A historical approach to English Phraseology

The use of stereotyped comparisons – exploring their origins, meanings and variations

Seminar Paper, 2008

27 Pages, Grade: 2,00


Table of contents

A.   Dealing with language: progress, understanding and exploration of the spoken and written word

B. Stereotyped comparisons in perspective: the concept, past and present form
I.   Theoretical details and functions
II.   Origins, meanings and comparing various sources
III.  Comparing in the 21st century: survey on the use of stereotyped comparisons

C. Keeping it alive:

the development and future of linguistic studies

D. Appendix

E. References

A. Dealing with language: progress, understanding and exploration of the spoken and written word

A field of study, or generally of interest, does by no means simply consist of one or two basic components and then form a large, complex construction; on the contrary: many varieties, shapes and forms are needed for any such system to function and to be fully appreciated. A very wide variety of specific requirements, ideas, theories, views etc. have always assisted and also guided the human race in its seemingly never ending thirst for power, wisdom, and above all knowledge. The simple fact of being able to read these lines is an example of such progressive steps, as is being able to interpret a painting or a creative form of architecture. One thing most people probably would not question further, since everyone is capable of it at the age of three or four, is the concept of speech. One learns at home and in school, and that is that, to put it rather bluntly. However, in time one will notice that not every person in fact uses the same capacity of speech as another person might do. This of course must not be misunderstood on a global scale, since of course there are so many different languages throughout the world. This is only meant for a certain language, in this case English. Not every English speaking person will know what it means when someone “kicked the bucket” or “bought the farm”. Did he or she really kick a bucket, or buy a farm? Of course not. But that is precisely the point. There are certain elements within the structure of a language that cannot be easily determined, certain phrases, words and especially the meanings behind such phrases or words. This particular field of study, or as Rosemarie Gläser refers to it, “a sub discipline of the linguistic system” as “an expanding field of research” (Cowie 1998: 125), contains many interesting single topics. Only defining a phraseological unit as “a lexicalized reproducible bilexemic or polylexemic word group in common use” (1998: 125) does in fact make one have a certain feeling of confusion. This definition is not exactly helpful or overall understandable. Yet when dealing with English phraseology from a functional, stylistic or a cognitive approach, many more interesting and exciting aspects appear.

This paper however will deal with a different point of view on the subject. It is rather unique and can be used for practically any subject or topic one chooses. The idea of maybe exploring the roots of Jazz music and its development, or the origin of Communism, its progression and decline throughout time are only two examples for a historical approach of a specific topic. That same approach will be applied here, focusing especially on the concept of stereotyped comparisons. It sounds like something from a brand new HiFi-stereo or video system, but in reality it is quite simple and common.

Everyone has probably been known for “eating like a pig” or being “as cute as a button”. By now it is clear what is meant. We use such phrases nearly every day without even thinking about it. Therefore the approach in a historical way will not only be interesting and entertaining, but can perhaps also provide us with more knowledge and understanding of the use, origin and development of such phrases.

The first point will deal with the concept of stereotyped comparisons as presented by Harald Burger. The respective examples given by Burger will then be analyzed and compared from a historical perspective: how far do some phrases date back, have they changed significantly over time (these two aspects will involve two different authors; G.L. Apperson and B.J. Whiting) and what is their current status in the present (this will mainly be determined by using the online version of the OED). As a last point and more hands- on exploration of the usage and common knowledge of stereotyped comparisons, a certain number of native speakers of the English language were given a brief survey on this matter, involving questions such as their native background, familiar phrases and other possible such forms known to them due to their respective family ties, dialect or background.

B. Stereotyped comparisons in perspective: the concept, past and present form

I. Theoretical details and functions

Before fully dealing with different forms of stereotyped comparisons, a simple theoretical concept for understanding the structure and nature of these kind of phrases should be given. Burger has categorized them as “Comparative phraseological units”, a special classification among others such as irreversible binomials or proverbial sayings (Burger 2007: 5). Such units usually “contain a firm comparison serving in a supportive way for either verbs or adjectives” (2007: 47). An example for each situation can easily be given. With an adjective, one could say as easy as ABC or as fast as lightning , and when using a verb, it could be to swim like a fish or to fly like a bird . This structure can be found throughout the entire ‘comparison community’. It is therefore easy to use and has no complex elements one must always be on the lookout for. To be more precise, there are only three key elements needed for a basic, logical – semantic comparison: there is of course the object of comparison, the measurement of comparison and the so-called ‘tertium comparationis’, the respective aspect the object and the measurement have in common (2007: 47). The following description might bring some light into the theoretical jungle.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As you can see, there are simpler terms for describing the nature of the comparison – system, e.g. object of comparison can also be referred to as the receiver, whereas the measurement of comparison is also known a s the sender or sponsor. Every part of the structure plays its part, even the hardly noticeable ones in brackets. In this case, the ‘signal of comparison’ ( as…as ) and an element which delivers the equation between the receiver and the sender/sponsor (here: a form of “to be”) (2007: 47). An interesting side-effect of this concept is the possible duality certain words offer.

Depending on the language, same receivers and sponsors can relate to one another through different ‘t.c.s’ , and same ‘t.c.s’ can achieve relations between different receivers and sponsors (2007: 48). The chameleon is an example which works fine in both English and German. In both languages it can be determined that a person can be as slow or flexible as chameleon or can change like a chameleon. Even both versions of using an adjective or a verb is possible in this case. So there is the option of combining and changing some meanings by intermixing them, but not by chance, but only by being logically and semantically correct. Therefore, comparisons on a phraseological level must contain lexically firm and realised forms ‘t.c.s’ and sponsors, whereas “occasional comparisons” (e.g. “You are like the sun.”) lack the t.c.-element and must then be added (2007: 48).

Gläser however has a different approach which seems more detailed, beginning with the definition of stereotyped comparisons as “unilateral adjective idioms” (Gläser 1986: 82). She also positions them within the phraseological system of the English language: they play a sort of mediating role between nominations and propositions. On the one hand, in the group of nominations, they function as adjectival phraseological units in an idiomatic way with the following construction:

as + Adj. + as (+Art.) + N.[1]

On the other hand, when using a verb in a comparison construction, e.g. to work like a slave , Gläser shifts the position to the second group of reduced propositions (with the system consisting of three groups: nominations, reduced propositions and propositions) (1986: 126-128). A simple example is the following:

as weak as a baby

The proposition here is a baby is weak. For further conclusions, or possible use in a sentence, let us assume someone stated that X is weak. Therefore, if X is weak, and a baby is weak, then X is as weak as a baby. This presents an even more simplified form then how Burger was referring to the concept. Although here it is a rather common and true statement that babies are in fact fragile or as Gläser said weak. However, there are also rather erroneous[2] comparisons either consisting of a fictional truth or of a humorous or ironic nature:

- as proud as Lucifer
- as bald as a mushroom
- as friendly as hell

Even though stereotyped comparisons often tend to produce variations of single components (sometimes even entire ‘synonym rows’ can emerge) one must be cautious: this only pertains to circumstances of synonyms out of context where there is a minimum of semantic similarity (1986: 83). The result of this is two-fold:

- a variation of the image may occur: as weak as a baby / cat / kitten / water

- or the opposite is also possible when different qualities are attributed to the same image:

- as black / dark as night
- as proud /gaudy as a peacock
- as smooth / brittle as glass

The next point brings us much closer to the aspect of the historical approach of exploring stereotyped comparisons, since there is in fact a certain portion of comparisons which originated in earlier centuries and sometimes contain nouns that hardly or never come up outside the idiom itself (1986: 84):

- ‘sandboy’: as happy as a sandboy
- ‘doornail’: as dead as a doornail
- ‘pikestaff’: as plain as a pikestaff

There are of course many more such interesting examples, but that is of course not the main focus here. The next batch of phrases however continue in the line of being part of the historical references and are still very much “alive” and in use. The most frequent use of comparative phraseological units is found in forms of alliterations. In this case there are also countless possibilities, again only few obvious examples are given (1986: 84):

- as blind as a bat
- as cool as a cucumber
- as large as life
- as thick as thieves

As one is able to categorize anything, it is also possible to do so with comparisons. They can all be split into various groups (see p. 8):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(taken from Gläser 1986: 84)

After all these various examples there is however one important point to remember. Only few stereotyped comparisons are not of literal, but figurative nature and are therefore only vaguely associated with the described image. The phrase as thick as hailstones raises the possibility of not only perhaps referring to the size, but also the quantity of the hailstones. A different situation exists in the nearly similar phrase as thick as thieves . The metaphorical use of the adjective falls right into place, since it is not meant to highlight the size and weight of the thieves’ bodies, but it alludes to the strong bond of friendship and loyalty they all have amongst themselves.

The presentation of the theories and concepts by the two authors has served as an interesting and helpful platform in order to obtain general knowledge and grasp the broad strokes of the idea behind the special aspect of stereotyped comparisons. The following point now deals with the above mentioned examples by Gläser being listed, briefly explained and put into a historical perspective, comparing their original and older forms to more up to date versions and possible variations.


[1] according to Gläser (1986: 126 – 128).

[2] containing errors; of the nature of error; incorrect, mistaken, wrong.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


A historical approach to English Phraseology
The use of stereotyped comparisons – exploring their origins, meanings and variations
University of Bamberg
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Die Arbeit handelt von den Ursprüngen, Bedeutungen und potentiellen Variationen von mehr oder minder bekannten englischsprachigen Phrasen bzw. Wendungen. Die Arbeit beleuchtet diese Aspekte aus historischer Sicht und enthält als Forschungsergebnis ebenso einen eigenen Fragebogen für befragte Muttersprachler und deren Kenntnisstand zu alten und / oder neuen solche Wendungen in der englischen Sprache.
Englisch, Sprachwissenschaften, Phrasen, Redewendungen, Vergleiche, Geschichte, Ausdruck, Ausdrücke, Bedeutung, Ursprung, Herkunft, Veränderung, Sprache, language, phrases, historisch, stereotypes, Stereotype, comparison, comparisons, meaning, origin, variation
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Jerry Paramo (Author), 2008, A historical approach to English Phraseology, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/271153


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