Experimental Approaches to the Perception and Production of Language Variation (ExAPP III) date:21-24 September 2016
Recent corpus-based research has shown that idioms can be utilized with a range of variation (cf. Moon, 1998; Barlow, 2000; Duffley, 2013; Schröder, 2013), from lexical variation (e.g. 'say / kiss goodbye to something'), to inserted modifiers (e.g. 'pull the political strings'), and even partial or truncated forms (e.g. 'the fat lady is warming up'). But few experimental studies have investigated idiomatic variation (cf. Gibbs et al., 1989;
McGlone et al., 1994), while no study has explored the spontaneous, creative variants produced by speakers. This study explores idiomatic variation through an elicitation task specifically designed to encourage creativity.
Sixty idioms and definitions were selected from the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (Ayto, 2009). Newspaper snippets were extracted from the Strathy Corpus of Canadian English (Strathy Language Unit, 2013) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008). Participants were asked to create headlines for the newspaper snippets using the provided idioms. If they did not know an idiom, a definition was provided. They were told that the expression did not have to be exact and encouraged to be creative.
We explore the range of variation used with each idiom, and with each speaker. Among the results, we observe that speakers tend to use certain modification strategies with specific idioms. For example, 'call the shots' is predominantly used in its canonical form, modified only for progressive aspect, whereas 'jump on the bandwagon' is largely used as a partial form (i.e. 'bandwagon') or with additional information integrated into the expression. Speakers also demonstrate preferred patterns. Some speakers seldom use variation, while others employ variation, such as allusion, quite extensively (e.g. 'Kerr’s restaurant definitely not rounded' [cut corners]). This study shows that speakers can be exceptionally creative with idioms, but that this variation is realized differently across idioms and speakers.