Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 6 June 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
    Mysore 570006, India
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


B. Syamalakumari



The distinction between phrase, idiom and proverb is sometimes blurred in Indian languages. Traditional Indian grammarians recognized the special status the proverbs occupy in wisdom, moral, or didactic literature. Idioms have been generally taken care of under prosodic features such as metaphor and analogy. The distinction between phrase and sentence, however, was not well maintained in Indian grammatical traditions. The definition of a sentence often revolved around the use of the finite verb in a syntactic construction. Modern attitudes and information, however, make a clear distinction between these three elements, although the overlap between them cannot be denied.


Very often we speak of phrases, idioms and proverbs. We do have our own ideas of what each of these indicates in our languages. Still when it comes to a collection of idioms or proverbs we see that there is no distinction made. Books of idioms are found to include any number of proverbs and vice versa. Even dictionaries do not offer a clear-cut structural or functional definition or a convincing explanation of these three items. For example, the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Proverb as "a short pithy saying in general use," Idiom as "a peculiarity of phraseology approved by usage though having meaning not deducible from those of the separate words" and Phrase as "a small group of words without predicate especially preposition with the word (s) it governs equivalent to adjectives, adverbs or nouns." 'Phraseology' is used to mean choice or arrangement of words.

The above definitions or explanations, however inadequate they may be, help us to have some working understanding of these terms.

Though proverb is a short saying, all sayings cannot be proverbs. A proverb is a saying that indicates the essence of experience of at least a sizable population of the speech community and which has gained currency in the speech of the language community - generally acceptable to all. Proverb is a frozen sentence to which the speakers do not or cannot add or from which they do not or cannot delete words. Structurally speaking, proverb is a sentence and it essentially contains a predicate. It takes generations of speakers to absorb sayings which contain the essence of human experience, and to freeze them as special sentences.


An idiom is also like a phrase with a small group of words. But the difference between a phrase and an idiom may be identified as follows: One can guess the meaning of the given phrase if one knows the meanings of the individual words constituting the phrase. But, even if one knows the meanings of the words constituting an idiom, one may not know the idiom. We may not be able to use it in a proper context if we do not know the actual meaning/usage in which that particular idiom has been used in the language.

Example 1: Look at the usage of the combination of the words blue-eyed in the following English sentences.

  1. That blue-eyed boy is my teacher's pet.
  2. He is my teacher's blue-eyed boy.

In sentence 1, blue-eyed is used to mean the one with blue eyes. In sentence 2, blue-eyed indicates favored, or preferred, etc.

Example 2: Consider how the combination of the words tala i Darutu in the following Malayalam sentences is used.

  1. kuTTii, nii aa ooTTayil tala iDarutu. "Dear, don't put (your) head into that hole."
  2. kuTTii, nii ende kaaryattil tala iDarutu. "Dear, don't interfere (Don't interfere in my matters)."

In sentence 3, tala iDarutu means 'do not put head' which is the literal meaning of the constituent words, (Don't put (your) head into that hole.) In sentence 4, tala iDarutu means 'don't interfere' (Don't interfere in my matters.)



Proverbs and idioms beautify the language and establish the characteristic style of individual languages. Speech/Writing studded with proverbs and idioms are generally considered as flowery language, although an overload of it, for that matter any nicety, may not be relished much. Lack of knowledge or understanding of proverbs and idioms in a language prevents the learner from understanding the cultural niceties or peculiarities.


Thus, after identifying an idiom which could be a noun or verb phrase (but not a sentence-like proverb), the meaning of which is not equal to the totality of the meanings of the constituents of the phrase, we may go in for collecting the same. Collection may be done by recalling from memory and also from written materials, both old and new literature, periodicals, and newspapers. It may be noted that in most of our periodicals and newspapers we find many idioms borrowed or coined through loan translation from languages such as English and Hindi.


I am currently involved in developing and supervising a project at the Central Institute of Indian Languages to prepare a Dictionary of Idioms in some selected Indian languages. This Dictionary of Idioms is intended to serve a variety of purposes and groups of first, second, and foreign language learners of these languages. The Dictionary is not merely applied linguistics-oriented, but it is based on research into the various processes of idiom formation in these selected languages. However, I would not say that this Dictionary is intended to be wholly comprehensive or descriptive of the processes of idiom formation. It is designed to be an instructional tool, which the students, teachers, and materials producers could use to meet their needs.

An interesting byproduct of this project is that the Dictionary can be used to make comparative and contrastive studies of the processes of idiom formation found between Indian languages. The Dictionary naturally will lead to a comparison and contrast of cultures represented by the languages taken up for study.

A Dictionary of Idioms is also very useful for translation work. Second language learners and translators stand to lose a lot if they do not familiarize themselves with the proverbs and idioms of the language they learn for purposes of translation.


The Dictionary of Idioms when completed will have the following format.

  1. Introduction.
  2. List of abbreviations, instructions for users.
  3. Idioms presented in the classified groups.
  4. Some model exercises for learners.
  5. List of idioms entered in the alphabetical order.


Reading a Book

Regarding the presentation of idioms under classified groups, the Dictionary of Idioms will adopt a semantic domains classification that will include domains such as kinship, body parts, nature, seasons, home and household articles including kitchen utensils, plant kingdom, etc. I followed this format in my earlier projects for the preparation of Recall Vocabulary, and Pictorial Vocabulary in various Indian languages. However, some important changes need to be incorporated because the concepts or ideas dealt with by the idioms do not neatly fall under specific concepts or topics. Often, an idiom reflects a combination of several ideas, all functioning together as a unit under some, often unspecifiable but intuitively felt, super-ordinate category. The content of an idiom goes well beyond a single object. In each particular group, the entries may be made alphabetically.

Each entry in the Dictionary of Idioms will consist of the idiom, its explanatory meaning, two illustrative sentences, one taken from any book or periodical published, and another supplied by the compiler - the workshop participant. The information from where the sentence is taken (for the selected sentence) may also be given. Information, whether the particular idiom is a native language idiom or a borrowed one, may also be given.

Model exercises will consist of multiple choice as well as open-ended questions with respect to the meanings of idioms, usage in sentences by giving incomplete sentences, and also giving particular contexts where suitable idioms could be used.

The index with alphabetical order of the idioms will indicate cross reference to the section in which the entry is found in the Dictionary.


  1. Idioms do change through the years. Changes may take place within a generation itself. If a language is actively used in certain dynamic domains such as political expressions, newspapers, movies and theater, realistic fiction and drama, and in frequent dialogues between groups that speak different dialects of the same languages, or communicate through another language frequently, or adopt a hybrid form of expression that is currently noticed among all the educated classes of India irrespective of their mother tongue background, new coinages are brought about continuously. Changes in the use of the idioms that are already in use are also introduced. This Dictionary will try to capture some of these processes through giving meanings appropriate to the current usage, while marking those meanings not in current usage as obsolete, etc. A finer classification than the distinction between current and obsolete is required here.
  2. For the benefit of the teachers and translators, I intend giving a descriptive note that will list some of the methods of adding idioms to the language being studied. This note will be very useful to understand the linguistic processes at work.
  3. I will also include information as to how an idiom may be fitted in an individual sentence. Does it work as a noun, noun phrase, adjective, adverb, or verb within a sentence, or does it work as an independent sentence construction?
  4. Regional variations in the coinage and use of idioms may be of some interest to the students as well. A broad indication about the relevance of the idiom for a broader region will be shown. Whether an idiom is commonly used or used only in selected regions will be indicated.
  5. The presentation of the Hindi idioms, in particular, poses several problems. Some of the regional dialects of Hindi have their own peculiar idioms that may pose problems of comprehension even for the mother tongue speakers of standard Hindi. Hindi-Urdu idioms are another variety that needs to be taken into account when we identify a particular idiom as an idiom of the standard dialect, etc. Then, Hindi is rapidly modernizing itself with idioms from English even as the school textbook dialect leans heavily on the processes of Sanskritization. The rural and urban divide further adds to the peculiar situation. This is an exciting field for any enterprising student of linguistics and applied linguistics.
  6. The processes of loan blends, loan translations, and loan transcriptions and transliterations appear to dominate the coinage of new idioms in modern Indian languages. How do we accommodate and present the various peculiar spellings that are employed in these modern idioms? In other words, idioms are borrowed as they are, with their script and spelling intact. For example, in Tamil, it has become quite common to insert an English word as part of a Tamil idiom that is in the process of developing. Some Tamil writers take it to another level: they simply use the English word or words with English spelling in the Roman alphabet. If these English words are transcribed or transliterated, they often lose their pronunciation and impact. So, even the well-meaning and only-Tamil oriented writers are forced to use certain English words with their English spelling in the Roman script.
  7. One of the special characteristics of Indian idioms in most Indian languages is the process of reduplication. Reduplication as a process of idiom formation is more frequent. Any word may be reduplicated and used in some idiomatic sense. This special distinction found in many Indian languages needs to be carefully dealt with. Do we focus more on the processes and call these processes as idioms, rather than focusing on individual idioms that are the results of this process? Or is it correct at all to consider the reduplication process as adding to the processes of idiom formation?
  8. The roles of metaphor and simile in the processes of idiom formation have been dealt with in certain classical grammars such as those found in Tamil and Sanskrit. Along with the process of reduplication, the processes of metaphor and simile actually dominate the processes of idiom formation in major Indian languages, which have a rich heritage of written literature. Since one of the aims of this project is to focus more on the modern idioms, I will be very reluctant to include the idioms that are found used only in poetic and prose works of the past centuries. Understanding these idioms is necessary mainly to relish the literary pieces, and not for day-to-day communication. Since my goal is to produce a Dictionary of Idioms for purposes of current communication, I would rather reluctantly avoid the idioms that are found only in poetic works of the past centuries, even as I recognize the precious nature of these idioms.
  9. Idioms in the colloquial language change more frequently, but are more vigorously used as long as they are in use. On the other hand, the idioms of the written or formal language may not be used often for inter-personal communication, or in formal transactions. However, if these two types are in currently use and if these meet the needs of several domains of life, they will be listed in the Dictionary of Idioms proposed here.

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B. Syamalakumari
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India