Adding Flavour to Communication Process: An Exploratory Study of Idioms and Phrases in Newspapers



Umesh Kumar Arya

Oxford advance learner dictionary defines Idiom as “A group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words” whereas a phrase is defined as “a group of words which have a particular meaning when used together”. According to wikipedia, ‘ An idiom is an expression (i.e., term or phrase) whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions and the arrangement of its parts, but refers instead to a figurative meaning that is known only through common use. World wars’aftermaths have been known to transfer many military innovations into public domains including many idioms e.g. bite the bullets, train the guns on somebody etc. Shakespeare alone has coined around 9000 idioms and 20138 words which are still in vogue (

Idioms add spice to the communication discourse thus making it more palatable. Idioms are the grease that makes language flow (Samra, 2007).Idioms have often been associated with conversation and informal language, however, the evidence in the Bank of English suggests that they are also very common in journalism and magazines where writers are seeking to write their articles and stories more vivid, interesting to their readers (Minugh, 2000). Idioms are often used by both journalists and politicians as short hand ways of expressing opinion or conveying ready made evaluations (Collins COBUILD dictionary of idioms inMinugh, 2000).

There are two aspects of a language – Vocabulary and Idioms. Both add flavor to the communication discourse and ironically, both of them are equally neglected. Without idioms, our communication looks like a weak skeleton supported by a thick flesh lacking in muscle power. Cooper (1998) is of the view that since idiomatic expressions are so frequently encountered in both spoken and written discourse, they require special attention in language programs
and should not be relegated to a position of secondary importance in the curriculum."(Glucksberg, 2001) opined that traditionally, figurative language (idioms)  has been considered to be derived from and more complex than literal language.He identified four types of idioms (1) non-compositional/opaque, which cannot be analyzed either semantically or syntactically and whose meanings cannot be derived, e.g., “by and large”; (2) compositional/opaque, which can be syntactically analyzed but whose meanings also cannot be derived e.g., “kick the bucket”; (3) compositional/transparent, which can be both syntactically and semantically analyzed and whose meanings can be mapped onto their constituent words, e.g., “spill the beans”, and (4) quasi-metaphorical, which behave just as do metaphors, e.g., “don't give up the ship”.Idioms are figurative expressions that do not mean what they literally state and since they are so frequently encountered in both oral and written discourse, comprehending and producing idioms present language learners with a special vocabulary learning problem.

By knowing the literal meaning (words), the figurative meaning of the idioms may not be deduced and the learner needs to contextualize at this moment. Idiomatic Processing Model of idiom comprehension suggests that the figurative meaning is processed first; only if that one is inappropriate is the literal (related to words) meaning processed (Schweigert 1992).Idiom learning has many pitfalls as many idioms have their equivalents in other languages (e.g “once bitten twice shy” and “everybody worships the rising sun “have perfect equivalents in Hindi) but most of the idioms are language specific. Hence it becomes a challenge for the learner to learn idioms of various shades. Irujo (1986) found that the best-known English idioms were the ones with identical Spanish equivalents, and the least known were totally different in the two languages. According to Graded salience hypothesis (Giora, 1997in Giora & Fein, 2000), salient meanings of idioms should be processed initially before less salient meanings are activated.

Role of Newspapers in idiom learning –

The available literature on studies of idioms shows the considerable involvement of newspapers by the researchers. Studies in Argentina, Finland and the UnitedStates indicate strong links between having used newspapers in the class and academicachievement (McMane, 2007).There are well-documented studies which show that newspaper reading can benefit a school going student to a great extent (Noronha, 2000). The same is true for a collegiate. It has been found in a study conducted by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) that the newspapers are and can be used in adult education worldwide with a great success.  Creatively used, newspapers and magazines can effectively promote learning, critical thinking, creativity and resourcefulness in learners of all ages (Noronha, 2000).


Studies have shown that using newspapers in education helps students increase their vocabulary and comprehension, according to the “Education for All Forum”.There are evidences that the newspapers can play a great role in language proficiency. “Proficiency” in a language can be divided into many categories e.g. words, grammar, syntax, length of the sentences etc. but the present study presentsan entirely new angle of learning, i.e. idioms & phrases.




Review of literature –

Pollio & colleagues (1977) analyzed approximately 200,000 words from political debates, taped psychotherapy sessions and compositions written by students and adults. They concluded that those people used about 4.08 idioms per minute.Cooper (1998) transcribed the idioms from 3 hours of taped television programs.
He concluded that idioms occurred at the rate of about 3 per minute and understanding those idioms was crucial to understanding the plot. Grant (2005) applied the criteria of ‘core idioms’ to the large pool of idioms and sorted out 104 core idioms from British National Corpus (BNC). Hans (2007) concluded thatin newspapers,a high proportion occurs in represented speech, and the majordomains are sports, art and entertainment, and "living." Ulland (1997) realized the need of collecting idioms in French newspapers and collected 20 of them and he named them ‘fixed expressions’ of the predicate type. A pilot study of the frequency of about twenty expressions in the newspaper Le Monde 1996 and 1997 reveals that particular problems arise in creating such a dictionary relating to variation and ambiguity. Fotos (1931) collected the French words and idioms to discuss their use and probable effects upon aims, methods and content of the French schools. Nippold (1991) underscores the never ending challenges in the acquisition of idioms by maintaining that ‘there is no clear point in the human development where it can be said that idioms have been mastered’. Although complete mastery of idioms may be nearly impossible, every learner must be prepared to meet the challenge simply because idioms occur so frequently in the spoken and written English (ibid). (Hoffman, 1984; Irjuo (1986b).Kerbel & Grunwell  (1997) argued thatcontrary to the belief of six language unit teachers that theyrarely used idioms in the classroom, their study revealed an averageusage by these teachers of 1. 73 idioms per minute.Minugh (2000) concluded that it is only in the recent years that large-scale corpus studies have furnished us with reliable evidence confirming that idioms are among the low frequency features of language.  However, none of the above studies mention the collection of often repeated idioms in newspapers.

The Study -

Using idioms and phrases has many pitfalls as well. It is a risky business to embellish the sentences with many high sounding idioms and phrases which are incomprehensible for a professor of English. The dictionaries open an inventory of such idioms before the reader. They don’t mention whether these idioms are GENERALLY & WIDELY used in communication or not. How to locate these generally used idioms and phrases and master them is a million dollar question. Some textbooks in schools as well as the colleges, give a good list of such idioms but their selection and scope of applicability seems to be incorrect scientifically. Realizing the above problem, a research was conducted with the objective of identifying such commonly used idioms and phrases. The study is based on the following assumptions

1.   Newspapers are the most widely, daily read mass media of written communication.

2.   Limited number of idioms are used interchangeably to write various type of news stories.

Hence it could be possible to boil down to the nitty gritty of the problem and look for the appropriate strategy to come out with a assortment of the commonly used idioms and phrases which can be used freely without worrying whether the receiver would understand the meaning or not.

Significance of the Study

However, the study has a limitation that not all the idioms and phrases used can be collected. The language is like flowing water. If it stops, it will create marsh. But for the beginners,  it can serve a dual purpose of knowing the secret of creative writing/speaking and access to the right information.  For the proficient writers and speakers, it will serve as a ready reckoner and reference material to go through it intermittently so as to keep a good deposit in their knowledge bank.

Theoretical Framework: Thepresent study’stheoretical framework have been largely based onUlland (1997) who realized the need of collecting idioms in French newspapers and collected 20 of them and he named them ‘fixed expressions’ of the predicate type.

Methodology: A massive collection of Idioms from English textbooks was given to the students to increase their familiarity with idioms. All the major English newspapers were selected in the first stage. The list includes The Tribune, The Hindustan Times, The Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Pioneer and The Statesman. In the second stage, a group of volunteer students of Post Graduate standard was prepared to read the above newspapers regularly and thoroughly for continuous 15 days. At the end, a sum total of 261 idioms and phrases were assorted, duplicate ones were filtered and noted down.  This collection was subjected to rigorous checking for another fifteen days to corroborate the statement that generally a fix number of such idioms and phrases are used interchangeably everyday to write infinite number of news and articles. This can also be interpreted this way that newspapers’ readers and writers are in possession of a nearly fix number of commonly used idioms and phrases and the learning is mediated by the newspaper.



List of the idioms and phrases

1.   Add feathers in one’s cap.

2.   A Narrow escape

3.   At one’s wits end

4.   A big gun

5.   A Fish out of water

6.   A cat and dog life

7.   A cock and bull story 

8.   Above board

9.   Add fuel to fire

10.   All fire and brimstone

11.   An axe to grind

12.   An open secret

13.   Apple of discord

14.   Apple pie order

15.   At a glance

16.   At daggers drawn.

17.   At large

18.   At one’s beck and call

19.   At par

20.   At the eleventh hour

21.   At the fag end

22.   At the mercy of

23.   Bad blood

24.   Bad debt

25.   Bask in the glow

26.   Be hand in glove with

27.   Bear the burnt

28.   Bear the grudge

29.   Beat about the bush

30.   Bed of roses

31.   Bed of thorns

32.   Bell the cat

33.   Between devil and the deep sea

34.   Bits and pieces

35.   Black and white

36.   Black sheep

37.   Blessing in disguise

38.   Blow one’s own trumpet

39.   Bolt from the blue

40.   Bone of contention

41.   Bread and butter

42.   Break the ice

43.   Bring to light

44.   Bring to book

45.   Build castles in the air

46.   Burn midnight oil

47.   Burn one’s finger

48.   Burst at seams

49.   Burning question

50.   Bury the hatchet

51.   By and large

52.   By hook or by crook

53.   By leaps and bounds

54.   Call a spade a spade

55.   Capital punishment

56.   Carry weight

57.   Caught in the cross fire.

58.   Cat out of the bag

59.   Chicken hearted man

60.   Cold blooded murder

61.   Come down heavily on somebody

62.   Come out with flying colors

63.   Command a premium

64.   Come to a standstill

65.   Cost dear 

66.   Cool one’s heels

67.   Cross swords

68.   Crux of the problem

69.   Cry for the moon

70.   Cry over spilt milk

71.   Curry favour with somebody

72.   Cut a sorry figure

73.   Cut throat competition

74.   Damocles’ sword

75.   Dance to someone’s tune

76.   Domino effect

77.   Dark horse

78.   Deliver the goods

79.   Die in harness


80. Do the rounds

81. Die is cast

82. Eat a humble pie

83. Eat one’s words

84. Eke out

85. End in fiasco

86. End in smoke 

87. Eye wash

88. Emotions run high

89.   Face the music

90.   Fall out of favour

91.   Fall short of

92.   Fan the sentiments

93.   First and foremost

94.   Fish in troubled waters

95.   Flex the muscles

96.   Fly in the face of something

97.   Flying visit

98.   Foot the bill

99.   Foregone conclusion

100. Fall on the deaf years

101. Foul play

102. From hand to mouth

103. Give a clarion call 

104. Gain ground

105. Get on one’s nerves

106. Get rid of something

107. Gift of the gab

108. Give in

109. Give vent to

110. Give away

111. Go Scot free

112. Gather steam

113. Go to dogs

114. Go off

115. Go haywire

116. Good for nothing

117. Grease the palm

118. Greek and Latin

119. Gird up one’s loins

120. Grope in the dark

121. Hang in balance

122. Hard and fast

123. Hard nut to crack

124. Have an edge over

125. Hell bent on something

126. Herculean task

127. High time

128. Hit below the belt

129. Hit the nail on the head

130. Hobson’s choice

131. Hold good

132. Hope against hope

133. Hue and cry

134. Hush money

135. In a jiffy

136. In a nutshell

137. In full swing

138. In good faith

139. In light of

140. In the dark

141. In the good books of somebody

142. In the red 

143. In the black

144. Ins and outs

145. Jack of all trades, master of none

146. Jump to the conclusion

147. Keep one's word

148. Keep the fingers crossed

149. Kith and kin

150. Lame excuse

151. Laughing stock

152. Leap in the dark

153. Learn by rote

154. Leave in the lurch

155. Leave no stone unturned

156. Lend an ear to something

157. Let loose

158. Lion’s share

159. Live in a fool’s paradise

160. Look down upon

161. Loosen the purse string

162. Maiden speech

163. Make both ends meet

164. Make mountain of a mole hill

165. Make up one’s mind

166. Much ado about nothing

167. Newtonian approach

168. Necessary evil

169. Nine days wonder

170. Nip in the bud

171. Null and void

172. Olive branch

173. On the cards

174. On the eve of something

175. Out of place

176. Out of question

177. Play out of one’s skins

178. Pay back in the same coin

179.   Pillar to post

180.   Put on a back burner

181.   Play down

182.   Play truant

183.   Pound of flesh

184.   Poke one’s nose

185.   Pour oil on troubled waters

186.   Pros and cons

187.   Queer fish

188.   Quirk of fate

189.   Rain or shine

190.   Rainy day

191.   Read between the lines

192.   Red letter day

193.   Red tapism

194.   Rest assured

195.   Right hand man

196.   Rise to the occasion

197.   Rolling stone

198.   Rule out

199.   Rule the roost

200.   Save one’s skin

201.   Sea change

202.   See eye to eye with each other

203.   See things through coloured glasses

204.   Set the Thames on fire

205.   Shed crocodile’s tears

206.   Silver lining in a dark cloud

207.   Sine die

208.   Sit on the fence

209.   Slip of tongue

210.   Smear campaign 

211.   Smell a rat

212.   Sorry state

213.   Speak volumes

214.   Spell doom for

215.   Spill the beans

216.   Start from the scratch

217.   Steer clear from

218.   Stick to one's gun

219.   Stir the hornet’s nest

220.   Storm in tea cup

221.   Strike the balance

222.   Strike while the iron is hot

223.   Strike a discordant note

224.   Sweep under the carpet

225.   Swim against the current

226.   Take a heavy toll

227.   Take a leaf out of others book

228.   Take on

229.   Take the bull by horns

230.   Take stock of the situation

231.   Tempers run high

232.   Thankless job

233.   Tip of the iceberg  

234.   The length and breadth of something

235.   Throw cold water on

236.   To be in neck to neck with each other

237.   Train the gun on somebody

238.   Throw down the gauntlet

239.   Throw mud at

240.   Throw out of gear

241.   To and fro

242.   To pass the buck

243.   Tom, Dick and Harry

244.   Tooth and nail

245.   Trump card

246.   Turn down

247.   Turn turtle

248.   Under a cloud

249.   Uphill task

250.   Ups and downs

251.   Vexed question

252.   Via media

253.   Wear and tear

254.   Wet blanket

255.   Whims and fancies

256.   White elephant

257.   Wild goose chase

258.   Wolf in the sheep’s clothing

259.   Word of mouth

260.   Worship the rising sun

261.    Yeoman’s service










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