Language Alter Ego

How are idioms created in languages?

When learning a language we face the challenge of learning idioms and set phrases. We are told that we will sound like a native by using idioms in our daily lives. However, the approach to idioms often is too superficial, we are given a list to learn by heart without tapping into the deeper significance of the chosen phrases. If we start paying more attention to a socio-cultural context in which idioms were created, we will enrich our understanding of the culture and psychology of the target language.

Idioms are figurative expressions with meanings that cannot be understood from the literal meanings of their individual words. They often carry cultural or contextual significance. Idioms can be created and evolve in languages through various processes:

  • Metaphor and Imagery: Many idioms originate from metaphors or vivid imagery. People use imaginative language to convey complex ideas or emotions in a more concise and memorable way. Example: "Spill the beans" (English) – to reveal a secret. This idiom likely originates from an ancient method of voting where beans were used to indicate a choice.
  • Cultural References: Idioms often reflect cultural, historical, or social references. They may be rooted in specific events, traditions, or stories that hold significance for a particular community. Example: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" (English) – adapt to the customs of the places you visit. This phrase has historical roots dating back to Saint Augustine.
  • Historical Events: Some idioms emerge from historical events or experiences. Over time, expressions associated with specific occurrences become embedded in the language. Example: "Crossing the Rubicon" (English) – passing a point of no return. It's based on Julius Caesar's irreversible crossing of the Rubicon River, a significant historical event.
  • Wordplay: Puns, plays on words, and linguistic creativity contribute to the formation of idioms. People enjoy using language in inventive ways, leading to the creation of expressions with double meanings. Example: "Achilles' heel" (English) – a weakness or vulnerable point. Originates from the Greek mythology of Achilles and his only vulnerable spot.
  • Slang and Colloquialisms: Informal language, including slang and colloquial expressions, can give rise to idioms. These expressions often originate in everyday conversations and gradually become widely accepted. Example: "Bite the bullet" (English) – to endure a painful experience bravely. It likely originates from the practice of having soldiers bite a bullet during surgery without anesthetic.
  • Clichés: Overused phrases or expressions can transform into idioms. Common sayings that people frequently use may take on figurative meanings over time. Example: "Time heals all wounds" (English) – suggests that painful feelings diminish over time. It started as a common saying and has become a widely accepted idiom.
  • Cultural Evolution: Languages evolve, and so do idioms. As societies change, new idioms may emerge to reflect contemporary issues, technologies, or trends. Example: "Barking up the wrong tree" (English) – pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or action. This phrase likely comes from the practice of hunting with dogs, which might mistakenly bark at the base of the wrong tree.
  • Borrowing from Other Languages: Idioms can be borrowed from other languages, especially in multicultural and multilingual environments. These expressions may be adapted or adopted into the local language. Example: "Déjà vu" (French in English) – the feeling of having already experienced the present situation. This French phrase is used in English with the same meaning.
  • Literary Influence: Authors, poets, and writers contribute to idiom creation through their literary works. Phrases from literature can enter everyday language and become idiomatic expressions. Example: "Catch-22" (English) – a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. It originates from Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22."
  • Innovation and Creativity: Language users constantly innovate, seeking fresh ways to express ideas. New idioms can emerge as people play with language and invent novel expressions. Example: "Ghosting" (English) – suddenly cutting off all contact with someone without explanation. A relatively new idiom reflecting modern dating culture and technology.

It's important to note that idioms often have specific cultural or contextual meanings, and their understanding may vary across different regions or linguistic communities. As language is dynamic, idioms continue to evolve, and new ones may arise as societies and languages change over time. And by learning the history behind idioms help us to learn how the societies change with the language.