Re: Definition of idiom

Warning: long ramblings ahead.

At 01:13 3/03/2006, John M Slatin wrote:
 >From the Oxford English Dictionary:


1. a. The form of speech peculiar or proper to a people or country; own
b. In narrower sense: That variety of a language which is peculiar to a
limited district or class of people; dialect.
3. a. A form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc.,
peculiar to a language; a peculiarity of phraseology approved by the
usage of a language,
and often having a signification other than its grammatical or logical

All of these date from the 1600s or earlier. #3  is the one closest to
our current/proposed definitions.

You're right, we don't mean #1.a (a language, or "a dialect with an army") or
#1.b (a dialect).
What I don't like about #3.a is the reference to "a language", not only
because "language" has multiple meanings ("form of language used by a 
group, nation, etc", e.g. English, French, Hebrew,...; "words, phrases, etc
used by a particular group of people", e.g. medical language; "system of
coded instructions used in programming", e.g. C, Python; ...)
but also because it seems unnecessary: individual words are also "particular
to a language", except if they were borrowed.
If the part of #3.a before the first semicolon is read on its own, it is
much wider than it is meant to be. The part after the semicolon seems to
aim at linguistic accuracy but uses the term "signification" as a posh word
for "meaning" instead of the "the act of signifying", which - in linguistics -
is a different thing.

I find the definition from SIL, which I quoted in the survey, much more
precise that the OED:

a multiword construction that
  * is a semantic unit whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of 
its constituents, and
  * has a non-productive syntactic structure
( )

The Lexicon of Linguistics at the University of Utrecht also has a definition
and examples:

Fixed combination of elements with an idiosyncratic, not (completely) 
compositional meaning, such as 'kick the bucket', 'spill the beans'. Idioms 
are generally inaccessible for syntactic and/or semantic variation: 
sentence (ii) cannot mean that some people died last week.

(i)    He kicked the bucket last week
(ii) * Some buckets were kicked last week

Nevertheless, elements of idioms may sometimes be moved (as in (iii)) or 
modified (as in (iv)).
(iii)  advantage was taken of Bill
(iv)   he kicked the proverbial bucket

Another weakness in the OED defintion is that is silent about
the "non-productive syntactic structure" of idioms.

If reviewers of WCAG should find our new definition of "idiom" too
simple, I'd rather go to the definition from SIL than the OED to
look for improvements.


Christophe Strobbe

P.S. My criticism is only aimed at the quality of the OED definition,
not at people quoting it.

Christophe Strobbe
K.U.Leuven - Departement of Electrical Engineering - Research Group on 
Document Architectures
Kasteelpark Arenberg 10 - 3001 Leuven-Heverlee - BELGIUM
tel: +32 16 32 85 51


Received on Friday, 3 March 2006 10:40:57 UTC