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



Umesh Kumar Arya1

Oxford advance learner dictionary2 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 wikipedia3, ‘ 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


  1. Do the rounds
  2. Die is cast
  3. Eat a humble pie
  4. Eat one’s words
  5. Eke out
  6. End in fiasco
  7. End in smoke 
  8. Eye wash
  9. Emotions run high
  10. Face the music
  11. Fall out of favour
  12. Fall short of
  13. Fan the sentiments
  14. First and foremost
  15. Fish in troubled waters
  16. Flex the muscles
  17. Fly in the face of something
  18. Flying visit
  19. Foot the bill
  20. Foregone conclusion
  21. Fall on the deaf years
  22. Foul play
  23. From hand to mouth
  24. Give a clarion call 
  25. Gain ground
  26. Get on one’s nerves
  27. Get rid of something
  28. Gift of the gab
  29. Give in
  30. Give vent to
  31. Give away
  32. Go Scot free
  33. Gather steam
  34. Go to dogs
  35. Go off
  36. Go haywire
  37. Good for nothing
  38. Grease the palm
  39. Greek and Latin
  40. Gird up one’s loins
  41. Grope in the dark
  42. Hang in balance
  43. Hard and fast
  44. Hard nut to crack
  45. Have an edge over
  46. Hell bent on something
  47. Herculean task
  48. High time
  49. Hit below the belt
  50. Hit the nail on the head
  51. Hobson’s choice
  52. Hold good
  53. Hope against hope
  54. Hue and cry
  55. Hush money
  56. In a jiffy
  57. In a nutshell
  58. In full swing
  59. In good faith
  60. In light of
  61. In the dark
  62. In the good books of somebody
  63. In the red 
  64. In the black
  65. Ins and outs
  66. Jack of all trades, master of none
  67. Jump to the conclusion
  68. Keep one's word
  69. Keep the fingers crossed
  70. Kith and kin
  71. Lame excuse
  72. Laughing stock
  73. Leap in the dark
  74. Learn by rote
  75. Leave in the lurch
  76. Leave no stone unturned
  77. Lend an ear to something
  78. Let loose
  79. Lion’s share
  80. Live in a fool’s paradise
  81. Look down upon
  82. Loosen the purse string
  83. Maiden speech
  84. Make both ends meet
  85. Make mountain of a mole hill
  86. Make up one’s mind
  87. Much ado about nothing
  88. Newtonian approach
  89. Necessary evil
  90. Nine days wonder
  91. Nip in the bud
  92. Null and void
  93. Olive branch
  94. On the cards
  95. On the eve of something
  96. Out of place
  97. Out of question
  98. Play out of one’s skins
  99. Pay back in the same coin
  100. Pillar to post
  101. Put on a back burner
  102. Play down
  103. Play truant
  104. Pound of flesh
  105. Poke one’s nose
  106. Pour oil on troubled waters
  107. Pros and cons
  108. Queer fish
  109. Quirk of fate
  110. Rain or shine
  111. Rainy day
  112. Read between the lines
  113. Red letter day
  114. Red tapism
  115. Rest assured
  116. Right hand man
  117. Rise to the occasion
  118. Rolling stone
  119. Rule out
  120. Rule the roost
  121. Save one’s skin
  122. Sea change
  123. See eye to eye with each other
  124. See things through coloured glasses
  125. Set the Thames on fire
  126. Shed crocodile’s tears
  127. Silver lining in a dark cloud
  128. Sine die
  129. Sit on the fence
  130. Slip of tongue
  131. Smear campaign 
  132. Smell a rat
  133. Sorry state
  134. Speak volumes
  135. Spell doom for
  136. Spill the beans
  137. Start from the scratch
  138. Steer clear from
  139. Stick to one's gun
  140. Stir the hornet’s nest
  141. Storm in tea cup
  142. Strike the balance
  143. Strike while the iron is hot
  144. Strike a discordant note
  145. Sweep under the carpet
  146. Swim against the current
  147. Take a heavy toll
  148. Take a leaf out of others book
  149. Take on
  150. Take the bull by horns
  151. Take stock of the situation
  152. Tempers run high
  153. Thankless job
  154. Tip of the iceberg  
  155. The length and breadth of something
  156. Throw cold water on
  157. To be in neck to neck with each other
  158. Train the gun on somebody
  159. Throw down the gauntlet
  160. Throw mud at
  161. Throw out of gear
  162. To and fro
  163. To pass the buck
  164. Tom, Dick and Harry
  165. Tooth and nail
  166. Trump card
  167. Turn down
  168. Turn turtle
  169. Under a cloud
  170. Uphill task
  171. Ups and downs
  172. Vexed question
  173. Via media
  174. Wear and tear
  175. Wet blanket
  176. Whims and fancies
  177. White elephant
  178. Wild goose chase
  179. Wolf in the sheep’s clothing
  180. Word of mouth
  181. Worship the rising sun
  182. Yeoman’s service










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