phrases whose literal meaning...

Margaret Lee mlee303 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Nov 4 08:45:48 UTC 2002

An expression I hear students use is "Can I see your pencil?" ,
meaning "Can I use your pencil?"

--- Mark A Mandel <mam at THEWORLD.COM> wrote:
> On Sun, 3 Nov 2002, James A. Landau wrote:
> #My daughter needs to know the term to be applied to phrases whose
> literal
> #meaning is one thing but which are universally interpreted as
> something else.
> # Her examples are "How do you do?" which literally asks "How are
> you?" but is
> #used merely as "Hello"; and one from Hebrew, "mazel tov" which
> literally
> #means "good luck" but is universally used as "congratulations".
> Actually each of these is one remove further from literality. "How
> do
> you do?", taken literally, is the same construction as "How do you
> sew?"
> or "How do you S?", and is almost ungrammatical, since "do" as main
> verb
> with no explicit object is almost obsolete. It's a frozen form,
> supplanted in current syntax by "How are you doing?" And "mazel
> tov" is
> literally 'a good star', which by an astrological metaphor means
> 'good
> luck'.
> -- Mark A. Mandel

Margaret G. Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor - English and Linguistics
 & University Editor
Department of English
Hampton University, Hampton, VA 23668
e-mail: margaret.lee at   or   mlee303 at

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