Idioms involve collocation of a special kind. Consider, for instance, kick
the bucket, fly off the handle, spill the beans, red herring. For here we
not only have the collocation of kick and the bucket, but also the fact
that the meaning of the resultant combination is opaque - it is not related
to the meaning of the individual words, but is sometimes (though not
always) nearer to the meaning of a single word (thus kick the bucket equals
Even where an idiom is semantically like a single word it does not function
like one. Thus we will not have a past tense * kick-the-bucketed. Instead,
it functions to some degree as a normal sequence of grammatical words, so
that the past tense form is kicked the bucket. But there are a great number
of grammatical restrictions. A large number of idioms contain a verb and a
noun, but although the verb may be placed in the past tense, the number of
the noun can never be changed. We have spilled the beans, but not * spill
the bean and equally there is no *fly off the handles, *kick the buckets,
*put on good faces, *blow one's tops, etc. Similarly, with red herring the
noun may be plural, but the adjective cannot be comparative (the -er form).
Thus we find red herrings but not *redder herring.
There are also plenty of syntactic restrictions. Some idioms have passives,
but others do not. The law was laid down and The beans have been spilled
are all right (though some may question the latter), but *The bucket was
kicked is not. But in no case could we say It was the - (beans that were
spilled, law that was laid down, bucket that was kicked, etc.). The
restrictions vary from idiom to idiom. Some are more restricted or 'frozen'
than others.
A very common type of idiom in English is what is usually called the
'phrasal verb', the combination of verb plus adverb of the kind make up,
give in, put down. The meaning of these combinations cannot be predicted
from the individual verb and adverb and in many cases there is a single
verb with the same or a very close meaning - invent, yield, quell. Not all
combinations of this kind are idiomatic, of course. Put down has a literal
sense too and there are many others that are both idiomatic and not, e. g.
take in as in The conjuror took the audience in, The woman took the
homeless children in. There are even degrees of idiomaticity since one can
make up a story, make up a fire or make up one's face. Moreover, it is nof
only sequences of verb plus adverb that may be idiomatic. There are also
sequences of verb plus preposition, such as look after and go for, and
sequences of verb, adverb and preposition, such as put up with ('tolerate')
or do away with ('kill').
There are also what we may call partial idioms, where one of the words has
its usual meaning, the other has a meaning that is peculiar to the
particular sequence. Thus red hair refers to hair, but not hair that is red
in strict colour terms. Comedians have fun with partial idioms of this
kind, e. g. when instructed to make a bed they bring out a set of
carpenter's tools. An interesting set involves the-word white, for white
coffee is brown in colour, white wine is usually yellow, and white people
are pink. Yet, white is, perhaps, idiomatic only to some degree - it could
be interpreted 'the lightest in colour of that usually to be found'. Not
surprisingly black is used as its antonym for coffee and people (though
again neither are black in colour terms), yet it is not used for wine. Thus
it can be seen that even partial idiomaticity can be a matter of degree and
may in some cases be little more than a matter of collocational
restriction. On a more comic level there is partial idiomaticity in raining
cats and dogs (in Welsh it rains old women and sticks!).
What is and what is not an idiom is, then often a matter of degree. It is
very difficult, moreover, to decide whether a word or a sequence of words
is opaque. We could, perhaps, define idioms in terms of non-equivalence in
other languages, so that kick the bucket, red herring, etc., are idioms
because they cannot be directly translated into French or German. But this
will not really work. The French for nurse is garde-malade, but while this
cannot be directly translated into English it is quite transparent,
obviously meaning someone who looks after the sick. On the ofher hand, look
after seems quite idiomatic, yet it can be quite directly translated into
Welsh (edrych ar o1).