phrases whose literal meaning...

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Mon Nov 4 12:45:53 UTC 2002

It was an expression I used as early as 1948. Glad to see some good
uses hang in there.


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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Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic,
      Asian & African Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027
e-mail: preston at
phone: (517) 353-9290

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