English Lexicology

The Etymology of English Words. Vocabulary as a system. Professional terminology. Etymological doublets. The main problems of lexicology. The historical circumstances which stimulate the borrowing process. The Object of Lexicology. The structure of word.

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Язык английский
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He glanced at her (i. e. He looked at her briefly and turned away).

He peered at her (i. e. He tried to see her better, but something prevented: darkness, fog, weak eyesight).

These few simple examples are sufficient to show that each of the synonyms creates an entirely new situation which so sharply differs from the rest that any attempt at "interchanging" anything can only destroy the utterance devoiding it of any sense at all.

If you turn back to the extracts on p. 184--187, the very idea of interchangeability will appear even more incredible. Used in this way, in a related context, all these words (/ like you, but I cannot love you; the young man was strolling, and his child was trotting by his side; Romeo should smile, not grin, etc.) clearly demonstrate that substitution of one word for another is impossible: it is not simply the context that firmly binds them in their proper places, but the peculiar individual connotative structure of each individual word.

Consequently, it is difficult to accept interchange-ability as a criterion of synonymy because the specific characteristic of synonyms, and the one justifying their very existence, is that they are not, cannot and should not be interchangeable, in which case they would simply become useless ballast in the vocabulary.

Synonyms are frequently said to be the vocabulary's colours, tints and hues (so the term shade is not so inadequate, after all, for those who can understand a metaphor). Attempts at ascribing to synonyms the quality of interchangeability are equal to stating that subtle tints in a painting can be exchanged without destroying the picture's effect.

All this does not mean that no synonyms are interchangeable. One can find whole groups of words with half-erased connotations which can readily be substituted one for another. The same girl can be described as pretty, good-looking, handsome or beautiful. Yet, even these words are far from being totally interchangeable. Each of them creates its own picture of human beauty. Here is an extract in which a young girl addresses an old woman:

"I wouldn't say you'd been exactly pretty as a girl -- handsome is what I'd say. You've got such strong features."

(From The Stone Angel by M. Lawrence)

So, handsome is not pretty and pretty is not necessarily handsome. Perhaps they are not even synonyms? But they are. Both, the criterion of common denotation ("good-looking, of pleasing appearance") and even the dubious criterion of inter-changeability seem to indicate that.

In conclusion, let us stress that even if there are some synonyms which are interchangeable, it is quite certain that there are also others which are not. A criterion, if it is a criterion at all, should be applicable to all synonyms and not just to some of them. Otherwise it is not acceptable as a valid criterion.

Types of Synonyms

The only existing classification system for synonyms was established by Academician V.V. Vinogradov, the famous Russian scholar. In his classification system there are three types of synonyms: ideographic (which he defined as words conveying the same concept but differing in shades of meaning), stylistic (differing in stylistic characteristics) and absolute (coinciding in all their shades of meaning and in all their stylistic characteristics) [8].

However, the following aspects of his classification system are open to question.

Firstly, absolute synonyms are rare in the vocabulary and, on the diachronic level, the phenomenon of absolute synonymy is anomalous and consequently temporary: the vocabulary system invariably tends to abolish it either by rejecting one of the absolute synonyms or by developing differentiation characteristics in one or both (or all) of them. Therefore, it does not seem necessary to include absolute synonyms, which are a temporary exception, in the system of classification.

The vagueness of the term "shades of meaning" has already been mentioned. Furthermore there seems to be no rigid demarcation line between synonyms differing in their shades of meaning and in stylistic characteristics, as will be shown later on. There are numerous synonyms which are distinguished by both shades of meaning and stylistic colouring. Therefore, even the subdivision of synonyms into ideographic and stylistic is open to question.

A more modern and a more effective approach to the classification of synonyms may be based on the definition describing synonyms as words differing in connotations. It seems convenient to classify connotations by which synonyms differ rather than synonyms themselves. It opens up possibilities for tracing much subtler distinctive features within their semantic structures.

Types of Connotations

I. The connotation of degree or intensity can be traced in such groups of synonyms as to surprise -- to astonish -- to amaze -- to astound;1 to satisfy -- to please -- to content -- to gratify -- to delight -- to exalt; to shout -- to yell -- to bellow -- to roar; to like -- to admire -- to love -- to adore -- to worship.

As the table on p. 189 shows, some words have two and even more connotative components in their semantic structures. In the above list the synonymic groups headed by to satisfy and to like contain words which can be differentiated not only by the connotation of intensity but by other types which will be described later.

П. In the group of synonyms to stare -- to glare -- to gaze -- to glance -- to peep -- to peer, all the synonyms except to glance denote a lasting act of looking at somebody or something, whereas to glance describes a brief, passing look. These synonyms may be said to have a connotation of duration in their semantic structure.

Other examples are: to flash (brief) -- to blaze (lasting); to shudder (brief) -- to shiver (lasting); to say (brief) -- to speak, to talk (lasting).

All these synonyms have other connotations besides that of duration.

III. The synonyms to stare -- to glare -- to gaze are differentiated from the other words of the group by emotive connotations, and from each other by the nature of the emotion they imply (see the table on p. 189).

In the group alone -- single -- lonely -- solitary, the adjective lonely also has an emotive connotation.

She was alone implies simply the absence of company, she was lonely stresses the feeling of melancholy and desolation resulting from being alone. A single tree on the plain states plainly that there is (was) only one tree, not two or more. A lonely tree on the plain gives essentially the same information, that there was one tree and no more, but also creates an emotionally coloured picture.

In the group to tremble -- to shiver -- to shudder -- to shake, the verb to shudder is frequently associated with the emotion of fear, horror or disgust, etc. (e. g. to shudder with horror) and therefore can be said to have an emotive connotation in addition to the two others (see the scheme in Ch. 7, p. 136).

One should be warned against confusing words with emotive connotations and words with emotive denotative meanings, e. g. to love -- to admire -- to adore -- to worship; angry -- furious -- enraged; fear -- terror -- horror. In the latter, emotion is expressed by the leading semantic component whereas in the former it is an accompanying, subsidiary characteristic.

IV. The evaluative connotation conveys the speaker's attitude towards the referent, labelling it as good or bad. So in the group well-known -- famous -- notorious -- celebrated, the adjective notorious bears a negative evaluative connotation and celebrated a positive one. Cf.: a notorious murderer, robber, swindler, coward, lady-killer, flirt, but a celebrated scholar, artist, singer, man-of-letters.

In the group to produce -- to create -- to manufacture -- to fabricate, the verb to create characterises the process as inspired and noble. To manufacture means "to produce in a mechanical way without inspiration or originality". So, to create can be said to have a positive evaluative connotation, and to manufacture a negative one.

The verbs to sparkle and to glitter are close synonyms and might well be favoured by supporters of the interchangeability criterion. Yet, it would be interesting to compare the following sets of examples:

A. His (her) eyes sparkled with amusement, merriment, good humour, high spirits, happiness, etc. (positive emotions).

B. His (her) eyes glittered with anger, rage, hatred, malice, etc. (negative emotions).

The combinability of both verbs shows that, at least, when they are used to describe the expression of human eyes, they have both emotive and evaluative connotations, and, also, one further characteristic, which is described in the next paragraph.

V. The causative connotation can be illustrated by the examples to sparkle and to glitter given above: one's eyes sparkle with positive emotions and glitter with negative emotions. However, this connotation of to sparkle and to glitter seems to appear only in the model "Eyes + Sparkle/Glitter".

The causative connotation is also typical of the verbs we have already mentioned, to shiver and to shudder, in whose semantic structures the cause of the act or process of trembling is encoded: to shiver with cold, from a chill, because of the frost; to shudder with fear, horror, etc.

To blush and to redden represent similar cases: people mostly blush from modesty, shame or embarrassment, but usually redden from anger or indignation. Emotive connotation can easily be traced in both these verbs.

VI. The connotation of manner can be singled out in some groups of verbal synonyms. The verbs to stroll -- to stride -- to trot -- to pace -- to swagger -- to stagger -- to stumble all denote different ways and types of walking, encoding in their semantic structures the length of pace, tempo, gait and carriage, purposefulness or lack of purpose (see, for instance, the quotations on p. 184--187).

. The verbs to peep and to peer also have this connotation in their semantic structures: to peep = to look at smb./smth. furtively, by stealth; to peer = to look at smb./smth. with difficulty or strain.

The verbs to like -- to admire -- to love -- to adore -- to worship, as has been mentioned, are differentiated not only by the connotation of intensity, but also by the connotation of manner. Each of them describes a feeling of a different type, and not only of different intensity.

VII. The verbs to peep and to peer have already been mentioned. They are differentiated by connotations of duration and manner. But there is some other curious peculiarity in their semantic structures. Let us consider their typical contexts.

One peeps at smb./smth. through a hole, crack or opening, from behind a screen, a half-closed door, a newspaper, a fan, a curtain, etc. It seems as if a whole set of scenery were built within the word's meaning. Of course, it is not quite so, because "the set of scenery" is actually built in the context, but, as with all regular contexts, it is intimately reflected in the word's semantic structure. We shall call this the connotation of attendant circumstances.

This connotation is also characteristic of to peer which will be clear from the following typical contexts of the verb.

One peers at smb./smth. in darkness, through the fog, through dimmed glasses or windows, from a great distance; a short-sighted person may also peer at things. So, in the semantic structure of to peer are encoded circumstances preventing one from seeing clearly.

VIII. The synonyms pretty, handsome, beautiful have been mentioned as the ones which are more or less interchangeable. Yet, each of them describes a special type of human beauty: beautiful is mostly associated with classical features and a perfect figure, handsome with a tall stature, a certain robustness and fine pro portions, pretty with small delicate features and a fresh complexion. This connotation may be defined as the connotation of attendant features.

IX. Stylistic connotations stand somewhat apart for two reasons. Firstly, some scholars do not regard the word's stylistic characteristic as a connotative component of its semantic structure. Secondly, stylistic connotations are subject to further classification, namely: colloquial, slang, dialect, learned, poetic, terminological, archaic. Here again we are dealing with stylistically marked words (see Ch. 1, 2), but this time we approach the feature of stylistic characteristics from a different angle: from the point of view of synonyms frequent differentiation characteristics.

Here are some examples of synonyms which are differentiated by stylistic connotations (see also Ch. 2). The word in brackets starting each group shows the denotation of the synonyms.

(Meal). Snack, bite (coll.), snap (dial.), repast, refreshment, feast (formal).

These synonyms, besides stylistic connotations, have connotations of attendant features.

Snack, bite, snap all denote a frugal meal taken in a hurry; refreshment is also a light meal; feast is a rich or abundant meal.

(Girl). Girlie (coll.), lass, lassie (dial.), bird, birdie, jane, fluff, skirt (sl.), maiden (poet.), damsel (arch.).

(To leave). To be off, to clear out (coll.), to beat it, to hoof it, to take the air (sl.), to depart, to retire, to withdraw (formal).

A man entered the bar and called for "a Martinus". The barman observed as he picked up a glass, "You mean Martini, sir!" "No, indeed I don't," the man replied. "I was taught Latin properly and I only want one."

A foreigner was relating his experience in studying the English language. He said: "When I first discovered that if I was quick I was fast; that if I was tied I was fast; and that not to eat was fast, I was discouraged. But when I came across the sentence, 'The first one wonone-dollar prize' I gave up trying."

J a n e: Would you be insulted if that good-looking stranger offered you some champagne?

Joan: Yes, but I'd probably swallow the insult.

11. Synonyms (continued). Euphemisms. Antonyms

The Dominant Synonym

The attentive reader will have noticed that in the previous chapter much use was made of the numerous synonyms of the verb to look, and yet, the verb to look itself was never mentioned. That doesn't seem fair because it is, certainly, a verb which possesses the highest frequency of use compared with its synonyms, and so plays an important role in communication. Its role and position in relation to its synonyms is also of some importance as it presents a kind of centre of the group of synonyms, as it were, holding it together.

Its semantic structure is quite simple: it consists only of denotative component and it has no connotations.

All (or, at least, most) synonymic groups have a "central" word of this kind whose meaning is equal to the denotation common to all the synonymic group. This word is called the dominant synonym.

Here are examples of other dominant synonyms with their groups:

To surprise -- to astonish -- to amaze -- to astound.

To shout -- to yell -- to bellow -- to roar.

To shine -- to flash -- to blaze -- to gleam -- to glisten -- to sparkle -- to glitter -- to shimmer -- to glimmer.

To tremble -- to shiver -- to shudder -- to shake.

To make -- to produce -- to create -- to fabricate -- to manufacture.

Angry -- furious -- enraged. Fear -- terror -- horror.

The dominant synonym expresses the notion common to all synonyms of the group in the most general way, without contributing any additional information as to the manner, intensity, duration or any attending feature of the referent. So, any dominant synonym is a typical basic-vocabulary word (see Ch. 2). Its meaning, which is broad and generalised, more or less "covers" the meanings of the rest of the synonyms, so that it may be substituted for any of them. It seems that here, at last, the idea of interchangeability of synonyms comes into its own. And yet, each such substitution would mean an irreparable loss of the additional information supplied by connotative components of each synonym. So, using to look instead of to glare, to stare, to peep, to peer we preserve the general sense of the utterance but lose a great deal in precision, expressiveness and colour.

Summing up what has been said, the following characteristic features of the dominant synonym can be underlined:

I. High frequency of usage.

II. Broad combinability, i. e. ability to be used in combinations with various classes of words.

Broad general meaning.

Lack of connotations. (This goes for stylistic connotations as well, so that neutrality as to style is also a typical feature of the dominant synonym.)


There are words in every language which people instinctively avoid because they are considered indecent, indelicate, rude, too direct or impolite. As the "offensive" referents, for which these words stand, must still be alluded to, they are often described in a round-about way, by using substitutes called euphemisms. This device is dictated by social conventions which are sometimes apt to be over-sensitive, see "indecency" where there is none and seek refinement in absurd avoidances and pretentiousness.

The word lavatory has, naturally, produced many euphemisms. Here are some of them: powder room, washroom, restroom, retiring room, (public) comfort station, ladies' (room), gentlemen's (room), water-closet, w.c. ([d0blju:'si:]), public conveniences and even Windsor castle (which is a comical phrase for "deciphering" w.c.).

Pregnancy is another topic for "delicate" references. Here are some of the euphemisms used as substitutes for the adjective pregnant: in an interesting condition, in a delicate condition, in the family way, with a baby coming, (big) with child, expecting.

The apparently innocent word trousers, not so long ago, had a great number of euphemistic equivalents, some of them quite funny: unmentionables, inexpressibles, indescribables, unwhisperables, you-mustn't-men-tion 'ems, sit-upons. Nowadays, however, nobody seems to regard this word as "indecent" any more, and so its euphemistic substitutes are no longer in use.

A landlady who refers to her lodgers as paying guests is also using a euphemism, aiming at half-concealing the embarrassing fact that she lets rooms.

The love of affectation, which displays itself in the excessive use of euphemisms, has never been a sign of good taste or genuine refinement. Quite the opposite. Fiction writers have often ridiculed pretentious people for their weak attempts to express themselves in a delicate and refined way.

"... Mrs. Sunbury never went to bed, she retired, but Mr. Sunbury who was not quite so refined as his wife always said: "Me for Bedford" ..."

To retire in this ironical passage is a euphemistic substitute for to go to bed.

Another lady, in Rain by the same author, easily surpasses Mrs. Sunbury in the delicacy of her speech. She says that there are so many mosquitoes on the island where the story is set that at the Governor's parties "all the ladies are given a pillow-slip to put their -- their lower extremities in."

The speaker considers the word legs to be "indelicate" and substitutes for it its formal synonym lower extremities (cf. with the R. нижние конечности). The substitution makes her speech pretentious and ridiculous.

Eating is also regarded as unrefined by some minds. Hence such substitutes as to partake of food (of refreshment), to refresh oneself, to break bread.

There are words which are easy targets for euphemistic substitution. These include words associated with drunkenness, which are very numerous.

The adjective drunk, for instance, has a great number of such substitutes, some of them "delicate", but most comical. E. g. intoxicated (form.), under the influence (form.), tipsy, mellow, fresh, high, merry, flustered, overcome, full (coll.), drunk as a lord (coll.), drunk as an owl (coll.), boiled (sl.), fried (sl.), tanked (sl.), tight (sl.), stiff (sl.), pickled (sl.), soaked (sl.), three sheets to the wind (sl.), high as a kite (sl.), half-seas-over (sl.), etc.

The following brief quotation from P.G. Wodehouse gives two more examples of words belonging to the same group:

"Motty was under the surface. Completely sozzled."

(From Pight-Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse)

In the following extracts from P.G. Wodehouse we find slang substitutes for two other "unpleasant" words: prison and to imprison.

"Oh, no, he isn't ill," I said, "and as regards accidents, it depends on what you call an accident. He's in chokey."

"In what?"

"In prison."

"... And now Mr. Sipperley is in the jug... He couldn't come himself, because he was jugged for biffing a cop on Boat-Race Night."


Euphemisms may, of course, be used due to genuine concern not to hurt someone's feelings. For instance, a liar can be described as a person who does not always strictly tell the truth and a stupid man can be said to be not exactly brilliant.

All the euphemisms that have been described so far are used to avoid the so-called social taboos. Their use, as has already been said, is inspired by social convention.

Superstitious taboos gave rise to the use of other type of euphemisms. The reluctance to call things by their proper names is also typical of this type of euphemisms, but this time it is based on a deeply-rooted subconscious fear.

Superstitious taboos have their roots in the distant past of mankind when people believed that there was a supernatural link between a name and the object or creature it represented. Therefore, all the words denoting evil spirits, dangerous animals, or the powers of nature were taboo. If uttered, it was believed that unspeakable disasters would result not only for the speaker but also for those near him. That is why all creatures, objects and phenomena threatening danger were referred to in a round-about descriptive way. So, a dangerous animal might be described as the one-lurking-in-the-wood and a mortal disease as the black death. Euphemisms are probably the oldest type of synonyms, for it is reasonable to assume that superstitions which caused real fear called for the creation of euphemisms long before the need to describe things in their various aspects or subtle shades caused the appearance of other synonyms.

The Christian religion also made certain words taboo. The proverb Speak of the devil and he will appear must have been used and taken quite literally when it was first used, and the fear of calling the devil by name was certainly inherited from ancient superstitious beliefs. So, the word devil became taboo, and a number of euphemisms were substitutes for it: the Prince of Darkness, the black one, the evil one, dickens (coll.), deuce (coll.), (Old) Nick (coll.).

The word God, due to other considerations, also had a great number of substitutes which can still be traced in such phrases as Good Lord!, By Heavens/, Good Heavens!, (My) goodness!, (My) goodness gracious!, Gracious me!

Even in our modern emancipated times, old superstitious fears still lurk behind words associated with death and fatal diseases. People are not superstitious nowadays and yet they are surprisingly reluctant to use the verb to die which has a long chain of both solemn and humorous substitutes. E. g. to pass away, to be taken, to breathe one's last, to depart this life, to close one's eyes, to yield (give) up the ghost, to go the way of all flesh, to go West (sl.), to kick off (sl.), to check out (sl.), to kick the bucket (sl.), to take a ride (sl.), to hop the twig (sl.), to join the majority (sl.).

The slang substitutes seem to lack any proper respect, but the joke is a sort of cover for the same old fear: speak of death and who knows what may happen.

Mental diseases also cause the frequent use of euphemisms.

A mad person may be described as insane, mentally unstable, unbalanced, unhinged, not (quite) right (coll.), not all there (coll.), off one's head (coll.), off one's rocker (coll.), wrong in the upper storey (coll.), having bats in one's belfry (coll.), crazy as a bedbug (coll.), cuckoo (sl.), nutty (sl.), off one's nut (sl.), loony (sl.), a mental case, a mental defective, etc.

A clinic for such patients can also be discreetly referred to as, for instance, an asylum, sanitarium, sanatorium, (mental) institution, and, less discreetly, as a nut house (sl.), booby hatch (sl.), loony bin (sl.), etc.

In the story by Evelyn Waugh "Mr. Loveday's Little Outing" a clinic of this kind, treating only very rich patients, is described as large private grounds suitable for the charge of nervous or difficult cases. This is certainly the peak of euphemistic "delicacy".

The great number of humorous substitutes found in such groups of words prove particularly tempting for writers who use them for comical purposes. The following extracts from a children's book by R. Dahl are, probably, not in the best of taste, but they demonstrate the range of colloquial and slang substitutes for the word mad.

"He's gone off his rocker!" shouted one of the fathers, aghast, and the other parents joined in the chorus of frightened shouting.

"He's crazy!" they shouted.

"He's balmy!"

"He's nutty!"

"He's screwy!"

"He's batty!"

"He's dippy!"

"He's dotty!'*

"He's daffy!"

"He's goofy!"

"He's beany!"

"He's buggy!"

"He's wacky!"

"He's loony!"

"No, he is not!" said Grandpa Joe.

(From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by R. Dahl)

... "What did I tell you!" -- cried Grandma Georgina. "He's round the twist! He's bogged as a beetle! He's dotty as a dingbat! He's got rats in the roof!..."


All the above examples show that euphemisms are substitutes for their synonyms. Their use and very existence are caused either by social conventions or by certain psychological factors. Most of them have stylistic connotations in their semantic structures. One can also assume that there is a special euphemistic connotation that can be singled out in the semantic structure of each such word. Let us point out, too, that euphemistic connotations in formal euphemisms are different in "flavour" from those in slang euphemistic substitutes. In the first case they are solemn and delicately evasive, and in the second rough and somewhat cynical, reflecting an attempt to laugh off an unpleasant fact.


We use the term antonyms to indicate words of the same category of parts of speech which have contrasting meanings, such as hot -- cold, light -- dark, happiness -- sorrow, to accept -- to reject, up -- down.

If synonyms form whole, often numerous, groups, antonyms are usually believed to appear in pairs. Yet, this is not quite true in reality. For instance, the adjective cold may be said to have warm for its second antonym, and sorrow may be very well contrasted with gaiety.

On the other hand, a polysemantic word may have an antonym (or several antonyms) for each of its meanings. So, the adjective dull has the antonyms interesting, amusing, entertaining for its meaning of "deficient in interest", clever, bright, capable for its meaning of "deficient in intellect", and active for the meaning of "deficient in activity", etc.

Antonymy is not evenly distributed among the categories of parts of speech. Most antonyms are adjectives which is only natural because qualitative characteristics are easily compared and contrasted: high -- low, wide -- narrow, strong -- weak, old -- young, friendly -- hostile.

Verbs take second place, so far as antonymy is concerned. Yet, verbal pairs of antonyms are fewer in number. Here are some of them: to lose -- to find, to live -- to die, to open -- to close, to weep -- to laugh.

Nouns are not rich in antonyms, but even so some examples can be given: friend -- enemy, joy -- grief, good -- evil, heaven -- earth, love -- hatred.

Antonymic adverbs can be subdivided into two groups: a) adverbs derived from adjectives: warmly -- coldly, merrily -- sadly, loudly -- softly; b) adverbs proper: now -- then, here -- there, ever -- never, up -- down, in -- out.

Not so many years ago antonymy was not universally accepted as a linguistic problem, and the opposition within antonymic pairs was regarded as purely logical and finding no reflection in the semantic structures of these words. The contrast between heat and cold or big and small, said most scholars, is the contrast of things opposed by their very nature.

In the previous chapter dealing with synonymy we saw that both the identity and differentiations in words called synonyms can be said to be encoded within their semantic structures. Can the same be said about antonyms? Modern research in the field of antonymy gives a positive answer to this question. Nowadays most scholars agree that in the semantic structures of all words, which regularly occur in antonymic pairs, a special antonymic connotation can be singled out. We are so used to coming across hot and cold together, in the same contexts, that even when we find hot alone, we cannot help subconsciously registering it as not cold, that is, contrast it to its missing antonym. The word possesses its full meaning for us not only due to its direct associations but also because we subconsciously oppose it to its antonym, with which it is regularly used, in this case to hot. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the semantic structure of hot can be said to include the antonymic connotation of "not cold", and the semantic structure of enemy the connotation of "not a friend".

It should be stressed once more that we are speaking only about those antonyms which are characterised by common occurrences, that is, which are regularly used in pairs. When two words frequently occur side by side in numerous contexts, subtle and complex associations between them are not at all unusual. These associations are naturally reflected in the words' semantic structures. Antonymic connotations are a special case of such "reflected associations".

Together with synonyms, antonyms represent the language's important expressive means. The following quotations show how authors use antonyms as a stylistic device of contrast.

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty1 world. (From Merchant of Venice by W. Shakespeare. Act V, Sc. I)

... But then my soul's imaginary sight Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, 1 naughty -- wicked, evil (obs.)

Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night, Makes black night beauteous and her old face new. (From Sonnet XXVII by W. Shakespeare)

Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,

Lethe's weed and Hermes' feather,

Come to-day, and come to-morrow,

I do love you both together!

I love to mark sad faces in fair weather;

And hear a merry laughter amid the thunder;

Fair and foul I love together.

(From A Song of Opposites by J. Keats)

... The writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.

(From The Moon and Sixpence by W. S. Maugham)

They [the Victorians] were busy erecting, of course; and we have been busy demolishing for so long that now erection seems as ephemeral an activity as bubble-blowing.

(From The French Lieutenant's Woman by J. Fowles);


I. Consider your answers to the following.

Which word in a synonymic group is considered to be the dominant synonym? What are its characteristic features?

Can the dominant synonym be substituted for certain other members of a group of synonyms? Is the criterion of interchangeabitity applicable in this case?

V.: Do you want me to ride on the wrong side?

P.: You are driving on the wrong side.

V.: But you said that I was driving on the right side.

P.: That is right. You are on the right, and that's wrong.

V.: A strange country! If right is wrong, I'm right when I'm on the wrong side. So why did you stop me?

P.: My dear sir, you must keep to the left. The right side is the left.

V.: It's like a looking-glass! I'll try to remember. Well, I want to go to Bellwood. Will you kindly tell me the way?

P.: Certainly. At the end of this road, turn left.

V.: Now let me think. Turn left! In England left is right, and right is wrong. Am I right?

P.: You'll be right if you turn left. But if you turn right, you'll be wrong.

V.: Thank you. It's as clear as daylight.

2. Flying instructors say that pilot trainees are divided into optimists and pessimists when reporting the amount of fuel during flights. Optimists report that their fuel tank is half full while pessimists say it's half empty. 3. The canvas homes, the caravans, the transportable timber frames -- each had its light. Some moving, some still. 4. His words seemed to point out that sad, even, tragic things could never be gay. 5. It was warm in the sun but cool under the shady trees. 6. He is my best friend and he is my bitter enemy. 7. Every man has feminine qualities and every woman has masculine ones. 8. He hated to be exposed to strangers, to be accepted or rejected.

12. Phraseology: Word-Groups with Transferred Meanings

Phraseological units, or idioms, as they are called by most western scholars, represent what can probably be described as the most picturesque, colourful and expressive part of the language's vocabulary.

If synonyms can be figuratively referred to as the tints and colours of the vocabulary, then phraseology is a kind of picture gallery in which are collected vivid and amusing sketches of the nation's customs, traditions and prejudices, recollections of its past history, scraps of folk songs and fairy-tales. Quotations from great poets are preserved here alongside the dubious pearls of philistine wisdom and crude slang witticisms, for phraseology is not only the most colourful but probably the most democratic area of vocabulary and draws its resources mostly from the very depths of popular speech.

And what a variety of odd and grotesque images, figures and personalities one finds in this amazing picture gallery: dark horses, white elephants, bulls in china shops and green-eyed monsters, cats escaping from bags or looking at kings, dogs barking up the wrong tree and men either wearing their hearts on their sleeves or having them in their mouths or even in their boots. Sometimes this parade of funny animals and quaint human beings looks more like a hilarious fancy-dress ball than a peaceful picture gallery and it is really a pity that the only interest some scholars seem to take in it is whether the leading component of the idiom is expressed by a verb or a noun.

The metaphor fancy-dress ball may seem far-fetched to skeptical minds, and yet it aptly reflects a very important feature of the linguistic phenomenon under discussion: most participants of the carnival, if we accept the metaphor, wear masks, are disguised as something or somebody else, or, dropping metaphors, word-groups known as phraseological units or idioms are characterised by a double sense: the current meanings of constituent words build up a certain picture, but the actual meaning of the whole unit has little or nothing to do with that picture, in itself creating an entirely new image.

So, a dark horse mentioned above is actually not a horse but a person about whom no one knows anything definite, and so one is not sure what can be expected from him. The imagery of a bull in a china shop lies very much on the surface: the idiom describes a clumsy person (cf. with the R. слон в посудной лавке). A white elephant, however, is not even a person but a valuable object which involves great expense or trouble for its owner, out of all proportion to its usefulness or value, and which is also difficult to dispose of. The green-eyed monster is jealousy, the image being drawn from Othello1 . To let the cat out of the bag has actually nothing to do with cats, but means simply "to let some secret become known". In to bark up the wrong tree (Amer.), the current meanings of the constituents create a vivid and amusing picture of a foolish dog sitting under a tree and barking at it while the cat or the squirrel has long since escaped. But the actual meaning of the idiom is "to follow a false scent; to look for somebody or something in a wrong place; to expect from somebody what he is unlikely to do". The idiom is not infrequently used

1 O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on ... (lago's words from Act III, Sc. 3)

in detective stories: The police are barking up the wrong tree as usual (i.e. they suspect somebody who has nothing to do with the crime).

The ambiguousness of these interesting word groups may lead to an amusing misunderstanding, especially for children who are apt to accept words at their face value.

Little Johnnie (crying): Mummy, mummy, my auntie Jane is dead.

Mother: Nonsense, child! She phoned me exactly five minutes ago.

Johnnie: But I heard Mrs. Brown say that her neighbours cut her dead.

(To cut somebody dead means "to rudely ignore somebody; to pretend not to know or recognise him".)

Puns are frequently based on the ambiguousness of idioms:

"Isn't our Kate a marvel! I wish you could have seen her at the Harrisons' party yesterday. If I'd collected the bricks she dropped all over the place, I could build a villa."

(To drop a brick means "to say unintentionally a quite indiscreet or tactless thing that shocks and offends people".)

So, together with synonymy and antonymy, phraseology represents expressive resources of vocabulary-

V. H. Collins writes in his Book of English Idioms: "In standard spoken and written English today idiom is an established and essential element that, used with care, ornaments and enriches the language." [26]

Used with care is an important warning because speech overloaded with idioms loses its freshness and originality. Idioms, after all, are ready-made speech units, and their continual repetition sometimes wears them out: they lose their colours and become trite cliches. Such idioms can hardly be said to "ornament" or "enrich the language".

On the other hand, oral or written speech lacking idioms loses much in expressiveness, colour and emotional force.

In modern linguistics, there is considerable confusion about the terminology associated with these word-groups. Most Russian scholars use the term "phraseological unit" ("фразеологическая единица") which was first introduced by Academician V.V.Vinogradov whose contribution to the theory of Russian phraseology cannot be overestimated. The term "idiom" widely used by western scholars has comparatively recently found its way into Russian phraseology but is applied mostly to only a certain type of phraseological unit as it will be clear from further explanations.

There are some other terms denoting more or less the same linguistic phenomenon: set-expressions, set-phrases, phrases, fixed word-groups, collocations.

The confusion in the terminology reflects insufficiency of positive or wholly reliable criteria by which phraseological units can be distinguished from "free" word-groups.

It should be pointed out at once that the "freedom" of free word-groups is relative and arbitrary. Nothing is entirely "free" in speech as its linear relationships are governed, restricted and regulated, on the one hand, by requirements of logic and common sense and, on the other, by the rules of grammar and combinability. One can speak of a black-eyed girl but not of a black-eyed table (unless in a piece of modernistic poetry where anything is possible). Also, to say the child was glad is quite correct, but a glad child is wrong because in Modern English glad is attributively used only with a very limited number of nouns (e. g. glad news), and names of persons are not among them.

Free word-groups are so called not because of any absolute freedom in using them but simply because they are each time built up a new in the speech process whereas idioms are used as ready-made units with fixed and constant structures.

How to Distinguish Phraseological Units from Free Word-Groups

This is probably the most discussed -- and the most controversial -- problem in the field of phraseology. The task of distinguishing between free word-groups and phraseological units is further complicated by the existence of a great number of marginal cases, the so-called semi-fixed or semi-free word-groups, also called non-phraseological word-groups which share with phraseological units their structural stability but lack their semantic unity and figurativeness (e. g. to go to school, to go by bus, to commit suicide).

There are two major criteria for distinguishing between phraseological units and free word-groups: semantic and structural.

Compare the following examples:

A. Cambridge don: I'm told they're inviting more American professors to this university. Isn't it rather carrying coals to Newcastle?

(To carry coals to Newcastle means "to take something to a place where it is already plentiful and not needed". Cf. with the R. В Тулу со своим самоваром.)

B. This cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool.

The first thing that captures the eye is the semantic difference of the two word-groups consisting of the same essential constituents. In the second sentence the free word-group is carrying coal is used in the direct sense, the word coal standing for real hard, black coal and carry for the plain process of taking something from one place to another. The first context quite obviously has nothing to do either with coal or with transporting it, and the meaning of the whole word-group is something entirely new and far removed from the current meanings of the constituents.

Academician V.V. Vinogradov spoke of the semantic change in phraseological units as "a meaning resulting from a peculiar chemical combination of words". This seems a very apt comparison because in both cases between which the parallel is drawn an entirely new quality comes into existence.

The semantic shift affecting phraseological units does not consist in a mere change of meanings of each separate constituent part of the unit. The meanings of the constituents merge to produce an entirely new meaning: e. g. to have a bee in one's bonnet means "to have an obsession about something; to be eccentric or even a little mad". The humorous metaphoric comparison with a person who is distracted by a bee continually buzzing under his cap has become erased and half-forgotten, and the speakers using the expression hardly think of bees or bonnets but accept it in its transferred sense: "obsessed, eccentric".

That is what is meant when phraseological units are said to be characterised by semantic unity. In the traditional approach, phraseological units have been defined as word-groups conveying a single concept (whereas in free word-groups each meaningful component stands for a separate concept).

It is this feature that makes phraseological units similar to words: both words and phraseological units possess semantic unity (see Introduction). Yet, words are also characterised by structural unity which phraseological units very obviously lack being combinations of words.

Most Russian scholars today accept the semantic criterion of distinguishing phraseological units from free word-groups as the major one and base their research work in the field of phraseology on the definition of a phraseological unit offered by Professor A.V. Koonin, the leading authority on problems of English phraseology in our country:

"A phraseological unit is a stable word-group characterised by a completely or partially transferred meaning." [12]

The definition clearly suggests that the degree of semantic change in a phraseological unit may vary ("completely or partially transferred meaning"). In actual fact the semantic change may affect either the whole word-group or only one of its components. The following phraseological units represent the first case: to skate on thin ice (~ to put oneself in a dangerous position; to take risks); to wear one's heart on one's sleeve1 (~ to expose, so that everyone knows, one's most intimate feelings); to have one's heart in one's boots (~ to be deeply depressed, anxious about something); to have one's heart in one's mouth (~ to be greatly alarmed by what is expected to happen); to have one's heart in the right place (~ to be a good, honest and generous fellow); a crow in borrowed plumes (? a person pretentiously and unsuitably dressed; cf. with the R. ворона в павлиньих перьях); a wolf in a sheep's clothing2 (~ a dangerous enemy who plausibly poses as a friend).

The second type is represented by phraseological units in which one of the components preserves its current meaning and the other is used in a transferred meaning: to lose (keep) one's temper, to fly into a temper, to fall ill, to fall in love (out of love), to stick to one's word (promise), to arrive at a conclusion, bosom friends, shop talk (also: to talk shop), small talk.

1 The origin of the phrase is in a passage in Othello where Iago says:

... 'tis not long after

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at.

(Act I, Sc. 1)

2 The allusion is to a fable of Aesop.

Here, though, we are on dangerous ground because the border-line dividing phraseological units with partially changed meanings from the so-called semi-fixed or non-phraseological word-groups (marginal cases) is uncertain and confusing.

The term "idiom", both in this country and abroad, is mostly applied to phraseological units with completely transferred meanings, that is, to the ones in which the meaning of the whole unit does not correspond to the current meanings of the components. There are many scholars who regard idioms as the essence of phraseology and the major focus of interest in phraseology research.

The structural criterion also brings forth pronounced distinctive features characterising phraseological units and contrasting them to free word-groups.

Structural invariability is an essential feature of phraseological units, though, as we shall see, some of them possess it to a lesser degree than others. Structural invariability of phraseological units finds expression in a number of restrictions.

First of all, restriction in substitution. As a rule, no word can be substituted for any meaningful component of a phraseological unit without destroying its sense. To carry coals to Manchester makes as little sense as Б Харьков со своим самоваром.

The idiom to give somebody the cold shoulder means "to treat somebody coldly, to ignore or cut him", but a warm shoulder or a cold elbow make no sense at all. The meaning of a bee in smb's bonnet was explained above, but a bee in his hat or cap would sound a silly error in choice of words, one of those absurd slips that people are apt to make when speaking a foreign language.

At the same time, in free word-groups substitution does not present any dangers and does not lead to any serious consequences. In The cargo ship is carrying coal to Liverpool all the components can be changed:

The ship/vessel/boat carries/transports/takes/brings coal to (any port).

The second type of restriction is the restriction in introducing any additional components into the structure of a phraseological unit.

In a free word-group such changes can be made without affecting the general meaning of the utterance: This big ship is carrying a large cargo of coal to the port of Liverpool.

In the phraseological unit to carry coals to Newcastle no additional components can be introduced. Nor can one speak about the big white elephant (when using the white elephant in its phraseological sense) or about somebody having his heart in his brown boots.

Yet, such restrictions are less regular. In Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray the idiom to build a castle in the air is used in this way:

"While dressing for dinner, she built for herself a most magnificent castle in the air of which she was the mistress ..."

In fiction such variations of idioms created for stylistic purposes are not a rare thing. In oral speech phraseological units mostly preserve their traditional structures and resist the introduction of additional components.

The third type of structural restrictions in phraseological units is grammatical invariability. A typical mistake with students of English is to use the plural form of fault in the phraseological unit to find fault with somebody (e. g. The teacher always found faults with the boy). Though the plural form in this context is logically well-founded, it is a mistake in terms of the grammatical invariability of phraseological units >. A similar typical mistake often occurs in the unit from head to foot (e. g. From head to foot he was immaculately dressed). Students are apt to use the plural form of foot in this phrase thus erring once more against the rigidity of structure which is so characteristic of phraseological units.

Yet again, as in the case of restriction in introducing additional components, there are exceptions to the rule, and these are probably even more numerous.

One can build a castle in the air, but also castles. A shameful or dangerous family secret is picturesquely described as a skeleton in the cupboard, the first substantive component being frequently and easily used in the plural form, as in: I'm sure they have skeletons in every cupboard! A black sheep is a disreputable member of a family who, in especially serious cases, may be described as the blackest sheep of the family.


Consider the following examples of proverbs:

We never know the value of water till the well is dry.

You can take the horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink.

Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Even these few examples clearly show that proverbs are different from those phraseological units which have been discussed above. The first distinctive feature that strikes one is the obvious structural dissimilarity. Phraseological units, as we have seen, are a kind of ready-made blocks which fit into the structure of a sentence performing a certain syntactical function, more or less as words do. E. g. George liked her for she never put on airs (predicate). Big bugs like him care nothing about small fry like ourselves, (a) subject, b) prepositional object).

Proverbs, if viewed in their structural aspect, are sentences, and so cannot be used in the way in which phraseological units are used in the above examples.

If one compares proverbs and phraseological units in the semantic aspect, the difference seems to become even more obvious. Proverbs could be best compared with minute fables for, like the latter, they sum up the collective experience of the community. They moralise (Hell is paved with good intentions), give advice (Don't judge a tree by its bark), give warning (If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before night), admonish (Liars should have good memories), criticise (Everyone calls his own geese swans).

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