Why idioms, anyway? What’s so important about them?
I’ll be returning to this, I assure you. We’ll be exploring the nature of figurative language. But let’s start with this:
Well, first of all, they’re everywhere. You can’t swing a dead cat (there’s one!) without hitting an idiom, because you scarcely utter a sentence without using one. There’s no escape from using figurative language – no chance of avoiding the metaphors that suffuse our language. You could no sooner avoid idioms than you could stop breathing air.
An idiom, for the purposes of our discussion, and for that matter, the game we made to address them, is a phrase whose meaning is greater than the sum of its parts (the word idiom comes from the Greek idios, which means unique to itself). The sentence the dog sniffs the tree means just that – the components of that sentence come together to create a meaning that is exactly that sentence. An idiom like he has a chip on his shoulder has a meaning that goes beyond the literal interpretation: the subject of that sentence is irritable and willing to start a fight, not that he literally has a chip on his shoulder. It’s strange that these phrases have meanings that aren’t evident on their faces, in the same way that irregular verbs are strange: why is went the past tense of the verb to go? Why isn’t it go-ed? English has irregularities, and idioms are a part of that.
Actually, it’s the same in any language. The linguist Charles Sanders Peirce wrote that there is a trichotomy (a three-way division) in signs – that is, any unit of meaning, whether spoken or visual. Let us say that we wanted to express the idea of a muffin. There are iconic signs (like the little walking man on a traffic signal or a crossed-out cigarette on a No Smoking sign) that are meant to visually recreate or represent an object in the real world. An icon of a muffin would be the image of a muffin. There are indexical signs, which are related to the things they’re meant to signify, but are not literal representations thereof – a bird might be represented by a feather or a nest, because they’re related to birds. So an indexical sign for a muffin would be a muffin tin or a paper muffin cup, because those are related to muffins. And there are symbolic signs, which are arbitrarily linked to their objects. There’s no reason that the word we use for bird is bird. The symbolic representation of muffin is the word muffin. Does your head hurt yet?
Idiomatic language bears an indexical and sometimes symbolic relationship to its component language. Sometimes the meaning of an idiom is related to the words it contains, by way of an analogy (don’t rock the boat – don’t cause trouble. Making trouble is like rocking a boat). That’s an indexical relationship. But sometimes an idiom’s relation to its meaning is entirely arbitrary – a symbolic meaning. What does pulling my leg have to do with fooling me? On its face, absolutely nothing. But we arbitrarily ascribe meaning to it, and therefore it means what it means.
Thanks to my friend Sarah, who helped me figure this out. In her honor:
Yours in learning,