Turn of phrase in language: origin and differences

Turn of phrase in language: origin and differences

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Turn of phrase and idioms: let’s start with a definition

A turn of phrase, or an idiom, is an expression which is proper to each language. Most of the time, you hear them in your native language and it feels natural because this is actually a way to express yourself.

Some similarities and equivalent idioms exist between different languages. You’ve certainly heard the English idiom “it’s a piece of cake” for something very easy — well you’d say, in a literal way, that it’s a child’s play in German or Spanish, but you’d have a literal translation in French.

Contrary to a proverb which has a fixed sentence, an idiom or turn of phrase can sometimes be a part of a sentence. Idioms are unpredictable and the combination of the words are hitherto unseen. Yes indeed, idioms don’t always make sense literally, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the meaning and usage of each of them. Also, an idiom is different to a colloquialism, as the latter can only be informal.

Idioms are very common. As an example, you can find about 25,000 idioms in English. They were born progressively with history and won’t always have the same connotation as before. For instance, some idioms can be very old-fashioned now! Only the elderly or your parents still like to use them.

Origin of some English idioms: when did they come into existence?

It’s a bit hard to know for sure when such an idiom emerged and why. Some linguists dedicate their time to do so but many hypotheses exist for some very particular idioms.

The word “idiom” was first recorded in use at the beginning of the 1900s. You can then suppose that most idioms were created around that time of history. Some say that the earliest known written accounts come from the United States and involve horse racing around 1902–1903. The one who “spilt the beans” was a horse who won a race, thus causing the favourites to lose. But it’s a bit more tricky than that and there is no clear-cut answer. It could also come from an ancient Greek voting process, which involved beans. People would vote by placing one of two coloured beans in a vase, white typically meaning yes and black or brown meaning no. This meant that should someone spill the beans, the secret results of the election would be revealed before intended. Hence, spilling the beans is related to revealing secret information…

But the famous English idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs” originated long before that in the U.K.— in the 1500s actually, when houses had thatched roofs. In cold and foggy weather, the cats and dogs, among other animals, would get shelter there to get warm. But when it rained really hard, some of the animals would slip off the roof and wash up in the gutters on the street. Hence the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” appeared. Many idioms had a literal meaning before and were not as figurative as today. So, most idioms are disconnected from their original roots.

Don’t worry, you can find idioms which took their origin from a far easier context. Let’s use “it’s a piece of cake” again — that one is almost self-explanatory: what’s easier than eating some cake? And it was used for the first time in the 1930s, when the American poet Ogden Nash, who wrote Primrose Path, was quoted as saying, “Life’s a piece of cake.”

In which context should they be used or avoided?

Idioms are useful to express your emotions and what you think. Most of the time, you’d use them in an informal setting. These turns of phrases allow you to reinforce an idea, as metaphors are sometimes stronger and they give you an image in some cases. For example, the idiom “as red as cherry” can illustrate how red a person can be, idioms are very illustrative! If you’re a non-native, the context in which an idiom is uttered can help you guess the meaning of it.

You can find idioms online but they are also used in written and spoken context. They are a way to help you understand a book, media, film, culture of another country in general. Indeed, all were inspired by customs and culture to give you an image of that specific country.

What are the advantages of knowing some idioms?

  • You can then assume that idioms are a proof of knowledge of another culture. They are often derived from masterpieces of literature like novels but also poems, or films.
  • They also allow you to reveal a sense of humour, a sarcastic side or off-beat humour.
  • They don’t have a semantic structure, you can play with words and different modes of combination.
  • They can be a way to avoid direct words which can hurt or that can be really informal (speaking of a health problem in an indirect way, emphasising a problem which bothers you in a polite manner, telling the truth to somebody etc).

On the contrary, what are the disadvantages?

  • Some are actually old-fashioned and shouldn’t be used, except for being sarcastic.
  • You can’t use them in academic essays, CVs, official documents or a formal setting in general. You can still use the idea of the quote but try to reformulate.
  • It’s a bit delicate to speak with idioms in a conversation with non-natives, as some can be misunderstood — but it is the opportunity to ask or a new way for how to learn English more quickly as well!
  • They are a counter to word-by-word translation, but it makes them unique in a sense!

You can check how to learn French language with some English turn of phrase examples and their differences

I listed some very informal English idioms below, that you can use with your friends and family:

ENGLISH TURN OF PHRASEFRENCH TURN OF PHRASEENGLISH IDIOM MEANINGFRENCH IDIOM MEANING
to go down the wrong roadfiler un mauvais cotongoing in a bad wayse dévergonder
spin a yarnraconter des craqueslyingraconter des mensonges
to take the mickey/the piss out of someonecharrier/ se foutre de la gueule demake fun of someonerigoler de quelqu’un
come out of the closetfaire son coming-outto reveal that someone is homosexualdire qu’on est homosexuel
tell somebody about the birds and the beesdire que les bébés ne naissent pas dans les chouxthe facts of lifeles choses de la vie
wandering eyeyeux baladeursto desire someone else although being in a relationshipdésirer une autre personne en étant en couple

These English idiomatic expressions would be a bit more formal and sound like proverbs:

ENGLISH IDIOMFRENCH IDIOMENGLISH MEANINGFRENCH MEANING
do not judge a book by its coverne pas se fier aux apparencesdon’t rely on looks when judging someonene pas juger une personne par son apparence
appetite comes with eatingl’appétit vient en mangeantto be hungry when you begin eatingavoir faim après avoir commencé à manger
to take it with a grain of saltne pas prendre quelque chose au pied de la lettrebeing scepticalavec précaution; être sceptique

Are some idioms directly translated from one language to another?

Some idioms are transparent and translated from one language to another, like “spill the beans”, “a piece of cake”, “to learn by heart” — obviously with some nuances. They are called “calques” or “loan translations”. Still, most idioms are unique and proper to a language, and you can’t translate them literally.

In fact, there are thousands of idiomatic phrases which are shared in multiple languages. They would have their proper equivalent in their own language. As a matter of fact, the phrase “to live in an ivory tower” exists in at least 35 European languages and others.

For some linguists, it is “spontaneous metaphorization” or “polygenesis”: the human experience makes you naturally connected to turn real-life experiences into the same literal constructions across your culture but also across continents and languages.

Spontaneous metaphorization can be excluded for the idiom “the tip of the iceberg” though. Equivalents exist across 40 European countries and other Asian countries like Japan, Korea, Mongolia, China and Aklanon. There, none of the speakers of the last-mentioned languages have had experiences with icebergs, but you can suppose that it is due to knowledge about common texts and of films like Titanic.

Are new idioms still created today?

Idioms are elements of language, just like new vocabulary which is added every year in a dictionary by linguists.

So, they are still created from what surrounds us — like from the series we watch. In Friends, Chandler used “let’s hug it out” to support Phoebe and end an argument with her for instance! Idioms surround us constantly!

The study of languages is a lot of fun, there are interesting words and phrases all around us. Did you know that “OK” stood as an abbreviation for all correct?

If you want to know more about languages and the origin of words, but also vocabulary and idioms, I would recommend you to check out the VocApp lessons and courses! With flashcards and images, it makes everything easier to learn English online and remember! Check this English idioms course!

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