Имя материала: Лексикология английского языка

Автор: Антрушина Галина Борисовна

Chapter 12 phraseology: word-groups with transferred meanings


Phraseological units, or idioms, as they are called by most western scholars, represent what can probably be described as the most picturesque, colourful and expressive part of the language's vocabulary.

If synonyms can be figuratively referred to as the tints and colours of the vocabulary, then phraseology is a kind of picture gallery in which are collected vivid and amusing sketches of the nation's customs, traditions and prejudices, recollections of its past history, scraps of folk songs and fairy-tales. Quotations from great poets are preserved here alongside the dubious pearls of philistine wisdom and crude slang witticisms, for phraseology is not only the most colourful but probably the most democratic area of vocabulary and .draws its resources mostly from the very depths of popular speech.

And what a variety of odd and grotesque images, figures and personalities one finds in this amazing picture gallery: dark horses, white elephants, bulls in china shops and green-eyed monsters, cats escaping from bags or looking at kings, dogs barking up the wrong tree and men either wearing their hearts on their sleeves or having them in their mouths or even in their boots. Sometimes this parade of funny animals and quaint human beings looks more like a hilarious fancy-dress ball than a peaceful picture gallery and it is really a pity that the only interest some scholars seem to take in it is whether the leading component of the idiom is expressed by a verb or a noun.

The metaphor fancy-dress ball may seem far-fetched to skeptical minds, and yet it aptly reflects a very important feature of the linguistic phenomenon under discussion: most participants of the carnival, if we accept the metaphor, wear masks, are disguised as something or somebody else, or, dropping metaphors, word-groups known as phraseological units or idioms are characterized by a double sense: the current meanings of constituent words build up a certain picture, but the actual meaning of the whole unit has little or nothing to do with that picture, in itself creating an entirely new image.

So, a dark horse mentioned above is actually not a horse but a person about whom no one knows anything definite, and so one is not sure what can be expected from him. The imagery of a bull in a china shop lies very much on the surface: the idiom describes a clumsy person (cf. with the R. слон в посудной лавке). A white elephant, however, is not even a person but a valuable object which involves great expense or trouble for its owner, out of all proportion to its usefulness or value, and which is also difficult to dispose of. The green-eyed monster is jealousy, the image being drawn from Othello1. To let the cat out of the bag has actually nothing to do with cats, but means simply "to let some secret become known". In to bark up the wrong tree (Amer.), the current meanings of the constituents create a vivid and amusing picture of a foolish dog sitting under a tree and barking at it while the cat or the squirrel has long since escaped. But the actual meaning of the idiom is "to follow a false scent; to look for somebody or something in a wrong place; to expect from somebody what he is unlikely to do". The idiom is not infrequently used in detective stories: The police are barking up the wrong tree as usual (i. e. they suspect somebody who has nothing to do with the crime).

The ambiguousness of these interesting word-groups may lead to an amusing misunderstanding, especially for children who are apt to accept words at their face value.

Little Johnnie (crying): Mummy, mummy, my auntie Jane is dead.

Mother: Nonsense, child! She phoned me exactly five minutes ago.

Johnnie: But I heard Mrs. Brown say that her neighbours cut her dead.


(To cut somebody dead means "to rudely ignore somebody; to pretend not to know or recognize him".) Puns are frequently based on the ambiguousness of idioms:


"Isn't our Kate a marvel! I wish you could have seen her at the Harrisons' party yesterday. If I'd collected the bricks she dropped all over the place, I could build a villa."


(To drop a brick means "to say unintentionally a quite indiscreet or tactless thing that shocks and offends people".)

So, together with synonymy and antonymy, phraseology represents expressive resources of vocabulary.

V. H. Collins writes in his Book of English Idioms: "In standard spoken and written English today idiom is an established and essential element that, used with care, ornaments and enriches the language." [26]

Used with care is an important warning because speech overloaded with idioms loses its freshness and originality. Idioms, after all, are ready-made speech units, and their continual repetition sometimes wears them out: they lose their colours and become trite cliches. Such idioms can hardly be said to "ornament" or "enrich the language".

On the other hand, oral or written speech lacking idioms loses much in expressiveness, colour and emotional force.

In modern linguistics, there is considerable confusion about the terminology associated with these word-groups. Most Russian scholars use the term "phraseological unit" ("фразеологическая единица") which was first introduced by Academician V. V. Vinogradov whose contribution to the theory of Russian phraseology cannot be overestimated. The term "idiom" widely used by western scholars has comparatively recently found its way into Russian phraseology but is applied mostly to only a certain type of phraseological unit as it will be clear from further explanations.

There are some other terms denoting more or less the same linguistic phenomenon: set-expressions, set-phrases, phrases, fixed word-groups, collocations.

The confusion in the terminology reflects insufficiency of positive or wholly reliable criteria by which phraseological units can be distinguished from "free" word-groups.

It should be pointed out at once that the "freedom" of free word-groups is relative and arbitrary. Nothing is entirely "free" in speech as its linear relationships are governed, restricted and regulated, on the one hand, by requirements of logic and common sense and, on the other, by the rules of grammar and combinability. One can speak of a black-eyed girl but not of a black-eyed table (unless in a piece of modernistic poetry where anything is possible). Also, to say the child was glad is quite correct, but a glad child is wrong because in Modern English glad is attributively used only with a very limited number of nouns (e. g. glad news), and names of persons are not among them.

Free word-groups are so called not because of any absolute freedom in using them but simply because they are each time built up anew in the speech process whereas idioms are used as ready-made units with fixed and constant structures.


How to Distinguish Phraseological Units from Free Word-Groups


This is probably the most discussed — and the most controversial — problem in the field of phraseology. The task of distinguishing between free word-groups and phraseological units is further complicated by the existence of a great number of marginal cases, the so-called semi-fixed or semi-free word-groups, also called non-phraseological word-groups which share with phraseological units their structural stability but lack their semantic unity and figurativeness (e. g. to go to school, to go by bus, to commit suicide).

There are two major criteria for distinguishing between phraseological units and free word-groups: semantic and structural.

Compare the following examples:


A. Cambridge don: I'm told they're inviting more American professors to this university. Isn't it rather carrying coals to Newcastle?


(To carry coals to Newcastle means "to take something to a place where it is already plentiful and not needed". Cf. with the R. В Тулу со своим самоваром.)


В. This cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool.


The first thing that captures the eye is the semantic difference of the two word-groups consisting of the same essential constituents. In the second sentence the free word-group is carrying coal is used in the direct sense, the word coal standing for real hard, black coal and carry for the plain process of taking something from one place to another. The first context quite obviously has nothing to do either with coal or with transporting it, and the meaning of the whole word-group is something entirely new and far removed from the current meanings of the constituents.

Academician V. V. Vinogradov spoke of the semantic change in phraseological units as "a meaning resulting from a peculiar chemical combination of words". This seems a very apt comparison because in both cases between which the parallel is drawn an entirely new quality comes into existence.

The semantic shift affecting phraseological units does not consist in a mere change of meanings of each separate constituent part of the unit. The meanings of the constituents merge to produce an entirely new meaning: e. g. to have a bee in one's bonnet means "to have an obsession about something; to be eccentric or even a little mad". The humorous metaphoric comparison with a person who is distracted by a bee continually buzzing under his cap has become erased and half-forgotten, and the speakers using the expression hardly think of bees or bonnets but accept it in its transferred sense: "obsessed, eccentric".

That is what is meant when phraseological units are said to be characterized by semantic unity. In the traditional approach, phraseological units have been defined as word-groups conveying a single concept (whereas in free word-groups each meaningful component stands for a separate concept).

It is this feature that makes phraseological units similar to words: both words and phraseological units possess semantic unity (see Introduction). Yet, words are also characterized by structural unity which phraseological units very obviously lack being combinations of words.

Most Russian scholars today accept the semantic criterion of distinguishing phraseological units from free word-groups as the major one and base their research work in the field of phraseology on the definition of a phraseological unit offered by Professor A. V. Koonin, the leading authority on problems of English phraseology in our country:

"A phraseological unit is a stable word-group characterized by a completely or partially transferred meaning." [12]

The definition clearly suggests that the degree of semantic change in a phraseological unit may vary ("completely or partially transferred meaning"). In actual fact the semantic change may affect either the whole word-group or only one of its components. The following phraseological units represent the first case: to skate on thin ice (@ to put oneself in a dangerous position; to take risks); to wear one's heart on one's sleeve1 (@ to expose, so that everyone knows, one's most intimate feelings); to have one's heart in one's boots (@ to be deeply depressed, anxious about something); to have one's heart in one's mouth (@ to be greatly alarmed by what is expected to happen); to have one's heart in the right place (@ to be a good, honest and generous fellow); a crow in borrowed plumes (@ a person pretentiously and unsuitably dressed; cf. with the R. ворона в павлиньих перьях); a wolf in a sheep's clothing1 (@ а dangerous enemy who plausibly poses as a friend).

The second type is represented by phraseological units in which one of the components preserves its current meaning and the other is used in a transferred meaning: to lose (keep) one's temper, to fly into a temper, to fall ill, to fall in love (out of love), to stick to one's word (promise), to arrive at a conclusion, bosom friends, shop talk (also: to talk shop), small talk.

Here, though, we are on dangerous ground because the border-line dividing phraseological units with partially changed meanings from the so-called semi-fixed or non-phraseological word-groups (marginal cases) is uncertain and confusing.

The term "idiom", both in this country and abroad, is mostly applied to phraseological units with completely transferred meanings, that is, to the ones in which the meaning of the whole unit does not correspond to the current meanings of the components. There are many scholars who regard idioms as the essence of phraseology and the major focus of interest in phraseology research.

The structural criterion also brings forth pronounced distinctive features characterizing phraseological units and contrasting them to free word-groups.

Structural invariability is an essential feature of phraseological units, though, as we shall see, some of them possess it to a lesser degree than others. Structural invariability of phraseological units finds expression in a number of restrictions.

First of all, restriction in substitution. As a rule, no word can be substituted for any meaningful component of a phraseological unit without destroying its sense. To carry coals to Manchester makes as little sense as Б Харьков со своим самоваром.

The idiom to give somebody the cold shoulder means "to treat somebody coldly, to ignore or cut him", but a warm shoulder or a cold elbow make no sense at all. The meaning of a bee in smb's bonnet was explained above, but a bee in his hat or cap would sound a silly error in choice of words, one of those absurd slips that people are apt to make when speaking a foreign language.

At the same time, in free word-groups substitution does not present any dangers and does not lead to any serious consequences. In The cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool all the components can be changed: The ship/vessel/boat carries/transports/takes/brings coal to (any port).

The second type of restriction is the restriction in introducing any additional components into the structure of a phraseological unit.

In a free word-group such changes can be made without affecting the general meaning of the utterance: This big ship is carrying a large cargo of coal to the port of Liverpool.

In the phraseological unit to carry coals to Newcastle no additional components can be introduced. Nor can one speak about the big white elephant (when using the white elephant in its phraseological sense) or about somebody having his heart in his brown boots.

Yet, such restrictions are less regular. In Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray the idiom to build a castle in the air is used in this way:

"While dressing for dinner, she built for herself a most magnificent castle in the air of which she was the mistress ..."

In fiction such variations of idioms created for stylistic purposes are not a rare thing. In oral speech phraseological units mostly preserve their traditional structures and resist the introduction of additional components.

The third type of structural restrictions in phraseological units is grammatical invariability. A typical mistake with students of English is to use the plural form of fault in the phraseological unit to find fault with somebody (e. g. The teacher always found faults with the boy). Though the plural form in this context is logically well-founded, it is a mistake in terms of the grammatical invariability of phraseological units. A similar typical mistake often occurs in the unit from head to foot (e. g. From head to foot he was immaculately dressed). Students are apt to use the plural form of foot in this phrase thus erring once more against the rigidity of structure which is so characteristic of phraseological units.

Yet again, as in the case of restriction in introducing additional components, there are exceptions to the rule, and these are probably even more numerous.

One can build a castle in the air, but also castles. A shameful or dangerous family secret is picturesquely described as a skeleton in the cupboard, the first substantive component being frequently and easily used in the plural form, as in: I'm sure they have skeletons in every cupboard! A black sheep is a disreputable member of a family who, in especially serious cases, may be described as the blackest sheep of the family.




Consider the following examples of proverbs:

We never know the value of water till the well is dry.

You can take the horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.

Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Even these few examples clearly show that proverbs are different from those phraseological units which have been discussed above. The first distinctive feature that strikes one is the obvious structural dissimilarity. Phraseological units, as we have seen, are a kind of ready-made blocks which fit into the structure of a sentence performing a certain syntactical function, more or less as words do. E. g. George liked her for she never put on airs (predicate). Big bugs like him care nothing about small fry like ourselves, (a) subject, b) prepositional object).

Proverbs, if viewed in their structural aspect, are sentences, and so cannot be used in the way in which phraseological units are used in the above examples.

If one compares proverbs and phraseological units in the semantic aspect, the difference seems to become even more obvious. Proverbs could be best compared with minute fables for, like the latter, they sum up the collective experience of the community. They moralize (Hell is paved with good intentions), give advice (Don't judge a tree by its bark}, give warning (If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before night), admonish (Liars should have good memories), criticize (Everyone calls his own geese swans).

No phraseological unit ever does any of these things. They do not stand for whole statements as proverbs do but for a single concept. Their function in speech is purely nominative (i. e. they denote an object, an act, etc.). The function of proverbs in speech, though, is communicative (i. e. they impart certain information).

The question of whether or not proverbs should be regarded as a subtype of phraseological units and studied together with the phraseology of a language is a controversial one.

Professor A. V. Koonin includes proverbs in his classification of phraseological units and labels them communicative phraseological units (see Ch. 13). From his point of view, one of the main criteria of a phraseological unit is its stability. If the quotient of phraseological stability in a word-group is not below the minimum, it means that we are dealing with a phraseological unit. The structural type — that is, whether the unit is a combination of words or a sentence — is irrelevant.

The criterion of nomination and communication cannot be applied here either, says Professor A. V. Koonin, because there are a considerable number of verbal phraseological units which are word-groups (i. e. nominative units) when the verb is used in the Active Voice, and sentences (i. e. communicative units) when the verb is used in the Passive Voice. E. g. to cross (pass) the Rubicon — the Rubicon is crossed (passed); to shed crocodile tears — crocodile tears are shed. Hence, if one accepts nomination as a criterion of referring or not referring this or that unit to phraseology, one is faced with the absurd conclusion that such word-groups, when with verbs in the Active Voice, are phraseological units and belong to the system of the language, and when with verbs in the Passive Voice, are non-phraseological word-groups and do not belong to the system of the language. [12]

It may be added, as one more argument in support of this concept, that there does not seem to exist any rigid or permanent border-line between proverbs and phraseological units as the latter rather frequently originate from the former.

So, the phraseological unit the last straw originated from the proverb The last straw breaks the camel's back, the phraseological unit birds o/ a feather from the proverb Birds of a feather flock together, the phraseological unit to catch at a straw (straws) from A drowning man catches at straws.

What is more, some of the proverbs are easily transformed into phraseological units. E. g. Don't put all your eggs in one basket > to put all one's eggs in one basket; don't cast pearls before swine > to cast pearls before swine.



I. Consider your answers to the following.


1. What do v/e mean when we say that an idiom has a "double" meaning?

2. Why is it very important to use idioms with care? Should foreign-language students use them? Give reasons for your answer.

3. The term "phraseological unit" is used by most Russian scholars. What other terms are used to describe the same word-groups?

4. How can you show that the "freedom" of free word-groups is relative and arbitrary?

5. What are the two major criteria for distinguishing between phraseological units and free word-groups?

6. How would you explain the term "grammatical invariability" of phraseological units?

7. How do proverbs differ from phraseological units?

8. Can proverbs be regarded as a subdivision of phraseological units? Give reasons for your answer.


II. What is the source of the following idioms? If in doubt consult your reference books.


The Trojan horse, Achilles heel, a labour of Hercules, an apple of discord, forbidden fruit, the serpent in the tree, an ugly duckling, the fifth column, to hide one's head in the sand.


III. Substitute phraseological units with the noun "heart" for the italicized words. What is the difference between the two sentences?


1. He is not a man who shows his feelings openly. 2. She may seem cold but she has true, kind feelings. 3.1 learned that piece of poetry by memory. 4. When I think about my examination tomorrow I feel in despair. 5. When I heard that strange cry in the darkness I was terribly afraid. 6. It was the job I liked very much. 7.1 didn't win the prize but I'm not discouraged.


IV. Show that you understand the meaning of the following phraseological units by using each of them in a sentence.


1. Between the devil and the deep sea; 2. to have one's heart in one's boots; 3. to have one's heart in the right place; 4. to wear one's heart on one's sleeve; 5. in the blues; 6. once in a blue moon; 7. to swear black is white; 8. out of the blue; 9. to talk till all is blue; 10. to talk oneself blue in the face.

V. Substitute phraseological units incorporating the names of colours for the italicized words.


1. I'm feeling rather miserable today. 2. He spends all his time on bureaucratic routine. 3. A thing like that happens very rarely. 4. You can talk till you are tired of it but I shan't believe you. 5. The news was a great shock to me. It саше quite unexpectedly. 6.1 won't believe it unless I see it in writing. 7. You can never believe what he says, he will swear anything if it suits his purpose.


VI. Read the following jokes. Why do little children often misunderstand phraseological units? Explain how the misunderstanding arises in each case.


1. "Now, my little boys and girls," said the teacher. "I want you to be very still — so still that you can hear a pin drop." For a minute all was still, and then a little boy shrieked out; "Let her drop."

2. "You must be pretty strong," said Willie, aged six to the young widow who had come to call on his mother.

"Strong? What makes you think so?"

"Daddy said you can wrap any man in town around your little finger."

3. Т о m: What would you do if you were in my shoes?

Tim: Polish them!

4. Little Girl: Oh, Mr. Sprawler, do put on your skates and show me the funny figures you can make.

Mr. Sprawler: My dear child, I'm only a beginner. I can't make any figures.

Little Girl: But Mother said you were skating yesterday and cut a ridiculous figure.


VII. Read the following jokes. Explain why the italicized groups of words are not phraseological units.




The little boy whose father was absorbed in reading a newspaper on the bench in the city park, exclaimed:

"Daddy, look, a plane!"

His father, still reading the paper, said: "All right, but don't touch it."


Great Discovery


A scientist rushed into the ops room of the space mission control centre: "You know that new gigantic computer which was to be the brain of the project? We have just made a great discovery!"

"What discovery?"

"It doesn't work!"


VIII. Explain whether the semantic changes in the following phraseological units are complete or partial. Paraphrase them.


To wear one's heart on one's sleeve; a wolf in a sheep's clothing; to fly into a temper; to stick to one's word; bosom friend; small talk; to cast pearls before swine; to beat about the bush; to add fuel to the fire; to fall ill; to fall in love; to sail under false colours; to be at sea.


IX. Say what structural variations are possible in the following phraseological units. If in doubt, consult the dictionaries.


To catch at a straw; a big bug; the last drop; to build a castle in the air; to weather the storm; to get the upper hand; to run for one's life; to do wonders; to run a risk; just the other way about.


X. Read the following jokes. Identify the phraseological units using the two major criteria: structural and semantic. What are the jokes based on?


1. He: Don't you hate people who talk behind your back?

She: Yes, especially at the movies.

2. "I'd hate to be in your shoes," said a woman yesterday, as she was quarrelling with a neighbour.

"You couldn't get in them," sarcastically remarked the neighbour.

3. Herbert: Arthur hasn't been out one night for three weeks.

Flora: Has he turned over a new leaf?

Herbert: No, he's turned over a new car.

4. Motorist: How far is it to the next town? Native: Nigh to five miles as the crow flies. Motorist: Well, how far is it if a damned crow has to walk and carry an empty gasoline can?

5. "So, she turned you down, eh?"

"Yes, I made the mistake of confessing that my heart was in my mouth when I proposed."

"What has it to do with it?"

"Oh, she said she couldn't think of marrying a man whose heart wasn't in the right place."


XI. Read the following proverbs. Give their Russian equivalents or explain their meanings.


A bargain is a bargain. A cat in gloves catches no mice. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. A good beginning is half the battle. A new broom sweeps clean. An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening. It never rains but it pours. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Make hay while the sun shines.


XII. Give the English equivalents for the following Russian proverbs.


Нет худа без добра. В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше. С глаз долой, из сердца вон. Дуракам закон не писан. Он пороху не выдумает. Слезами горю не поможешь. Поспешишь — людей насмешишь. Взялся за гуж, не говори, что не дюж.


XIII. Give the proverbs from which the following phraseological units have developed.


Birds of a feather; to catch at a straw; to put all one's eggs in one basket; to cast pearls before swine; the first blow; a bird in the bush; to cry over spilt milk; the last straw.


XIV. Read the following joke. What proverb is paraphrased in it?


Dull and morose people, says a medical writer, seldom resist disease as easily as those with cheerful disposition. The surly bird catches the germ.


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