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If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist. Philip Johnson-Laird, 1993



Idioms are seen as one of the most interesting parts of the lexicon of a language, but the hardest to translate too. A first argument that supports this idea is the fact that they are included in the category of the most peculiar parts of the language. A second argument: they are difficult to analyze and therefore difficult to translate into another language, because of their unpredictable meaning and grammar. Moreover, not few are the cases when an idiom is a culture-specific item and this may cause even greater problems for the translator. Looking from a different perspective, idioms are the result of our life experience, the transposition in words of: events, feelings or character/physical features. The component words of idioms have acquired, inside the expression, an overall meaning that differs from the meaning they have when used individually. Despite the confusion that is sometimes made between idioms and metaphors because of their similar behavior, the meaning of an idiom goes even further, beyond the metaphorical interpretation:
The argument that the figurative meanings of idioms are not dead but metaphorically conventional suggests that people somehow have insight into the meanings and lexical makeup of these phrases. This idea seems contrary to any view that idioms are dead metaphors or that idioms are noncompositional because their individual word meanings do not contribute to the overall figurative meanings of these phrases (e.g., the words in kick the bucket do not appear to contribute to this phrase's figurative meaning of "to die").

(Glucksberg 1993:61) Throughout this chapter we shall try to catch in focus the complex anatomy of idioms, observing their typology, structure and degree of tolerance to modifications, which lead to general characteristics, and thus to their uniqueness which separates them from the other types of expressions.


Defining idioms

Defining idioms has caused contradictions among linguists, and thus several variants of definition have appeared. In her PhD thesis, Susanne Z. Riehemann mentions Nunbergs claim that a complete and exact definition of idioms is impossible to give, because idiom is a fuzzy category that is much defined by what is not an idiom as by what it is (2001:3). If we sum up all the characteristics of idioms identified so far and put them in one definition, the risk of excluding real idioms from the category is great, because not all characteristics are present in all idioms. We will now provide some of the most important definitions in idioms literature. Let us start with a general definition given by Rosamund Moon, in her book Fixed expressions and idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach:
[The idiom is] an ambiguous term, used in conflicting ways. In lay or general use, idiom has two main meanings. First, idiom is a particular means of expressing something in language, music, art, and so on, which characterizes a person or group. Secondly (and much less commonly in English), an idiom is a particular lexical collocation or phrasal lexeme, peculiar to a language. (1998:3)

Sam Glucksberg, in his book Understanding figurative language: from metaphors to idioms (2001) provides a more precise definition for the idiom, focusing on the characteristic features that separate idioms from the rest of the fixed expressions, namely the nonexistence of a connection between the meaning of individual words and the overall idiomatic meaning of the idiom:
Idioms are a subset of the fixed expressions in a language community. What sets idioms apart from other fixed expressions is their nonlogical nature, that is, the absence of any discernable relation between their linguistic meanings and their idiomatic meanings. Indeed, this characteristic of many (but not all) idioms motivates the usual definition of an idiom: a construction whose meaning cannot be derived from the meanings of its constituents. (2001:68)

In the first definition, an idiom is identified as a particular lexical collocation, but Mona Baker, in her book In Other Words, sets a clear border between idiom and collocation, based on the transparency of meaning and flexibility patterning. According to Baker, idioms

are frozen patterns of language which allow little or no variation in form and often carry meanings which cannot be deduced from their individual components. (1992:63) Another connection is made, but this time between idioms and metaphors. Oana Dugan (2003:309, online article), in her article Idioms between motivation and translation, refers to idiom as a tantamount to a phraseological fusion and claims that metaphors gave birth to idioms. Not few have been those phraseologists who sustained that idioms are degraded metaphors, and some of them still call idioms metaphors, because of their very much alike behavior. The basic characteristics of idioms, presented in most of the definitions, are useful for discovering the linguistic and semantic structure of idioms, although this is almost impossible to accomplish completely, according to many phraseologists. Andreas Langlotz (2006:2) offers a short description of the internal and external structure of idiom: a) semantic characteristics, b) ill-formed structures and c) constraints or restrictions on their lexicogrammatical behaviour (internal and external variations). These characteristics do not follow any grammatical rules. Despite the strange nature, idioms: d) are expressions that belong to the grammar of a language e) perform certain discourse-communicative functions In a nutshell, idioms are expressions with a very complex structure, due to their semantic and syntactic characteristics. All these features shall be presented in the following subchapters, in order to understand very well the way in which idioms should be analyzed before trying to translate them.


Characteristics of idioms

Now that we have established the definition of idioms we move on to their analysis, a dissection which will reveal the elements that separate idioms from the rest of the expressions. We will also see that it is not necessary for all characteristics to be met in one expression in order to be validated as an idiom. According to Giovanni B. Flores (qtd in Cacciari 1993:80), idioms have the following characteristics: frozenness and flexibility, transparency and opacity, and the list can be completed with two more: standardization and collocability, suggested by Henk Barkema (1996:127, online article).

1.3.1. Frozeness and flexibility Both frozenness and flexible terms make reference to the degree to which idioms can tolerate morphological and syntactic operations. That means that: parts of some idioms can be quantified, modified, or even omitted, lexical elements can be inserted at various points, clauses can be embedded in idiomatic phrases, and so forth. The degree to which this is possible depends on the degree of frozenness of an idiom. (Flores qtd in Cacciari 1993:80) If we take, for instance, the idiom most frequently used for such analysis kick the bucket, we can observe that it can resist modifications, to a certain degree, but these modifications trigger unwanted/unexpected consequences to the meaning of the original idiom. If we put the idiom in the passive voice the bucket was kicked by John, from the syntactic point of view is correct, but despite the grammatical correctness, the passivization operation, the way Flores calls it, changes radically the meaning of the original expression. As we will further see, the degree of modification of any kind of an idiom differs from one idiom to another. In other words, this is a very complex phenomenon and that is why it is hard to make a clear classification of idioms according to these characteristics, because some syntactic and morphological operation may be possible to almost all kinds of idioms (e.g. insertion of an auxiliary in the phrase he has kicked the bucket vs. he kicks the bucket), whereas others may be specific to only some of them. The degree of flexibility is expressed by the number and types of modifications that an idiom can tolerate. Flores also mentions a hierarchy made by Fraser (idem), according to which every idiom which occupies a certain level in this hierarchy, can tolerate all the operations that idioms below that level tolerate. The idioms tolerance to modifications increases the degree of difficulty of a translator in rendering them in the target language. Modifications can range from putting the nouns in the singular/plural (e.g. he didnt spill a single bean), the insertion of a different word, usually an adjective (e.g. bury their hatchets or bury the legal hatchet) to passivization (the cat has been let out of the bag). This characteristic (frozenness) is the one which makes possible the classification of idioms from very frozen to very flexible, but we will come back to this subject and discuss it in detail in the next subchapter. 1.3.2. Transparency and opacity The second characteristic on the list is the degree of transparency. According to this degree, idioms vary from opaque to transparent. But what is the meaning of these terms in

phraseology? These two concepts have received a different denomination from Moon (1998), namely decomposability and non-decomposability. In the case of transparent idioms we refer to those idioms whose literal meaning is available, i.e. the literal meaning can be derived from the general meaning of the idiom, without much effort. When an idiom is decomposable it means that there is a connection between parts of the meaning of the idiom and the parts of the idiom. For example, the idiom spill the beans is decomposable because a relation can be established between the meaning of the idiom and its components. Spill refers indirectly to reveal and beans means secrets. (Riehemann 2001:3) On the other side, there are the non-decomposable idioms, like kick the bucket and shoot the breeze. Here, it is hard to deduce the meaning of die from only one element of the idiom, the way we did in the previous example, because here is a one-place relation; the bucket plays no role , so the meaning is deducted from the idiom taken as a whole, not decomposed in small part and analyzed. The meaning of the idiom cannot be assigned to the individual words in the idiom. (idem) Because the meaning `die' is not associated with any of the individual words, the phrasal pattern as a whole is needed, so it can carry this meaning. Flores affirms that: Most opaque idioms are fossils in which the literal meaning is no more than a philological curiosity. (1993:80) The words that compose an idiom cannot preserve their idiomatic meaning outside of the idiom, like dint cannot occur outside of the idiom at all. A similar characterization of idioms as conventionalized complex expressions is made in Everaert et al.:
In one sense they [idioms] are complex in that they consist of more than one word; in some other sense they are units. From a broader perspective, all authors in this volume agree that these complex units are syntactic expressions that exhibit lexical co-occurrence restrictions that cannot be explained in terms of regular rule-governed syntactic or semantic restrictions. (1995:3)

The two characteristics presented above can be combined, so we can have idioms more or less frozen on the one hand, and more or less opaque on the other. The insertion of one idiom in a certain category is conditioned by the relation the meaning of individual words composing the idiom and the meaning of the idiom taken as a whole.

1.3.3. Standardization and collocability By standardization (or institutionalization) linguists understand the processes by which fixed expressions that are used in a language are standardized, i.e. they are adopted by the speakers and accepted as idioms. This characteristic is necessary for an expression to be classified as an idiom, but not sufficient. A more detailed definition of standardization is given by Fernanado & Flavell:
By the institutionalization of idiom we mean the regular association in a speech community of a given signification with a given syntactic unit (a compound, a phrase or a sentence), such that the resulting expression is interpreted nonliterally. In other words, part of the phenomenon of idiomaticity is the institutionalization of an asymmetry between sense and syntax in the case of compound, phrasal and sentential idioms. (1981:44)

On what concerns collocability, this is a characteristic that is not found in all idioms. It refers to the degree of substituting a part of the idiom (a lexical item) with an alternative term from the same class (it can be a synonym, a near-synonym or an antonym); an element will be substituted by another element that has the same grammatical category, i.e. a verb will be replaced by another verb, a noun by another noun, and so on. What the above definition is trying to say is that from the grammatical point of view, such a substitution can be accepted, but then the idiom loses its meaning, the way it happens in the case of the degree of flexibility that we have explained earlier. Let us take the examples that Barkema provided in his article Idiomaticity and terminology; A multi-dimensional descriptive model (1996, online article). These examples are taken from newspapers: but since the proof of the beer is in the drinking, we suggest that you try a can or two of authentic Draught Bass in the comfort of your home (advertisement in The Independent 23/5/1992) they therefore feel they are entitled to sing, throw plates and trip the light fandango during your act if they so choose. (Dillie Keane, Punch, 25/2/1992), A chip off the old shock (heading in The Independent, 9/5/1992; reference to Robert Hughes The Shock of the New). These examples break the rules and change the normal behavior of the original idioms the proof is in the pudding, trip the light fantastic and a chip off the old block which are collocationally closed. Still, under special circumstances replacement of some elements of closed expressions is possible, which proves the freedom that a native speaker has on what concerns his/her own language and which allows him to be original and

draw the attention of the listener/reader. In this case, the replacement followed this rule: the new form of the idiom is not a standardized one, and the alternative terms reveal actually the literal meaning of the idiom, namely the meaning outside the idiomatic context. In the end the summit and the tip refer to the same thing if we make abstraction of the idiomatic meaning of the expression and refer strictly to the non-metaphorical image the expression gives. Observing the substitutions Barkema (1996, online article) drew one conclusion: there are two types of replacements: regular and irregular. In the first case we refer to a replacement of the element in question by another element of the same class, or which is a part of the same general class. In the first case of replacement we have a regular one beer/pudding vs. eating/drinking. In the other case, we have an irregular replacement, because the alternative term is similar to the lexical item it replaces but in another way. In the second example we illustrated above, we observe that the substitution was made by a lexical item which rhymes with the original one block/shock; another explanation of a substitution may be made by a word which has the same morpheme with the original one ( fantastic/fandango). In this case the same grammatical category rule is not applied; an adjective is replaced by a noun. Henk Barkema calls this type of substitution punning.
The effect punning has on the meaning of a lexicalized expression is similar to that of variation, as in both cases the meaning is modified. However, as one lexical item is replaced by another, the extent to which pun alternants of lexicalized expressions are possible is not indicative of their flexibility. (1996, online article)

The conclusion that can be drawn is that the degree of collocability of an idiom depends on its tolerance to syntactic modifications (strictly related to the composing words), which are classified in two groups: those alternatives possible only in theory and those which are acceptable.

1.4. Classifications of idioms

1.4.1. Classification on the degree of compositionality and transparency One typology of idioms is proposed by Glucksberg and Cacciari and it is based on their degree of compositionality and semantic transparency. The two linguists sustain the idea that there is a more or less contribution of the individual words to the idiomatic meaning, which leads to the creation of several classes of idioms:

We begin with the assumption that idioms, like other occurrences of natural language, are automatically processed lexically, semantically, and syntactically. Thus, the linguistic meanings of an idiom's constituents are available to contribute to an idiom's meaning and to an idiom's syntactic and semantic flexibility. Whether linguistic meanings have any effects on such flexibility, of course, depends on the idiom type. (Glucksberg 2001:73)

The two linguists identify two types of idioms: compositional (or decomposable) and non-compositional (or non-decomposable). Each of these two categories has at its turn subcategories. In the case of compositional idioms, there is a connection between the idioms constituent words and the meaning of the idiom. The words meanings can map onto the stipulated meaning of an idiom in three ways. The first type of idioms is called compositional-opaque (Type CO) and a representative idiom of this category is kick the bucket. This idiom has been classified as being opaque because there is no relation between the idioms components and the meaning of the idiom, but the meanings of individual words nevertheless can constrain both interpretation and use (Cacciari & Glucksberg 1993:17). Nevertheless, the idiom can tolerate any modal auxiliaries or any kind of tense shift, except for the passive voice: He might kick the bucket. An interesting variation can be observed in the following example, this being possible thanks to the existence and acceptance of the literal meaning of the idiom: Speaker A: Did the old man kick the bucket last night? Speaker B: Nah, he barely nudged it. The second category contains compositional and transparent idioms (Type CT). Unlike the previous case, we notice here a semantic relation between the idioms constituents and the idioms meaning, because there are metaphorical correspondences between the two elements. Analyzing the idiom break the ice, we notice that the word break can be connected to the idea of changing the mood or feeling, while the word ice can be connected to the idea of social tension. The third type of idioms is type M, quasi-metaphorical, which conveys meaning via their allusional content. They call to mind a prototypical or stereotypical instance of an entire category of people, events, situations or actions. (Cacciari & Glucksberg 2001:75) A famous example of this kind is carry coals to Newcastle where the reference is made to the act of

bringing something to a place is already oversupplied with that something. In the same category are included metonymic phrases (Glucksberg qtd in Cacciari 1993:18) like bury the hatchet, whose idiomatic meaning comes from the original significance of the action expressed by the idiom. These types of idioms are called metaphorical because their behavior is alike with that of metaphors; the whole construction (of the idiom) makes allusion to the actual meaning, defining a concept and characterizing events, persons or objects. A different classification is made by Fernando & Flavell (qtd in Dumitrascu 2007:2), based on the degree of motivation. They have identified four categories of idioms: 1. Transparent expressions, such as to break the ice, which normally are not included in the category of idioms, but in that of free collocations, having a literal meaning obtained after the analysis of the meaning of the constituent parts; 2. Semi-transparent idioms, such as to shake on thin ice, which may be considered as metaphors that have a corresponding literal meaning; 3. Semi-opaque idioms, such as to burn ones boats, where the meaning of the idiom cannot be completely retrieved from the analysis of the constituents of the idioms meanings; 4. Opaque phrases, such as pass the buck, which are considered as pure idioms because their meaning cannot be derived from the meanings of the component words. This hierarchy offered by Fernando & Flavell is not of very much use because the boundaries between idioms and metaphors are not very clear. 1.4.2. Grammatical types and structures Predicate idioms From the structural point of view, the most frequent type of idioms is the predicate type and the following list shows a selection of the most frequent patterns presented in Moons book, Fixed expressions and idioms in English. (1998:85) Commonest structures of predicate idioms Structure Subject + predicator + object Examples x buries the hatchet x has second thoughts Subject + predicator + object + adjunct x brings y to heel x keeps tabs on y x puts x's finger on something

Subject + predicator + adjunct

x comes to grief something falls on deaf ears x sticks to x's guns x goes bust something is not x's cup of tea something is wearing thin

Subject + predicator + complement

Subject + predicator + adjunct + adjunct Subject + predicator + complement + adjunct

x comes up against a brick wall x lives from hand to mouth x is a credit to y

something is music to x's ears Subject + predicator + indirect object + direct x leads y a (merry) dance object Subject + predicator + adjunct object x teaches y a lesson x lets off steam

x throws in the towel Subject + predicator + object + catenated x makes ends meet complement Subject + predicator + object + x starts the ball rolling object x keeps x's fingers crossed x sets the record straight x has something down to a fine art x pulls xself up by x's bootstraps Nominal groups

complement Subject + predicator + object + adjunct + adjunct

Idioms functioning as nominal groups pose some problems, because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish them from noun compounds. Expressions like flash in the pan, thin end of the wedge, neck of the woods, trial and error, and blot on one's escutcheon may be classified as idioms. The reason is their complexity, caused by their syntactic defective form. They tend to be fossilized in particular clause positions or to have restrictions on colligating determiners or prepositions (Moon 1998:87). Nominal idioms can perform several functions: Functions Object or prepositional object Examples a clean sheet a free hand the straight and narrow the whys and wherefores of something a new lease of life

Object or complement

the salt of the earth Complement or prepositional object the shape (and size) of things to come a wild goose chase pie in the sky sour grapes uncharted waters, uncharted territory Predicative adjectival groups

This type is the most infrequent, most of the idioms functioning like complements being the nominal groups. The predicative adjectival idioms usually occupy a postnominal position. A few examples from this category are: alive and kicking bone idle cut and dried dressed to kill free and easy long in the tooth wet behind the ears



Before talking about variation of idioms, we must mention that each idiom has a canonical form, i.e. a form which is recognized by speakers of the language as the normal form this idioms takes, and which is used much more frequently than would be predicted from independent factors (Riehemann 2001:32). A few examples of canonical forms are: throw in the towel, call the shots and smell a rat. These forms can maintain their status of canonical even if the nouns that are contained by the idioms take a plural or singular form, or receive a definite or indefinite article.

1.5.1. Does idiom variation depend on idiom types? Due to their unstable behavior, idioms may tolerate many different kinds of variations. These variants, despite their difference in lexicon, in comparison with the original expression, are

not taken as separate expressions, with coincidentally the same meaning and with some lexis in common(Moon 1998:122); they are taken as simply variants of the same idiom, being thus all accepted as correct by the native speakers. In the following examples: champ at the bit vs. chafe at the bit and hit the roof vs. hit the ceiling, there are actually two pairs, each with an institutionalized variation, and not four individual expressions. I would claim that the use of an idiom variant is motivated by the sort of assumptions made most accessible by the encoded concepts, and the way in which these assumptions contribute to (or modify) the overall idiomatic interpretation. (Moreno 2005:419, online article) This means that several variants of the same idiom are accepted (which leads to their standardization or lexicalization) because there have been found different words that can express roughly the same thing. Therefore, replacing one part of an idiom with another word does not lead to the alteration of the overall meaning. As an answer to the issue we are dealing with in this subchapter, the degree of idiom productivity indeed depends on the degree of idiom transparency and compositionality; the more compositional and transparent an idiom is, the more tolerant it is to lexical and syntactic operations. However, the compositionality is not necessary for an idiom to tolerate modifications and not enough at the same time. This theory can be proven with a simple example given by Sam Glucksberg (2001:81), namely the idiom two left feet (=clumsiness). It is obvious that the idiom is not compositional or transparent because the three constituent words of the idiom cannot contribute individually to the overall idiomatic meaning clumsy. Despite the apparent non-compositionality and opacity, the idiom can still be productive, because the semantics of the phrase as a whole can have direct functional relations with the idiom's stipulated meaning (idem). The expression two left feet makes allusion to clumsiness knowing that in peoples mind, the left foot is associated with the inability to do things right. Making an analogy, we can experiment the productivity of the idiom, by increasing the degree of clumsiness at the same time with the increase of the number of feet. Following a logical analysis, one left foot would be normal, while three left feet would imply really clumsy. Through this example, Glucksberg illustrates a general principle that governs the idiom productivity: When one or more of an idiom's constituents bears a functional relation to the idiom's meaning, then operations such as tense marking, quantification, antonymy, and negation (among others) can be productive, provided that a plausible communicative intent can be inferred (idem). In order for a variant to be accepted it must be productive, because not all lexical or semantic modification can be grammatically correct and make sense at the same time. The

replacement of one lexical item of an idiom with another is generally due to the choice of the speaker and therefore to his intention to express something adding an extra flavor. Taking as examples the two idioms kick the bucket and spill the beans, Glucksberg considers that it is kind of difficult to imagine a native speaker use pail instead of bucket, the way it is difficult to imagine a substitution of the beans with peas. Analyzing the two idioms we see that both are able to tolerate synonym substitution of the noun, because the first is compositional and opaque, while the other is compositional and transparent. Nevertheless, the substitution makes no sense from the semantic point of view, risking thus to fail to recognize the idiom or to consider it as a mistake of the speaker/writer. The perspective changes when the speaker/writer intentionally replaces a constituent of the idiom with another, that can be acceptable both from the lexical and semantic point of view, maintaining the relation to the original meaning. For example, in pour the beans, the substitution is acceptable and is used in order to exaggerate the action, expressing the idea that secrets are revealed abundantly. In the event of categorizing the idiom as an intentional variant, the listener/reader might interpret the variant as denoting a more vigorous and egregious disclosure of information than is appropriate for the circumstances. [] the variant will be productive if there is an interpretable relation between the original constituents and their substitutes and the variant is viewed as intentional, not inadvertent. (Glucksberg 2001:82). This intention of the speaker/writer to employ such a deformed expression to obtain a certain effect brings an argument in favor of Glucksbergs theory that the idioms type does not condition the syntactic and semantic flexibility of the idiom. On what concerns the non-compositional idioms and their flexibility, the things are not very different as they can also resist variation, and in order to prove that, Glucksberg takes for analysis the idiom by and large. It is quite obvious that lexical operation is impossible in this case, that is because replacing part of the idiom with synonyms or antonyms would transform the original idiom into a meaningless expression and thus unrecognizable. Nevertheless, even an idiom as opaque as this one can be productively varied, but with an external operation, like by and not-so-large, to express disagreement with a generalization. The result of the analysis: even an opaque idiom can be varied if there are discernable relations between a modification and an idiom's original meaning and referents. (Glucksberg 2001:84) On the other level, on the syntactic one, the same principles are applied. Any syntactic operations that satisfy both the semantics and the pragmatics of an idiom's constituents and the idiom's meaning should be appropriateagain with the important

proviso that a communicative intent can be inferred. (Glucksberg 2001:85) An idiom accepts the passive voice when the attention is drawn to the grammatical object, like in despite eighteen hours of intensive questioning, not a bean was spilled or the ice was finally broken. According to Glucksberg (idem), in the case of quasi-metaphorical idioms, syntactic operations are tolerated only if these modifications are intended and this means that they must fit in the context and allow interpretation. It would be impossible even for a linguist with many years of study in this field to establish a complete list of idiom variants, because they record a variety of different forms depending on the degree of tolerance of lexical substitutions, syntactic operations and semantic productivity. As a general statement, the more compositional an idiom is the more variation it can resist. Nevertheless, compositionality is not sufficient for an idioms variation to be constrained. Syntactic operations for idioms also are constrained primarily by the semantics and pragmatics of an idiom's components and idiomatic meaning. (Cacciari 1993:20) Let us consider the same idiom kick the bucket but this time varied syntactically. Constrains to this case of variation are illustrated in the following adjectival operations suffered by the idiom. It is perfectly acceptable to say he silently kicked the bucket, because the two actions kicking and dying can be fulfilled silently, but the other example he sharply kicked the bucket is unacceptable because sharply may be accepted near the verb to kick but it cannot be associated with the verb to die too, one cannot die sharply. The operation of passivization is not accepted either, because the passive voice draws the attention upon the object of a sentence, preferably proceeded by a referent, as in: The woman had just turned the corner when she was hit by a car. If we change the word order, more precisely the place of bucket, the idiom loses its idiomatic meaning, the passive form being impossible to interpret. As a general statement, there is a relation between the semantic and lexical productivity and the degree of compositionality and transparency of an idiom; the degree of transparency of an idiom allows it to accept variations of different type. 1.5.2. Types of lexical variation Verb variation The most common variation is that which affects the verb of the idiom, thus which proving its unpredictable behavior. These variations may or may not have significant contribution to


the change of the idiomatic meaning of the newly-formed expression, so this is not a uniform phenomenon. Let us start with pairs of idioms, where the verb varies, but where there is no significant change in the meaning of the idiom. Moon (1998:125) identifies that in a few of these pairs, the alternating verbs reflect a superordinate/hyponym1 distinction: Set/start the ball rolling Throw/toss in the towel Upset/overturn the applecart

In the case of single verbs, they might be sometimes replaced by a combination like verb + particle: Lower/drop ones guard, let down ones guard Separate the sheep from the goats, sort out the sheep from the goats Step into someones shoes, fill someones shoes

The alternating verbs are generally seen as synonyms, but they may not maintain the same function in other contexts: Bend/stretch the rules Look/shoot daggers at someone Twist/wrap someone around ones little finger Nominal variation

Nominal variation is less likely to happen than verb variation and usually refers to the substitution of nouns with (near-) synonyms: A skeleton in the closet/cupboard In full flow/spate/flood The calm/lull before the storm

Sometimes between the alternant nouns a general/specific relation may be established. In the following cases, the second variation is a hyponym or a meronym2 of the first:

Hyponym= a word with a more specific meaning than another more general word of which it is an example (Mcmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners 2007)

Meronym= a word that names a part of a larger whole (


in the teeth of the wind/gale lick someones shoes/boots sing from the same song/hymn

Some nouns may be replaced by a proform3 or an empty slot: Hitch ones wagon to something, hitch ones wagon to a star Something is not worth the candle, the game is not worth the candle The wheel has come full circle, something has come full circle

The proform may be standardized like in the following examples: Pull someones leg, pull the other leg Put ones foot in it, put ones foot in ones mouth Rub someones nose in it, rub someones nose in the dirt Adjective and modifier variation The next type of variation is not very frequent, the main reason being that of the small number of adjectives in idioms in comparison with the nouns. Like in the case of nominal variation, in the second form of the idiom the component in question is replaced, usually, by a (near-) synonym: A bad/rotten apple A level/even playing field Close/near to the bone

They can cause slight differences in meaning between the two variants: Bleed someone dry/white Hard/close/hot on the heels of someone/something On a short/tight leash False variation

Proform= a word, usually a pronoun that is used in place of another word to avoid repeting it (Mcmillan Dictionary of Advanced Learners, 2007)


In the end we would like to draw the attention upon the false variation, which means that some pairs may be misleading, i.e. they seem to be the variant of one another, but in fact they are not and they have different meanings: Get ones hands dirty (get involved) vs. have dirty hands (be guilty) Fill ones boots (get something valuable) vs. fill someones boots/shoes (replace someone) Give and take (compromise) vs. give or take (approximately) On the up, on the up and up (BrE, improving) vs. on the up and up (AmE, honest)

Any operations that an idiom suffers must maintain the meaning of each element intact, and it must alter neither the relationship between an idiom's elements and the meaning of the components nor the overall idiomatic meaning. Moreover, the modification is accepted as long as it is intended and it can be interpreted in the context in which it occurs. The present chapter represents a landmark for the analysis of the idioms I will use in the case study, because we have seen both the syntactic structure of idioms, classified in three distinct categories and their semantic analysis (more precisely the semantic relation between individual meaning of the component words and the overall idiomatic meaning). Another important phenomenon related to idioms that we have seen is variation, whose occurrence is conditioned by the context in which the idiom is used and the choice of the writer/speaker.