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Rationale and Motivation Behind Some Idioms in English
(idioms vs clichés )
Over the years there have been various suggestions of what one should to consider an idiom, or a phraseological unit, the most common being the treatment of an idiom as an expression consisting of at least two words and having a completely or a partially transferred meaning, that is, based on a certain degree of metaphoricity (A.V. Koonin). Professor I.V. Arnold suggests that one should differentiate between idioms and set expressions, arguing that the former is always based on metaphor, which may impede understanding its meaning; the latter is a collocation in which one word with a varying degree of certainty “attracts” the other. J. Cresswell (2007), on whose work the present paper is predominantly based, chooses to regard most of the phrases we refer to as “idioms” as clichés, providing, however, no sustainable rationale behind the term and her adherence: “The usual definition of a cliché is that it is a tired, hackneyed phrase…There is no doubt that clichés can be an efficient way of getting an idea across quickly…in my view, one of the key ways of telling if something is a cliché: that it can be used thoughtlessly…It is not always thoughtlessness that leads to people using clichés. Sometimes it is because the expressions are moving from living metaphor to dead metaphor” [Cresswell, 2007:X-XI]. The author does try to differentiate between an idiom and a cliché, but is not very successful or convincing in this feat, putting forward “transparency of meaning” and “understanding” as two major criteria for an idiom: “ ‘to pull someone’s leg is an idiom, a turn of phrase in English with a meaning that is not transparent to the non-native speaker, but which every native speaker understands” [Cresswell, 2007:IX]. The claim is untenable for two reasons: first, what is transparent to one speaker, whether native or not, may not be so to another, and second, it is far from being true that every native speaker understands every single idiom, it seems to depend on their general as well as linguistic background, knowledge of the history of the language, fables, mythology and you name it. I would go as far as to say that the probing principle suggested by J. Cresswell is reversed: it is clichés that are likely to be understood by every native speaker, for the fact that they are based on trite metaphors, which is admitted by J. Cresswell, is only conducive to it. A cliché, therefore, could be defined as “an expression or idea used so often that it has lost much of its expressive force” [Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture, 1993:229]. Upholding this definition, I am likely to ask the author – can she bring in synchrony the facts that cliches are overused and have no expressive force worth speaking of and a lack of understanding their meaning on the part of native speakers? It is very unlikely, unless there is some radical problem with an average native speaker.