The Metaphorical Motivation for Idiomatic Meaning
Adel Antoinette SZABÓ
Universitatea « Babeş-Bolyai » din Cluj-Napoca
People should have strong conventional images for many idioms. Those images are constructed on
the basis of the conceptual metaphors motivating the figurative meaning of idioms. Thus, idioms are
not “dead” metaphors with their meanings being arbitrarily determined, in many cases their
meanings being motivated by the speaker’s tacit knowledge of the conceptual metaphors underlying
the meanings of these figurative phrases.
Both in the English lexicology, and the Romanian one, idioms have been considered, for
many years, as “non-decomposable” expressions, that is, the meaning of the whole phrase could not
be deduced from the meaning of its components. Later studies proved that, on the contrary, idioms
are decomposable. The meaning of an idiom is not arbitrary, as the meaning of a word is, and its
meaning can be derived from the meaning of its components. This feature, namely, the analyzability
of idioms, is responsible for the lexical and syntactic flexibility, as well as for the semantic
productivity of idioms.
The figurative meanings of idioms may very well be motivated by people’s conceptual
knowledge that has a metaphoric basis. There are significant differences in the processing of literal
and idiomatic expressions, due to the metaphoric nature of idioms. Although, in many instances
idioms are considered dead metaphors, people make sense of them because they “tacitly recognize
the metaphorical mapping of information from two domains that gives rise to idioms in the first
place” (Gibbs, 1994).
When idioms are processed, people’s assumptions about how the individual components of
idioms refer to the metaphorical concepts underlying their figurative referents result in different
information than when literal language is used. This is applicable particularly to idioms that have a
higher degree of analyzability, because it is easier for people to map their individual components
onto different kinds of metaphorical concepts for these particular expressions. For example, the
idiom John spilled the beans maps the speaker’s knowledge of someone’s tipping over a container
of beans – the source domain – onto a person revealing a secret – the target domain. For English
speakers spill the beans means ‘reveal a secret’ because there are underlying conceptual
that structure their conceptions of minds, secrets, and disclosure (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
The very existence of these conceptual metaphors does not necessarily predict that certain
idioms must appear in the language. The presence of these conceptual metaphors by which we make
sense of experience provides a partial motivation for why specific phrases, such as spill the beans
are used to refer to particular events – the revealing of secrets (Gibbs, 1994).
Research has proved that idioms do not exist as separate semantic units within the lexicon
but actually reflect coherent systems of metaphorical concepts. For example, the conceptual
metaphor, ANGER IS HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER motivates idioms such as: blow your
stack, flip your lid, hit the ceiling, get hot under the collar, lose your cool, and get steamed up. This
set of idioms is one small set of conceptual mappings between different source and target domains
that form part of our conceptualization of anger.
The hypothesis that idioms make sense in the ways they do precisely because they are
motivated by conceptual knowledge that is metaphorical, has been explored by various studies.
Why do some idioms like blow your stack, flip your lid or hit the ceiling refer to the idea of getting
very angry in a way that phrases like run to the store or mow your lawn do not? The dead-metaphor
view does not explain why some idioms seem so rightly to have the meanings they do.
Psycholinguistic studies have investigated the metaphorical motivation for idiomatic
meaning empirically. One way to discover the speakers’ tacit knowledge of the metaphorical basis
for idioms is through a detailed examination of speakers’ mental images of idioms (Gibbs
&O’Brien, 1990).
Take the idiom spill the beans, for example. Any speaker is able to form a mental image of
this phrase, describe the image to himself and then ask himself several questions regarding:
- the place the beans were before they were spilled;
- the size of the container, whether the beans are cooked or uncooked;
- if the spilling was intentional or accidental;
- where are the beans once they were spilled;
- if the beans are in nice neat pile, where should the beans be;
- whether they are easy to retrieve after spilling (Gibbs, 1994).
Most people have definite answers to these questions about their mental images of idioms.
Subjects of experiments that tried to prove this fact answered that the beans were in a pot that is
about the size of a person’s head, the beans are uncooked, the spilling is accidental, the spilled
beans are on the floor and they are difficult to retrieve.
If one assumes that idioms are arbitrary, this consistency in people’s intuitions about their
mental images cannot be explained. The only reasonable explanation could be that people’s mental
images of idioms reveal some of the metaphorical knowledge that motivates their meaning. The
consistency in people’s responses about the causes and consequences of actions in their mental
images of idioms comes from people’s tacit knowledge of idioms being structured by conceptual
The general schemas underlying people’s mental images of idioms were not simply
representative of the idioms’ figurative meaning, “but captured more specific aspects of the
kinesthetic events with the images” (Gibbs, 1994). For example, for the anger idioms, such as flip
your lid, hit the ceiling, the participants to experiments in this direction, specifically imagined for
these phrases “some force causing a container to release pressure in a violent manner” (Gibbs,
1994). Nothing in the surface form of these idioms would impose any constraint on the mental
images people have. But the participants’ protocols in this study showed little variation in their
images of idioms with similar interpretations.
Also, the participants’ responses to the questions about the causes and consequences of the
actions described in their images were highly consistent. When imagining anger idioms, such as flip
your lid, hit the ceiling, people reported that:
- pressure, translated into stress or frustration, caused the action;
- one had little control over the pressure once it was building;
- its violent release was done unintentionally, as in blow your stack;
- once the release had taken place - the lid flipped, the ceiling hit, the stack blown – it
difficult, if not impossible to reverse the action.
The only logical explanation for people’s consistency in their intuitions about the causes,
manner, and consequences of the actions described in their mental images of idioms is that the
conceptual metaphors that underlie idioms impose certain limits for the kinds of images people
create for idioms.
For example, for anger people use their knowledge about physical events, namely, the
behavior of heated fluid or vapor building up and escaping from containers. These containers have
been reported to be most often the size of a person’s head. This way, people’s metaphorical
mapping of knowledge from a source domain – the heated fluid in a container – onto a target
domain – the anger emotion – “helps them conceptualize in concrete terms what is understood
about the target domain of anger” (Gibbs, 1994).
“The metaphorical ways in which we partially conceptualize experiences like anger actually
provide part of the motivation for why people have consistent mental images, and specific
knowledge about these images, for idioms with similar figurative meanings” (Gibbs, 1994).
One counterargument to this demonstration might be that any consistency in people’s mental
images for idioms with similar figurative meanings may be due not to the constraints imposed by
the conceptual metaphors but to the very fact that these expressions have similar meanings.
However, the literal interpretation of anger idioms, namely ‘get very angry’, by itself does not give
too many information about the causes and consequences of the actions described in people’s
mental images, therefore this alternative hypothesis does not carry much weight.
Another set of follow-up studies showed that knowing the figurative meaning of an idiom
(e.g. ‘getting angry’) does not by itself explain why people have such systematic knowledge of their
images of idioms. A wide variety of mental images was produced by subjects when asked to
imagine ‘to get very angry’, but with no consistency regarding the causation, intentionality, manner
and consequences about the actions in their mental images of paraphrases of the idioms.
This system of mental images of idioms supports the idea that the figurative meanings of
idioms are motivated by various metaphorical concepts that exist independently as part of our
conceptual system. Experiments could not prove that people actually form mental images of idioms
as a normal part of the process of understanding of idioms. The data demonstrate only how people’s
common metaphorical knowledge provides part of the motivation for why idioms have the
figurative meanings they do (Gibbs, 1994).
Analyzing some Romanian and English equivalent idioms it is impossible not to notice that
equivalent idioms in the two languages are, very often, motivated by the same metaphorical
blow your stack = a-şi ieşi din fire ; flip your lid/blow one’s top = a-i sări capacele/ a-i sări
supapa de siguranţă; hit the ceiling = a sări în sus până în tavan; get hot under the collar = a-i sări
ţandăra/muştarul; lose your cool = a-şi pierde sărita are all motivated by the concept ANGER IS
HEATED FLUID IN A CONTAINER. Idioms such as jump at his throat = a sări la beregată or
bite hid head off = a sări la cap are motivated by the concept ANGRY BEHAVIOR IS ANIMAL
BEHAVIOR. The two languages are not genetically related, and the hypothesis of borrowings can
also be excluded. What could be the explanation for such a puzzling fact?
It has been demonstrated by now that the meaning of idioms is not arbitrary. Their meaning
is motivated by the metaphorical mapping and certain mental images (Lakoff & Johnson, 2000). All
these schemas refer to physical experiences, with the possibility of mapping these experiences onto
other domains, such as communication or social relations.
Cognitive linguistics assumes that the metaphorical concepts, that motivate idioms as well,
are concepts of out bodies in their interaction with the world, and not abstract concepts (Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980). The domains the imagistic schemas map onto belong to the background of the
general knowledge about the world, which is a representation that tacitly appears during speech
acts. This general knowledge about the world of physical events should be common to many
languages, especially to European languages, this being one of the main conditions of
Another explanation of this fact might be the one given by Eugenio Coseriu (2000-2001):
“The linguistic knowledge is, most of the times, a metaphorical knowledge, a knowledge through
images, and which, most often is oriented in the same direction, a fact that makes us think of a
certain universal unity, beyond idiomatic, ethnic or cultural differences.”
Coşeriu, Eugeniu, Creaţia metaforică în limbaj, în “Dacoromania”, serie nouă, V-VI, 2000-2001,
Editura Academiei Române
Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr., The Poetics of Mind. Figurative thought, language and understanding,
Cambridge University Press, [1994].
Gibbs, R. W. Jr., (1986). Skating on thin ice: Literal meaning and understanding idioms in
conversation. Discourse Processes, 9, 17-30.
Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr., Jennifer O’Brien. (1990). Idioms and mental imagery: The metaphorical
motivation for idiomatic meaning. Cognition, 36, 36-68.
Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr., Nandini P. Nayak, and Cooper Cutting. (1989).How to Kick the Bucket
and Not Decompose: Analizability and Idiom Processing, Journal of Memory and Language 28.
Lakoff, George, Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago
and London, [1980].
Lakoff, George, Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh. The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to
Western Thought, Basic Books, [2000].
McLain, Richard; Trofin, Aurel; McLain, Cathy, A Dictionary of American Idioms and Their
Cluj-Napoca, Universitatea “Babeş-Bolyai”, Facultatea de Filologie, 1981.
McLain, Richard, Aurel Trofin, Cathy McLain, Food for Thought - an adnotated English-Romanian
dictionary of American figurative language, Cluj-Napoca, Universitatea “Babeş-Bolyai”, Facultatea
de Filologie, 1979.
Spears, Richard A., NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary,Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1992.
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