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Lexicon of Common Figurative Units

Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond. Volume II


Elisabeth Piirainen

The book continues the work of Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond (2012) and also brings new insights into the similarities of the European languages. Using comprehensive data from 78 European and some non-European languages, another 280 “widespread idioms” have been analyzed in terms of their distribution and origins. They are arranged according to their source domains (for example, performing arts, sports, history, war, technology, money, folk belief, medical skills, gestures, and nature). Among them are very modern layers of a common figurative lexicon, including quotes of personalities of recent times. Thorough research on the sources of these idioms goes beyond the entries in relevant reference works and brings new and unpredictable results. All of the data in this book adds new knowledge to the fields of language and culture. We now know which Europe-wide common idioms actually constitute a “Lexicon of Common Figurative Units” and which chronological and cultural layers they may be assigned to. The question about the causes of the wide spread of idioms across many languages now can partly be answered.

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6 Cultural Symbols


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6.1 Symbols as Source Concepts: Preface

Most widespread idioms that have been identified so far are motivated metaphorically, partly on the abstract level of conceptual metaphor and, for the most part, on the level of rich imagery where the source frame—evoked by the lexical structure of the idiom as a whole—serves as a metaphorical basis. In this chapter I will look at widespread idioms that are motivated by cultural symbols.1 The relevant cultural knowledge of this kind of motivation mainly ← 239 | 240 → extends to one single constituent (or more precisely, to the concept behind it) and not to the idiom as a whole. This constituent can be separated from other elements of the idiom’s word string; it shows semantic autonomy. The motivational link between the literal and figurative meanings of symbol-based idioms is established by specific symbolic knowledge. This means that the constituent in question has symbolic equivalents in cultural codes outside language, such as mythology, religion, folk belief, popular customs, fairy tales, literature, iconography, fine arts and the like. This characteristic of symbols is accompanied by a high degree of culture-based conventionalization.

A good example of a cultural symbol in figurative language is the concept WOLF. Various languages have figurative units with a constituent for “wolf” in symbolic functions. DANGER, MALICE, AGGRESSIVENESS and EVIL are central symbolic functions of the WOLF, as well as GREED and ECONOMIC DESPAIR, because the wolf, from remote antiquity, has been noted for its greediness,...

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