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A disservice prove
(Illustration by Gustave Doré )

A phrase , also phraseologism , idiom or idiomatic phrase, is a fixed combination of several words ("fixed word combination") to form a unit, the overall meaning of which is not directly derived from the meaning of the individual elements. It is a rhetorical stylistic device and the special case of a collocation .


The variety of old and new terms results in terminological chaos. In English even the overarching term of the rhetorical stylistic device ("figure of speech") is used as a further synonym. In German, the following terms are used side by side:

Expression , idiom, standing phrase , fixed expression, idiom , phrase , empty phrase or formula .

The Duden defines idiom as a "fixed connection of words that together have a certain, mostly figurative meaning".

The word phraseology denotes both the entirety of the idioms that occur in a language and the science that deals with them. A phraseological unit is the combination of two or more words that do not form a unit that can be explained by themselves. As an example, the saying bite the grass : It has nothing to do with biting the apple or falling into the grass . The phrase means "to die" and cannot be replaced by phrases like biting into the meadow or snapping into the grass .

SWR Wissen distinguishes the idiom from the proverb in that the idiom is part of sentences, while a proverb is a whole sentence.

Figurative meaning

The linguist Lutz Röhrich points out that literal and figurative meanings often coexist.

For example, the phrase "The stove is off" can mean two things:

  1. The fire in the stove is out.
  2. The “fire” of a relationship is extinguished: the participants no longer want to have anything to do with each other.

Understanding first requires knowledge of the background. The acquisition of linguistic imagery is a process that extends over a large part of childhood and in the end can extend over a lifetime. So z. B. a non-native speaker to learn what the German words green and branch mean; but in order to know the meaning of getting on a green branch (“taking the right path” / “becoming successful” / “coming to prosperity”), one needs greater familiarity with the German.

Word combinations and vocabulary

Phraseologisms determine the specifics of a language more than the vocabulary. The idiomatic nature of a phrase is shown by the fact that

  • the exchange of individual elements results in a non-systematic change in meaning: doing someone a cat service to someone doing a disservice , over hand over hand under hand
  • there is also a "literal" reading of the phrase to which the preceding rule does not apply.

These expressions are differentiated from the groups of free (non-fixed) word combinations and loose word combinations. In an imprecise manner of speaking, proverbs , idioms , functional verb structures and twin formulas are subsumed under idioms .

They often contain former rhetorical figures , especially metaphors . They almost always originated from historically older unidiomatic (“literally used”) syntagms . The inanalysability of the meaning is almost always dissolved when the history of a phrase can only be traced back far enough. Idioms (like all vocabulary elements) can have a limited regional distribution.

What the idiom has in common with the proverb is a memorable image, the wording of which cannot be changed. So it is called keeping mole monkeys for sale and not selling mole monkeys .

Literary quotations that have found their way into common parlance as idioms are called winged words .

See also


  • Matthias Zimmermann: About naked robins and farting wolves. The funniest sayings of our European neighbors. , be.bra, Berlin 2009.
  • Elke Donalies: Basic knowledge of German phraseology. Francke, Tübingen / Basel 2009 (= UTB 3193).
  • Kurt Krüger-Lorenzen: German idioms. And what's behind it. Heyne, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-453-18838-1 .
  • Wolfgang Mieder : German idioms, proverbs and quotations. Studies on their origin, tradition and use . Praesens, Vienna 1995, ISBN 3-901126-41-4 .
  • Lutz Röhrich : The great lexicon of proverbial sayings. New edition in 3 volumes. Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 1991/92, ISBN 3-451-22080-6 .
  • Kurt Sontheim: proverb, proverbial and metaphorical phrase. Synchronic and diachronic studies on semantic-idiomatic constructions in English . Dissertation, University of Erlangen 1972.
  • Christoph Tiemann : Roasted storks with phat beats - on the trail of idioms and new words. Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, Reinbek near Hamburg 2014, ISBN 978-3-499-62871-9 .

Web links

Wiktionary: idiom  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: list of idioms  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Bibliographisches Institut (Ed.): Redewendung . In: Duden online .
  2. Rolf-Bernhard Essig: What is the difference between a proverb, a phrase and a winged word? In: SWR knowledge. April 11, 2019, accessed on January 6, 2020 (speaking contribution).