How Do We Know What Idioms Mean?

An Amazon review of a book on cliches and idioms complained that the book only gave the meaning of the phrases, but not the origins. What good is this, the reviewer asked? Everybody knows the meaning of these everyday expressions, why write a book with only their meanings, without exploring their origins?

It is a fair question. To be fair, this particular book was an arbitrary list of phrases the authors thought were cliched or hackneyed and seemed to have no reason to exist for the snobby attitudes of its writers. However, some people may not actually understand the meanings of idioms. Even if we assume that most of us automatically know the meanings of everyday idioms and other phrases, have you ever wondered how we know? There are thousands of such idioms, and yet by the time you are a young adult you probably understood most of them.

As is clear from the meaning of the word idiom, you can't tell what they mean by the words used. They do not follow grammatical rules. They are pre-set phrases with set meanings that often seem to have little to do with each other. There are thousands of such phrases in the English language. How can we have memorized all of them? Or, did we not memorize them at all?

The fact is, you probably do not know the meaning of all idioms. For some, pass the buck may bring up visions of a dollar being passed from person to person, if not a male deer. If I thought that everybody automatically understood the definition of all English idioms, I wouldn't discuss them in any kind of depth on this site, and instead, I would concentrate on the origin of the phrase (it would be difficult to have one without the other, though). I do not assume this, however, and neither do linguists. They do wonder how people process idioms, though.

How Do We Process Idioms?

Several models have been proposed to explain how people process idioms when they hear them, the literal processing model, the lexical representation model, and the direct access model.

In the literal processing model, idioms are comprehended by first attempting to interpret the word or phrase literally, and then if no meaning becomes apparent, a stored list of idioms with figurative meanings are accessed.

The lexical representation model proposes that when we hear an idiom spoken, our minds retrieve stored idioms as soon as we hear the first word and processes both a figurative and a literal meaning, with the figurative meaning being processed first. This may be true. I often automatically know the figurative meaning of a phrase but I still flash on a literal meaning, despite myself.

The direct access model, the mind looks for a meaning in a stored list of such phrases, and if no meaning is found, a literal meaning is used, instead.

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