bite the bullet to the transparent enough is
kith and kin
a foregone conclusion
beg the question
by and large
stay put
every cloud has a silver lining
pick and choose
spill the beans
burn ones/the candle at both ends
call the shots
shoot the breeze
through thick and thin
long in the tooth
a flash in the pan
dont count your chicken before theyre hatched
cannot cut the mustard
take stick from someone/ get a lot of stick from someone/ give someone stick
bite the bullet