British English – American English: Idioms (vocabulary)


Video credit: GrammarSongs by Melissa, “Idioms Song (Idioms by Melissa)” August 12, 2013, via YouTube.

Dear All,
This post finishes the series of posts comparing vocabularies of BrE and AmE. Today I would like to discuss one of my favourite topics, phraseology. One of my course papers at the University was devoted to this doubtlessly unique subject. Phraseology (=idiomatics) is “the compilation, description, and classification of the total corpus of idioms in a language” (Bussmann, 1998, p. 534). This definition requires also explanation of what an idiom is. In fact, there is no consensus among scholars concerning the term. In Ukrainian linguistics*, for example, an idiom is understood narrowly as a type of phraseologisms the meaning of which is not obvious from the analysis of meaning of individual words forming this unit (e.g. it is not clear why “to pull someone’s leg” means to trick somebody by telling [untrue] stories). In Canadian linguistics, in turn, an idiom is often understood widely as any set phrase (= set expression = phraseological unit = idiomatic expression = colloquialism = colloquial expression) including: proverbs, sayings, and famous quotes by celebrities (e.g. No bees, no honey; no work no money). In order to avoid confusion, in my post, I am going to use the word “idiom” in its narrow (Ukrainian) meaning and the word combination “a phraseological unit” to refer to any kind of set expressions, including: proverbs, sayings, quotes by celebrities, and an idiom in its narrow meaning.

The video above provides several interesting phraseological units in English and also jokingly raises the following question: “Why must we use idioms at all?”. In spite of the humorous nature of the question I would like to try to answer it. The reason why we use idioms and other phraseological units is because they help to make  our speech more expressive and more concise. For example, in the video, we hear “this cake is out of this world”. Instead of saying that the cake is good/tasty/delicious, we use the phraseological unit to underline that it is very good. Similarly, instead of saying that it is raining heavily, the wind is strong, the sky is dark, etc., we can simply say “it is raining cats and dogs” which includes all the above; in the latter case, the set expression not only moakes speech more expressive, but also helps to achieve brevity.

Phraseological units can also tell us something about the speaker. For instance, when we hear “idem per idem” (Lat. the same for the same), “errare humanum est” (Lat. to err is human), “dum spiro spero” (Lat. while I breathe, I hope) etc., we may assume that the speaker is knowledgeable in Latin and/or highly educated. Phraseology helps to make our speech “spicier”; however, as any spice, it should be used cautiously and in moderation because it may confound our interlocutors or create an impression that the speaker wants to show off. Therefore, it is necessary to use phraseological units in the appropriate context and, perhaps, to rephrase them to make sure that interlocutors can easily understand all that is being said.

Interestingly, one of the characteristic features of phraseological units is stability. For example, we cannot say “it is raining cats and frogs”, the unit has to be reproduced exactly in its original form, i.e. “it is raining cats and dogs”. Despite this characteristic feature, there is certain variation between languages and even language varieties such as BrE and AmE. The table below compares some of the popular phraseological units which are different in BrE and AmE:

BrE

AmE

as red as beetroot (Pinnavaia, 2010; ABBY Lingvo, 2014; CDO, 2014; MW, 2014; OD, 2014)** as red as beet
to blow one’s own trumpet to blow one’s horn
a drop in the ocean a spit in the ocean = a drop in the bucket
easy game/meat easy mark
flogging a dead horse beating a dead horse
hard cheese stiff cheese
a home from home a home away from home
lie of the land lay of the land
a new lease of life a new lease on life
not to touch something with a bargepole not to touch something with a ten-foot pole
to put a spanner in the works to throw a [monkey] wrench into
to put your tuppence worth in to put your two cents in
to see the wood for the trees to see the forest for the trees
to slip on a banana skin to slip on a banana peel
a storm in a teacup a tempest in a teapot
to sweep under the carpet to sweep under the rug
to take it with a pinch of salt to take it with a grain of salt
to take the biscuit to take the cake
too many cooks spoil the broth too many cooks spoil the soup
to touch wood to knock on wood

The table above shows that despite differences in their composition most phraseological units can still be recognized easily by both BrE and AmE speakers. These differences do not set the two language varieties apart, but rather enrich them both by making them enlarging the inventory of forms for the same or similar meaning.

In conclusion, this post has provided definitions for “phraseology” and “an idiom”. It has been pointed out that phraseological units help to make our speech more expressive and concise and can help to identify a well-educated speaker. Some of the differences between popular phraseological units in BrE and AmE have been identified. Despite the available differences it should be mentioned that they do not “split” English, but rather enrich it in a unique and beautiful way. The next post is going to examine grammatical differences between BrE and AmE.

See similar posts:

  1. British English – American English: Pronunciation
  2. British English – American English: Spelling
  3. British English – American English: Education (vocabulary)
  4. British English – American English: Transportation (vocabulary)
  5. British English – American English: Clothes (vocabulary)
  6. British English – American English: Food (vocabulary)
  7. British English – American English: Miscellaneous (vocabulary)
  8. British English – American English: Units of measurement (vocabulary)
  9. British English – American English: Verbs (grammar)
  10. British English – American English: Nouns (grammar)
  11. British English – American English: Prepositions (grammar)

References
ABBYY Lingvo (2014). Retrieved March 24, 2014 from, http://www.lingvo-online.ru/en
Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.
Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) (2014). Retrieved March 21, 2014 from, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
Merriam-Webster (MW) (2014). Retrieved March 24, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/
Oxford Dictionaries (OD) (2014). Retrieved March 24, 2014, from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/
Pinnavaia, L. (2010). Sugar and spice. Exploring food and drink idioms in English. Monza, Italy:Polimetrica.

* The Ukrainian school of linguistics as well as some other European schools of linguistics were influenced to a certain extent by Viktor Vinogradov’s works in phraseology.
**These sources have been consulted here and further in this post.

Iaroslav

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15 Comments

  1. i wanna know more about english language as i am a teacher of english in one of Goma town private high school

  2. learning is the source of knowledge

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  1. British English – American English: Units of measurement (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  2. British English – American English: Education (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  3. British English – American English: Pronunciation | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  4. British English – American English: Spelling | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  5. British English – American English: Education (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  6. British English – American English: Clothes (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  7. British English – American English: Food (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  8. British English – American English: Prepositions (grammar) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  9. British English – American English: Nouns (grammar) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  10. British English – American English: Verbs (grammar) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  11. British English – American English: Units of measurement (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  12. British English – American English: Miscellaneous (vocabulary) | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS

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