The use of common names in idiomatic expressions

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The use of common names in idiomatic expressions

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3. Practical Chapter. The use of proper names in idioms


3.1 The methodology of the Research


The aim of the research work is to analyze the use of proper names in English idioms and to identify origins of these names. Idioms were classified into two groups: with personal names and with place names. The definitions of the collocated idioms were presented as well and they were illustrated with examples. The scope of the work is 97 idioms which were selected from the following sources:

  • Longman Idioms Dictionary (1999).

The distribution of all taken examples is shown in figure No. 1.


Figure No.1 Kinds of idioms


Research methods employed in the work are as follow:

  • Descriptive-theoretical literary analysis provided a possibility to review numerous issues concerning features of proper nouns.
  • Statistical method was salutary for the processing of the results of the empirical part of the research.

The English language has quite a long list of idioms. Idioms with personal and place names among all the idioms are not the prevailing ones. To compare both idioms with personal and place names researched in our work we can draw a conclusion than idioms with personal names are used more frequently in the English language. In our sources we have found only 24 ones with place names and even 73 idioms with personal names, in percent style, accordingly 25 % and 75 %. For example:

  • Be robbing Peter to pay Paul to take money from one part of a system or organization that needs it and use it for another part of the system or organization, so that you deal with one difficulty but still have problems. (Longman Idiom Dictionary:1999:261). Idiom with personal names.
  • New York minute (USA) if something happens in a New York minute, it happens very fast. ( Idiom with place name.


3.2 Idioms with personal names


We have analyzed 73 idioms with personal names and while analyzing the idiom we have noticed that they could be divided into groups according to their origins. We distinguished the following groups:

  1. Names derived from mythology.
  2. Names derived from religion.
  3. Names based on characters of the books, films, cartoons etc.
  4. Names derived from folk mythology.
  5. Names of the real persons.
  6. Others.

Results of this analysis are shown in figure № 2.


Figure № 2.Origin of personal names in idioms


According to the results we made conclusions that religion and mass media influence peoples language the most. Idioms with these names are quite popular and very often used in spoken language. For example, idioms based on religion characters:

  1. Raise Cain to complain a lot about something in an angry or noisy way because you are determined to get what you want (
  2. Put the fear of God into somebody to make someone feel frightened of doing something wrong by making them realize the bad things that could happen if they do it (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:139).
  3. Adam's apple the Adam's apple is a bulge in the throat, mostly seen in men (

Let us see the origin of the name Cain this person was the first murderer according to scriptural accounts in the Bible Genesis 4 and in the Qur'an 5:27-32. The biblical account, from the King James' Version, tells us how Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve, bring offerings to God, but only Abel's is accepted. Cain kills Abel in anger and is cursed by God (Ошибка! Недопустимый объект гиперссылки.).

The next big group is idioms with personal names which are taken from famous books, songs, cartoons. For example:

  1. Rip van Winkle Rip van Winkle is a character in a story that slept for twenty years, so if someone is a Rip van Winkle, they are behind the times and out of touch with what is happening now (
  2. Mickey Mouse something that is intellectually trivial or not of a very high standard (
  3. Live a life of Riley used in order to say that someone has a very comfortable, easy life without having to work hard or worry about money (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:210).

Let us look at the origin of the name Riley this phrase originated in a popular song of the 1880s, “Is That Mr. Reilly?” by Pat Rooney, which described, what its hero would do if he suddenly came into a fortune (

Idioms with personal names that are related to real persons are also often used in the English language. We have found 13 idioms of this kind. For example:

  1. Bobs your uncle said after you tell someone how to do something, in order to emphasize that it will be simple and will definitely achieve the result they want (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:33).
  2. Look a right Charlie to look very strange or stupid, so that people laugh at you, or feel that people are going to laugh at you (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:58).
  3. 50 million Elvis fans cant be wrong used to say that something must be true because so many people think so (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:103).

Two well-known persons in our examples are Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin. Let us look at the example Bobs your uncle. It is a catchphrase dating back to 1887, when British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury decided to appoint a certain Arthur Balfour to the prestigious and sensitive post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. Not lost on the British public was the fact that Lord Salisbury just happened to be better known to Arthur Balfour as “Uncle Bob”. In the resulting furor over what was seen as an act of blatant nepotism, “Bob's your uncle” became a popular sarcastic comment applied to any situation where the outcome was preordained by favoritism ('s_your_uncle).

The smallest group found in our research was idioms with personal names originated from mythology. In spite of that, we could not say that those idioms are unknown or used very rarely. We have selected 10 idioms of this kind. Let us look at the examples:

  1. Achilles' heel a weakness of someones character that causes them problems, or the weak part of a place, system, argument where it can easily be attacked or criticized (
  2. Midas touch the ability to earn money very easily (
  3. A sword of Damocles something bad that may affect your situation at any time and make it much worse (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:335).

All these persons are well-known from Greek mythology. The death of Achilles was not mentioned in Homers Iliad, but appeared in later Greek and Roman poetry and drama concerning events after the Iliad, later in the Trojan War. According to a myth arising later, his mother, Thetis, had dipped the infant Achilles in the river Styx, holding onto him by his heel, and he became invulnerable where the waters touched him -- that is, everywhere but the areas covered by her thumb and forefinger implying that only a heel wound could have been his downfall.


3.3 Idioms with place names


Analyzing the idioms with proper names we have found 23 idioms with place names. That is 25 % of all researched idioms. We have discovered that all the place names mentioned in idioms were real. In spite of that some of them were mentioned in the Bible, for example, Road to Damascus if someone has a great and sudden change in their ideas or beliefs, then this is a road to Damascus change, after the conversion of Saint Paul to Christianity while heading to Damascus to persecute Christians, place Damascus is real. The most common place name used in idioms is Rome. For example:

  • All roads lead to Rome This means that there can be many different ways of doing something (
  • Fiddle while Rome burns used when you disapprove because someone is spending too much time or attention on unimportant matters instead of trying to solve bigger and more important problems (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:288).
  • Rome was not built in a day this idiom means that many things cannot be done instantly, and require time and patience (

Idioms with personal names are more frequently used than idioms with place names.


4. Groups of the personal names


In our research we have distinguished 6 main groups of the origin of the personal names used in idioms. The distinguished groups are the following ones:

Names derived from mythology:

  1. A sword of Damocles something bad that may affect your situation at any time and make it much worse (Longman Idioms Dictionary: 1999:335).
  2. A Pyrrich victory used about a situation in which you are successful, but you suffer

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