Phrases whose literal meaning....

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Nov 4 19:50:52 UTC 2002

At 10:25 PM -0700 11/3/02, Rudolph C Troike wrote:
>Re: kick the bucket, go to the bathroom, etc.
>The old-fashioned school term for these, particularly used in foreign
>language teaching, is "idiom", or "idiomatic expression". No need to go
>much further in search of a label, when this will do for most people
>(except for linguists, who, as we agreed earlier in a lively exchange, are
>not normal).
I agree that these are idioms; this is because their conventional
meaning has changed (as I was saying yesterday, citing Morgan's
argument on "go to the bathroom").  My point was that the
conventionalization goes through stages, and the earlier stages don't
correspond to idioms--although, as Searle pointed out in his 1975
"Indirect Speech Acts" paper, we may want to talk about idiomatic
uses of language even when there are no idioms as such involved.
Thus, compare

Can you open the window?  (conventionally used to indirectly request
Are you able to/Do you have the ability to open the window?  (not so used)

In Morgan's example, when you or more likely a political operative or
long-distance service rep calls me and I pick up the phone and say
"This is Larry Horn", no idiom is involved, but there is a rule of
usage that requires this form (or one of its permissible variants,
e.g. "Larry Horn speaking/here") and excludes, say, "Larry Horn is
speaking/on the phone" or "Here is Larry Horn".

One more example from Morgan:  If a friend asks you for a loan and
you reply "Do I look like a rich man?", there's no idiom involved
here ("Do I look like a rich man?" isn't an idiom for "No" or even
for "I can't/won't lend you money"), but there's a cultural
convention within the community that this response in this context
amounts to a refusal to lend the money.

So referring to idioms is useful, but doesn't exhaust the phenomena
we've been discussing.  Conventions of usage, as well as conventions
of meaning, are involved.


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