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Chapter 2

 

The meaning of ‘meaning’

 

 

 

SEMANTICS is traditionally defined as the study of meaning; and this is the definition which we shall initially adopt. But do all kinds of meaning fall within the scope of semantics, or only some? What is meant by ‘meaning’ in this context?

       The noun ‘meaning’ and the verb ‘mean’, from which it is derived, are used, like many other English words, in a wide range of contexts and in several distinguishable senses. For example, to take the case of the verb: of one says

 

(1)   Mary means well,

 

one implies that Mary is well-intentioned, that she intends no harm. This implication of intention would normally be lacking, however, in an utterance such as

 

(2)   That red flag means danger.

 

In saying this, one would not normally be implying that the flag had plans to endanger anyone; one would be pointing out that it is being used (in accordance with a previously established convention) to indicate that there is danger in the surrounding environment, such as a crevasse on a snowy hillside or the imminent use of explosives in a nearby quarry. Similar to the red flag use of the verb ‘mean’, in one respect at least, is its use in

 

(3)   Smoke means fire.

 

In both (2) and (3) one thing is said to be a sign of something else: from the presence of the sign , a red flag or smoke, anyone with the requisite knowledge can infer the existence of what it signifies , danger or fire, as the case may be.

       But there is also an important difference between (2) and (3). Whereas smoke is a natural sign of fire, causally connected with what it signifies, the red flag is a conventional sign of danger: it is a culturally established symbol . These distinctions between the intentional and non-intentional, on the one hand, and between what is natural and what is conventional, or symbolic, on the other, have long played a central part in theoretical investigation of meaning and continue to do so.

 

(4)   Mary means trouble

 

is ambiguous: it can be taken like (1) Mary means well or like (3) Smoke means fire . Indeed, with a little imagination it is possible to devise a context, or  scenario, in which the verb ‘mean’ in (4) Mary means trouble can be plausibly interpreted in the way that it would normally be interpreted in (2) That red flag means danger . And conversely, if we are prepared to suspend our normal ontological assumptions – i.e., our assumptions about the world – and to treat the red flag referred to in (2) as an animate being with its own will and intentions, we can no less plausibly interpret (2) in the way in which we would normally interpret (1).

       Most language-utterances, whether spoken or written, depend for their interpretation – to a greater or less degree – upon the context in which they are used. And included within the context of utterance, it must not be forgotten, are the ontological beliefs of the participants: many of these will be culturally determined and, though normally taken for granted, can be challenged or rejected.

      Let us now take yet another sense (or meaning) of the verb ‘mean’. If one says

 

(5)   ‘Soporific’ means “tending to produce sleep”,

 

one is obviously not imputing intentionality to the English word ‘soporific’. It might be argued, however, that there is an essential, tough indirect, connection between what people mean, or intend, and what the words that they use are conventionally held to mean.

       Intentionally is certainly of importance in any theoretical account that one might give of the meaning of language utterances, even if it is not a property of the words of which these utterances are composed. For the moment, let us simply note that it is the meaning of the verb ‘mean’ exemplified in (5), rather than the meaning exemplified in

 

(6)   Mary didn’t really mean she said,

 

which is of more immediate concern in linguistics.

       We have noted that the noun ‘meaning’ (and the corresponding verb ‘mean’) has many meanings. But the main point that I want to make in this section is, not so much that there are many meanings, or senses, of ‘meaning’; it is rather that these several meanings are interconnected and shade into one another in various ways. It follows that, if semantics is defined as the study of meaning, there will be many different, but intersecting, branches of semantics: philosophical semantics, psychological semantics, anthropological semantics, logical semantics, linguistics semantics, and so on.

      

 

1   POLYSEMY

 

The same morphological word may have a range of different meanings as a glance at any dictionary will reveal. Polisemy, meaning ‘many meanings’, is the name given to the study of this particular phenomenon. In a dictionary entry for any given word the meanings are listed in a particular order with the central meaning given first, followed by the most closely related meanings and with metaphorical extensions coming last. If we look up the word ‘star’, for example, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary , we find the meanings:

 

(1)   celestial body

(2)   thing suggesting star by its shape, especially a figure or object with radiating points

(3)   (in card game) additional life bought by player whose lives are lost

(4)   principal actor or actress in a company

 

       in theory, the idea of words having several meanings is straightforward; in practice there are problems, especially in relation to drawing boundary lines between words. It is not always easy to decide when a meaning has become so different from its original meaning that it deserves to be treated like a new word. The Concise Oxford Dictionary , for example, lists ‘pupil’ as having two meanings:

 

(1)   one who is taught by another, scholar

(2)   circular opening in centre of iris of eye regulating passage of light to the retina

 

Many speakers of English, however, regard these as two different words. Stated simply, the essential problem is that it is not always easy or even possible to be certain whether we are dealing with polysemy, that is, one word with several meanings, or homonymy, that is, several words with the same form.

      Normally dictionaries decide between polysemy and homonymy by referring to etymology (the origins and history of a word) when this is known, but even this rule is not foolproof because, on occasions, etymologically related words may have different spellings as in the case of ‘flower’ and ‘flour’. The simplest solution is to seek a core of meaning and any homonymous items sharing the core of meaning should be classified as polysemous.

       The phenomenon of polysemy is not restricted to full words in English. Multiplicity of meaning is a very general characteristics of language and is found in prefixes a verb, it usually means ‘reverse the action of the verb’: undo, unpack, untie, unzip. When ‘un’ precedes a noun to form a verb, it can mean ‘deprive of this noun’: ‘unhorse’, ‘unman’ (that is deprive of mainly qualities). This usage is rare in English now but previously words like ‘unbishop’, ‘unduke’, ‘unking’, unlord’ occurred. When ‘un’ precedes an adjective, it can mean ‘the opposite of’: ‘unfair’, ‘ungracious’, ‘unkind’, ‘untrue’.

 

 

2   SYNONYMY

 

Most people think of ‘synonymy’ as implying ‘having the same meaning’ but it is easy to show that synonymy is always  partial, never complete. ‘Tall’ and ‘high’ are usually given as synonyms but whilst we can have both:

 

     a tall building

and:

    a high building

we cannot have both:

     a tall boy

and:

     *a high boy

 

       We can best define synonymy by saying that it is the relationship in which two or more words are in free variation in all or most contexts. The closest we come to absolute synonymy is when the synonyms belong to different dialects as with:

 

 

 

 

 

            British usage                                          US usage

            autumn                                                 fall

            estate agent                                         realtor

            pavement                                             sidewalk

 

but even here the choice of one term rather than another indicates a regional preference. As well as regionally marked synonyms, we find synonyms which differ stylistically, in that one term may be more formal than another:

 

            die       pass on/over      kick the bucket                   decease

            steal     relieve one of      pinch/half inch                   purloin

            smell    odour               stink/pong                        effluvium

 

And, as the above items also illustrate, items which are cognitively synonymous may arouse very different emotional responses, the A list below implying less approval than the B list:

 

                 A                                             B

            conceal                                         hide

            politician                                 statesman

            stubborn                                  resolute

 

       Total synonymy, that is, the coincidence of cognitive, emotive and stylistic identity, is more of an ideal than a reality. In addition, the choice of one word rather than its synonym can have an effect on the words and phrases than can co-occur with it. Let us illustrate this briefly by listing dictionary synonyms for ‘put up with’ and ‘noise’:

 

 

            put up with                                noise

            bear                                         clamour

            brook                                       din

            endure                                     disturbance

            stand                                        sound level

            tolerate

 

All the verbs can collocate with ‘such noise’ although ‘brook’ is more likely to occur with words like ‘impertinence’, ‘offhandedness’ or ‘rudeness’. As soon as we try to substitute ‘clamour’ for ‘noise’ we meet our first problem. We can say:

 

            I can’t put up with such noise.

 

but for most native speakers:

 

            I can’t put up with such clamour.

 

is unacceptable. In addition, if we substitute ‘din’ we need to include an indefinite article ‘such a din’, and the same applies to ‘racket’. What is being stressed here is the fact that items collocate and interact. We must take levels of formality into account in selecting synonyms.

       To say that two differing sequences of language have the same meaning is to claim that they are synonymous. The term is often used carelessly. The sentences in (7) can be considered synonymous in the strictest and most precise sense of the word.

 

(7)   a.  Marian set down the football.

       b.  Marian set the football down.

 

We can claim that these two sentences really “mean the same thing,” because it is  impossible to Imagine any situation in which one of them could be used and the other could not, and because native speakers of English have no feeling that there is any subtle difference of meaning between them. But good examples like (7) are not easy to find. Consider the following pair of sentences, for instance.

 

(8)   a.  Sam is a vegetarian.

       b.  Sam doesn’t eat meat.

 

       Are these two sentences also synonymous, in the way that the sentences of (7) are? We can only answer “it depends,” which is an immediate indication of semantic trouble. The difficulty is in the word vegetarian . For most of us, being a vegetarian implies a philosophical or religious or perhaps ecological objection to the eating of meat. If  Sam doesn’t eat meat simply because he dislikes the taste, or because he can’t afford it, or because his doctor has told him not to, that is not exactly the same thing as vegetarianism. Similar subtle differences can be seen in the following pairs.

 

(9)   a.  Evelyn is a spinster.

       b.  Evelyn is not married.

(10)  a.  Christopher is a bachelor.

        b.  Christopher is not married.

 

In examples (8) to (10) a major reason for the impossibility of deciding whether the sentence pairs are synonymous or not is the problem of specifying the exact meaning for a single word. A different kind of problem is shown in the sentences of (11).

 

(11)   a.  John ate the spaghetti.

        b. The spaghetti was eaten by John.

        c. What John ate was the spaghetti.

        d. It was John who ate the spaghetti.

        e. It was the spaghetti that John ate.

        f. The spaghetti was what John ate,

        g. What John did was eat the spaghetti.

        h. It was the spaghetti which was eaten by John.

         i. What was eaten by John was the spaghetti.

 

Here the meanings of individual words are not the source of the difficulty. The words are almost the same from sentence to sentence. But are these sentences synonymous? Do they mean exactly the same thing? Let’s repeat the strictly synonymous pair of (7):

 

(12)   a.  Marian set down the football.

          b.  Marian set the football down.

 

       In (12) it is Marian who does something, and the football that something (being set down) happens to. Changing the order of the words does not change these facts. Similarly, in all the sentences of (11), it is John who acts, it is the spaghetti which undergoes the action, and the act-eating-remains constant throughout the examples. Both (11) and (12) are very different in this respect from (13), where rearrangement of the pieces creates a drastic rearrangement of events as well.

 

(13)    a.  The lion killed the water buffalo

         b.  The water buffalo killed the lion.

 

       Example (13) shows clearly that synonymy cannot be the result of just having a pair of sentences whose words are identical, although that is a characteristic of the synonymous sentences of (12). Nor, as example (11) shows, is synonymy as simple a matter as maintaining a shared set of facts about who is doing what and what is being done.

       Another aspect of the difference becomes apparent when you consider how the sentences of (11) could be used.  You will find that there are some situations in which one member of the set would be acceptable, while another would seem very odd, as shown by (14).

 

 

(14)  a.  Q:  What did John do?

             A:  John ate the spaghetti.

         b. Q:  What did John do?

             A: *The spaghetti was what John ate.[1]

No native speaker of English would accept a question/answer sequence like (14b). Contrast this with:

 

(15)   a.  Q:  What did Marian do?

              A:  Marian set down the football.

          b. Q:  What did Marian do?

              A:  Marian set the football down.

 

The solution most linguists accept involves the concept of semantic focus . Focus can be informally defined as “What the sentence is about,” and is the part of the sentence having greatest semantic importance for the speaker of writer. Certainly this does not mean that the other parts of the sentence are irrelevant, or are of no importance at all to the speaker.

 

 

3   ANTONYMY

 

This is the general term applied to the sense relation involving oppositeness of meaning. For our purposes, it will be convenient to distinguish three types of ‘oppositeness’, namely (1) implicitly graded antonyms, (2) complementarity and (3) converseness.

 

(1)   Implicitly graded antonyms refer to pairs of items such as ‘big’ and ‘small’, ‘good’ and  ‘bad’, ‘young’ and ‘old’. In other words, ‘big’, ‘good’ and ‘young’ can only be interpreted in terms of being ‘bigger’, better’ or ‘younger’ than something which is established as the norm for the comparison. Thus, when we say that one fly is bigger than another, we imply that ‘big’ is to be understood in the context of flies. This accounts for the apparent paradox of a ‘big fly’ being smaller than a ‘small dog’ because ‘small’ in the latter context means ‘small when compared with other dogs’.

       In English, the larger item of the pair is the unmarked or neutral member. Thus we can ask:

 

            How big is it?

            How old is he?

            How wide is the river?

 

without implying that the subject is either  ‘big’, ‘old’ or ‘wide’. Such questions are unbiased or open with regard to the expectations of the enquirer. On the other hand, to ask:

 

            How small is it?

 

does prejudge the matter, claiming that it is indeed small. There is nothing universal about the larger member of the pair being the neutral member. In Japanese, for example, one would ask the equivalent of:

 

            How thin is it?

 

when an English speaker would have to ask:

 

            How thick is it?

 

(2)   Complementarity refers to the existence of such pairs as ‘male’ and ‘female’. It is characteristic of such pairs that the denial of one implies the assertion of the other. Thus if one is not male, then one is certainly female. Notice the difference between graded antonyms of the ‘good’/’bad’ type and complementary pairs. To say:

 

            John is not single.

implies:

            John is married.

 

but to say:

            John is not bad.

does not imply:

            John is good

 

In certain contexts, the following can be complementary pairs:

 

food                             drink

land                             sea

transitive                     intransitive

warm blooded              cold blooded

 

Related to complementary sets are sets of terms like colors or numbers where the assertion of one member implies the negation of all the others. Thus, if we have a set such as: green, yellow, brown, red, blue, to say:

 

            This is green.

 

implies that it is not yellow, brown, red or blue. In a two-term set such as (male, female), the assertion of male implies the denial of the only other term in the set. Such terms, as well as being described as ‘complementary’, are often referred to as ‘incompatible’.

 

(3)   Converseness is the relationship that holds between such related pairs of sentences as:

 

John sold it to me.

and:

      I bought it from John.

 

where SELL and BUY are in a converse relationship. English has a number of conversely related verbs and so sentence converseness is a common phenomenon:

 

      John lent the money to Peter.

      Peter borrowed the money from John.

Other frequently occurring converse verbs include:

 

      buy and sell

      push and pull

      command and serve

      give and take

      hire out  and hire

      lease and rent

      teach and learn

 

Occasionally, the same verb can be used in the conversely related pair of sentences as in:

 

      John rented the house to Peter.

      Peter rented the house from John.

 

and also:

      John married Marry.

and:

      Marry married John.

 

Sometimes, in English, we can find converse nouns corresponding to converse verbs:

 

      command         serve                master              servant

      teach                learn                teacher             pupil

      treat                 consult             doctor              patient

 

 

4   HYPONYMY

 

Hyponymy is related to complementarity and incompatibility. Whereas the relationship of implicit denial is called incompatibility, the relationship of implicit inclusion is called hyponymy. This relationship is easy to demonstrate. The colour ‘red’, for example, includes or comprehends the colours ‘scarlet’ and ‘vermilion’ just as the term ‘flower’ includes ‘daisy’, ‘forget-me-not’ and ‘’rose’. The including term and the included items are known as ‘co-hyponyms’. The assertion of a hyponym:

 

      This is a rose.

 

implies the assertion of the superordinate:

 

      This is a flower.

 

but the assertion of the superordinate does not automatically imply one specific hyponym. We can  thus say that the implicational nature of hyponymy is unilateral or works one way only.

       One of the most useful features of the principle of hyponymy is that it allows us to be as general or as specific as a particular linguistic occasion warrants, as can be seen from the following hierarchies:

 

                              plant

 

flower                     bush                             tree

 

                                    deciduous         coniferous

 

                                                pine                  fir

 

                        vegetable

 

greens               pulses                   roots                    tubers

 

cabbage spinach    peas  -   beans    carrots turnip    potatoes  -    yams

 

 

Often these hierarchical diagrams are called ‘taxonomies’. With each downward step we encounter terms of more specific meaning.

       Hyponymy is a recently invented method of indicating the relationships that can exist between words. occasionally, items have to be put into a context to see whether their relationships can best be illustrated by means of one classification rather than another. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ are co-hyponyms when considered as colours but they can be complementary in discussions about race, draughts and piano keys.

 

 

5   HYPERNYMY

 

A word is a hypernym (literally meaning ‘extra name’) if its meaning encompasses the meaning of another word of which it is a hypernym; a word that is more generic or broad than another given word.

        For example. Vehicle denotes all the things that are separately denoted by the words train, chariot, dogsled, airplane, and automobile and is therefore a hypernym of each of those words.

        A hypernymy is the opposite of a hyponym. For example, plant is hypernymic to flower whereas tulip is hyponymic to flower.

        Hypernymy is the semantic relation in which one word is the hypernym of another. Hypernymy, the relation words stand in when their extensions stand in the relation of class to subclass, should not be confused with holonymy which is the relation words stand in when the things that they denote stand in the relation of whole to part. A similar warning applies to hyponymy and meronymy.

 

 

6   MERONYMY

 

MERONYMY (from the Greek words meros = part and anoma = name) is a semantic relation concept used in linguistics. A meronym denotes a constituent part of, or a member of something. That is,

 

            X is a meronym of Y if Xs are parts of Y(s), or

            X is a meronym of Y if Xs are members of Y(s).

 

For example, ‘finger’ is a meronym of ‘hand’ because a finger is part of a hand. Similarly ‘wheel’ is a meronym of ‘auto’.

   Meronym is the opposite of HOLONYMY . A closely related concept is that of mereology, which specifically deals with part/whole relations and is used in logic. It is formally expressed in terms of first-order logic.

   Meronym means part of a whole. A word denoting a subset of what another word denotes is a hyponym.

   In knowledge representation languages, meronymy is often expressed as “part-of”

 

 

7     HOMONYMS, HETERONYMS AND HOMOGRAPHS

 

“Mine is a long sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice, looking with wonder at the Mouse’s tail, “but why do you call it sad?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

Knowing a word means knowing both its sounds (pronunciation) and its meaning. Both re crucial in determining whether words are the same or different. If  words differ in pronunciation but have the same meaning, such as sofa and couch , they are different words. Likewise, words with identical pronunciation but significantly different meanings, such as tale and tail, are also different words. Spelling is not relevant, only pronunciation. Thus, bat the animal and bat for hitting baseballs are different words because they have different meanings although they are  pronounced identically.

       Words like tale and tail are homonyms (The term homophone is sometimes used instead of homonym ). Homonyms are different words that are pronounced the same, but may or may not be spelled the same. To, too , and two are homonyms despite their spelling differences. 

       Homonyms can create ambiguity. A word or a sentence is ambiguous if it can be understood or interpreted in more than one way. The sentence

 

I’ll meet you by the bank

 

May mean “I’ll meet you by the financial institution” or “I’ll meet you by the riverside.” The ambiguity is due to the two words bank with two different meanings. Sometimes additional context can help to disambiguate the sentence:

 

            I’ll meet you by the bank, in front of the automated teller machine.

            I’ll meet you by the bank. We can go skinny-dipping.

 

       A relate concept is heteronym . Two words are heteronyms if they are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, and have different meanings. Dove the bird and dove the past tense of dive are heteronyms , as are bass, bow, lead, wind, and hundreds of others.

       Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings, such as dove the bird, and dove the past tense of dive. When homonyms are spelled the same, they are also homographs, for example bear and bear, but not all homonyms are homographs (bear and bare). On the other hand, by definition, all heteronyms ae also homographs. The following table should help sort out these confusing, over-lapping terms.

 

                                          Homonyms         Heteronyms        homographs

Pronounced identically             Yes               No          Yes/No

Spelled identically                   Yes/No         Yes           Yes

 

 

8   AMBIGUITY

 

        When two sequences are synonymous, they have a different form but a single meaning. Ambiguity is the opposite of synonymy – an ambiguous sequence is one with a single form which represents more than one meaning. For example:

 

(13)   Fighting elephants can be dangerous.

 

       There is no way to tell, by looking at sentence (13) in isolation, which of the meanings represented in (14) is intended by the speaker.

 

(14)   a.  For  someone to fight elephants can be dangerous.

         b.  Elephants which are fighting can be dangerous.

 

The importance phrase here is “in isolation.” Ambiguity in real life – either in conversation or in reading – is not likely to be met with frequently. The context of the potentially ambiguous sequence (the other sentences around it, or the real world situation in which it is used, or both) will ordinarily serve to make clear which meaning is intended. you will not usually be aware that a sentence you have heard or read in context is ambiguous, unless that fact is pointed out to you.

       The ambiguity of a sequence like (13) is due to a lack of clarity as to the functions of the various pieces of the sentence (usually referred to as its constituents). We cannot tell whether those elephants are doing the fighting themselves or are being attacked. Ambiguity can also be caused – again, in isolation – by the multiple possible meanings of a single word, as in:

 

(15)   George gave Benjamin a plane Christmas.

 

       Although a plane could be either a carpentry tool or an airplane, in real life you probably would know whether George could afford to buy something so expensive as an airplane, whether Benjamin was old enough for such a gift to be suitable, and so on. Thus the context would be sufficient to specify the meaning in the vast majority of cases.

      Like synonymy, ambiguity is found in every human language, both for single words and for longer sequences.

 

       The two properties of language just discussed, ambiguity and synonymy are not major problems in daily conversation between native speakers of the same language.

 

 

9   PRESUPPOSITION

 

The word presupposition is used in a number of different ways in the literature of philosophy, logic, and linguistics In this text the term is used somewhat loosely to refer to all those things which a native speaker of a language knows are meant by a sequence of that language, but which are not actually stated in that sequence. (You may have encountered this concept before in connection with the term logical entailment .) The example sentence in this chapter – “Even Einstein could  have solved that equation” – illustrate this property very well. It presupposes at least the following propositions:

 

  1. there was once an individual named Einstein;
  2. there exists some mathematical equation, referred to in the sentence;
  3. the equation is not very difficult;
  4. the individual named Einstein was not very good at solving equations.

 

       As used in this text, presupposition also includes the concept of the connotation of a sequence of language as understood by native speakers. The strict definition of a word is its denotation , which is usually fairly easy to provide; the connotation(s) are something else again.

      To make this cleared, let’s consider again two sentences we looked at earlier:

 

(16)   a.  Evelyn is a spinster.

          b. Christopher is a bachelor.

 

In terms of their denotations, we would say that spinster and bachelor are different in meaning only in that one refers to females and the other to males. In a strict denotational sense this is true; bachelor denotes an unmarried man, while spinster denotes an unmarried woman. When we consider the connotations, however – that is, the things that a native speaker of English is likely to know about these two words in addition to their precise definitions – it is clear that they are not so close in meaning as they seem. Sentence (16a) presupposes that there is someone named Evelyn, that this Evelyn is female, and that she is not married; (16b) presupposes that Christopher is male, and that, like Evelyn, he is not married. In addition, for most speakers of English in contemporary America, (16a) has the following presuppositions:

 

(17)     a.  Evelyn is not a young girl.

          b.  Evelyn is unmarried because she has not had the

              opportunity to marry.

          c.  People should feel sorry for Evelyn.

 

Example (16b), on the other hand, has no presuppositions regarding Christopher’s age, but does have the following presupposition:

 

(18)   Christopher is unmarried because he has not chosen to marry.

 

Needless to say, there is no presupposition that Christopher deserves our sympathy. The connotations of bachelor today involve the image of a man enjoying himself in unwedded bliss; spinster is quite different.      

       Two additional terms should be discussed under the heading of presupposition: anomaly and meaningfulness. These terms are closely related and can profitably be discussed together. Look at these sentences:

 

(19)   a.  I met a pregnant bachelor on the subway.

         b.  Phillip was attacked by his electric typewriter.

         c. There is an exceptionally exquisite unicorn in my desk drawer.

          d.  Timothy drew a square circle on the blackboard with his largest mump.

 

       We can characterize all these sentences as weird, and some as weirder than others Technically speaking, the sentences are semantically anomalous ; that is, they have something semantically wrong with them. The anomaly of (19a) comes from the fact that bachelor presupposes maleness, while the word pregnant presupposes that the individual so described is female. Sentence (19b) presupposes that a typewriter is capable of attacking someone, while (19c) presupposes that unicorns exist. All four sentences could in the narrowest sense of the word be classified as meaningless.

 

 

10   IDIOMS

 

An idiom is a group of words whose meaning cannot be explained in terms of the habitual meanings of the words that make up the piece of language. Thus ‘fly off the handle’ which means ‘lose one’s temper’ cannot be understood in terms of the meaning of ‘fly’, ‘off’ or ‘handle’. Idioms involve the non-literal use of language and they can be categorized as follows:

 

(1)   alliterative comparisons :

            dead as a dodo

            fit as a fiddle

            good as gold

 

(2)    noun phrases :

            a blind alley (route that leads nowhere, a false trail)

            a close shave (a narrow escape)

            a red letter day (a day that will never be forgotten)

 

(3)   preposition phrases :

            a sixes and sevens (unable/unwilling to agree)

            by hook or by crook (by whatever methods prove necessary)

            in for a penny, in for a pound (‘I’m involved irrespective of cost’)

 

(4)   verb + noun phrase :

            kick the bucket (die)

            pop your clogs (die)

            spill the beans (reveal a secret)

 

(5)   verb + preposition phrase :

            be in clover (be exceptionally comfortable)

            be in the doghouse (be in disagree)

            be between a rock  and a hard place (have no rooms for manocuvre)

 

(6)   verb + adverb :

            give in (yield)

            put down (kill)

            take to (like)

 

Idioms range from the semi-transparent where either the meaning can be interpreted in terms of metaphor:

 

            clip someone’s wings (reduce someone’s mobility)

 

or because one part of the idiomatic phrase is used literally:

 

            run up a bill

 

to the totally opaque:

 

            go bananas (lose one’s temper)

 

They tend to be relatively fixed with regard to number:

 

            spill the beans     and not      *spill the bean 

 

the use of determiners:

 

            a dead duck  and not    *the/that dead duck

 

the use of comparatives and superlatives:

 

            good as gold    and not    *better than gold

            red tape    and not    *reddest tape

 

word order:

 

            hale and hearty   and not    *hearty and hale

 

the use of passives:

 

            They buried the hatchet    and not    *The hatchet was

            buried

            He spilt the beans    and not     *The beans were spilt

 

There is a tendency for the more transparent idioms to allow some change:

 

            run up a bill    and    run up an enormous bill

 

but:

 

            kick the bucket            and not   *kick the enormous bucket

 

 

and there is a marked tendency for a few colours – black, blue, green, red and white – to be used idiomatically:

 

            a blackmail                  a blue moon                    

           a red herring                a white elephant

 

Idioms differ according to region and according to formality. They are more frequently found in speech than in writing and, because they are both hackneyed and imprecise, they are best avoided in formal contexts. Idioms are a marked example of non-literal use of language and, although they occur in all languages, they can rarely be translated from one language to another.

               

 



[1] An asterisk before a sentence is used in linguistics to indicate that this is not an acceptable sequence of English.

Mon, 16 May 2011 @12:11

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