Lexis 24: The birth and propagation of Phraseological Units


Phraseology – the study of preconstructed expressions also known as phrasemes, set phrases, phraseological units, multi-word units, formulaic language, word combinations, etc. – has been a very productive and major field of research since its “coming of age” in the 1990s (Cowie [1998]). It has generated numerous works on a wide variety of topics. However, the birth and propagation of phraseological units has been among the least discussed aspects. Several reasons might account for such a dearth, such as the passing of time, which makes it tedious and difficult to study the origins of phrasemes, most of which are centuries old and mainly present in the oral tradition. Another reason is the difficulty to differentiate the creator of a phrase from a famous user (Villers & Mieder [2017]), despite gigantic corpora that include billions of words. Finally, as pointed by Burger et al. [2007], certain areas of research have come to assume a more “central role” in phraseology, such as the cognitive (Dobrovol’ski & Piirainen [2005], Gibbs [1995], Wray [2008]), the cultural (Piirainen [2012], Sabban [2007], Szerszunowicz [2009]), the didactic (Fielder [2007], Meunier & Granger [2008]), or lexicographic approaches (Cowie [2012], Mel’cuk [2012], Moon [1998]). This has left very little limelight for phenomena like the birth and propagation of phrasemes. The current issue of Lexis aims to fill this gap and expand on existing research.

Among specialised literature, where subtypes like proverbs and idioms are often the focus of research, it is generally accepted that a substantial portion of phrasemes originates in written works such as the Bible, Latin and Greek classics and the translations of Erasmus’s collections of sayings, or Antique fables (Mieder [2015], Paczolay [1997], Piirainen [2012]). Nowadays, the sources have evolved, making a corpus-based approach slightly easier. Scholars who have focused on modern phrasemes note that they tend to originate in mass media (Lau et al. [2004], Mieder [2015]): films (Run, Forrest, run! from Forrest Gump), TV shows (Is that your final answer? from Who wants to be a millionaire), advertising slogans (Because you’re worth it from L’Oreal), songs (Eye of the Tiger by Survivor), viral images on the Internet, i.e. memes (Haters gonna hate) and even video games (The cake is a lie from Portal, Villers [2018]). Unsurprisingly, some of them also stem from social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok.

The process of phraseological birth and propagation is even more elusive than the identification of the sources and creators. Scholars generally consider that PUs are “linguistic signs that are handed down historically and coined culturally” (Piirainen [2012]). Their creation is traditionally viewed as a particular type of lexicalisation (Bauer [1983], Fielder [2007]). This famous and controversial notion may be summarised as a diachronic and progressive process whereby a new element is coined and becomes accepted by a larger community, resulting in semantic or formal modifications that imply a loss of motivation or departure from productive rules (Bauer [1983], Hohenhaus [2005], Lipka [1992]). But the latter modifications do not seem to be compatible with all types of phraseological units, which is why many scholars, including Quirk et al. [1985] or Moon [1998], use the term institutionalization, which implies a more sociolinguistic approach, while cognitive linguists prefer the notion of entrenchment (Langacker [2017]). Other domain-specific hyponyms are sometimes used: phraseologization (e.g. Mel’cuk [2021]) or phraseogenesis and phraseme genesis in Villers [2018, 2022]. The latter draws from Heylighen & Chielens [2009] and adapts their “memetic” approach – a cultural analogue of genetics – to phrasemes, resulting in a model that identifies four main stages in phraseme genesis and a dozen key factors or propagation boosters, which include novelty, usefulness, simplicity, ornatus, publicity, or prestige.

Despite a variety of labels and conflicting definitions, all these terms refer to the very same phenomenon, which concerns all neologisms. This is why the two general stages mentioned above – coinage and acceptance – are consistently identified in the descriptions of linguists and folklorists alike (Bauer [1983], Mieder [2015], Taylor [1934]. This still leaves us with many questions, and more research is needed to consolidate this relatively uncharted area. This is why the present issue welcomes all articles on the following topics:

  • The birth or lexicalization of phraseological units;

  • The factors that boost their chances of propagation;

  • Their various media of propagation, including modern ones;

  • The detection of new phrasemes and the limitations of online corpora;

  • The differences in the lexicalisation of different subtypes of phrasemes;

  • The death and obsolescence of phrasemes.

Furthermore, all methodologies and frameworks are also welcome. They can include theoretical articles or case studies on specific phrasemes and adopt a number of approaches: corpus-based, folkloristic, stylistic, lexicographic, memetic, or any other, whether diachronic or synchronic. They may deal with phraseological units in the traditional sense – i.e. polylexical units such as idioms, proverbs, collocations, phrasal verbs, non-figurative or comparative locutions, etc. – or in a broader sense, as defended by Legallois & Tutin [2013] or Mel’cuk [2015], which includes syntactic patterns or polylexemic units.


Bauer L., 1983, English Word Formation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burger H., Dobrovol’skij D., Kuhn P. & Norrick N., 2007, Phraseology: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research, Berlin: De Gruyter.

Cowie A-P., 1998, “Introduction”, in Cowie, A.-P. (Ed.), Phraseology, Theory, Analysis, and Applications, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1-23.

Cowie A-P., 2012, “Dictionaries, language learning and phraseology”, International Journal of Lexicography 25-4, 386-392.

Dobrovol’ski D. & Piirainen E., Figurative language : Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic perspectives, Amsterdam; Elsevier.

Fielder S., 2007. English Phraseology: A Coursebook. Tübigen : Gunter Narr Verlag.

Gibbs R., 1995, “Idiomaticity and human cognition”, in Everaert M. et al. (Eds.), Idioms: Structural and Psychologi-cal Perspectives, Hillsdale-New Jersey-Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 97-116.

Heylighen F. & Chielens K., 2009, “Cultural evolution and memetics”, in Meyers R. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Complexity and System Science, 3205-3220.

Hohenhaus P., 2005, “Lexicalisation and Institutionalisation”, in Stekauer P.& Lieber R. (Eds.), Handbook of English Word-Formation, Dordrecht: Springer, 353-373.

Lau K., Tokofsky P., Winick S., 2004, What goes around comes around: the circulation of Proverbs in contemporary life, Utah State University.

Legallois D. & Tutin A., 2013, « Vers une extension du domaine de la phraséologie », Langages 189, 3-25.

Langacker R-W., 2017, “Entrenchment in cognitive grammar”, in Schmid H.-J. (Ed.), Entrenchment and the psychology of language learning: How we reorganize and adapt linguistic knowledge, American Psychological Association: De Gruyter Mouton, 39-56.

Lipka L., 1992, An Outline of English Lexicology, Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Mel’cuk I., 2012, “Phraseology in the language, in the dictionary, and in the computer”, Yearbook of Phraseology, Vol 3, 31-56.

Mel’cuk I., 2015, “Clichés, an Understudied Subclass of Phrasemes”, Yearbook of Phraseology, Vol 6, 55-85.

Mel’cuk I., 2021, “Morphemic and syntactic phrasemes”, Yearbook of Phraseology, Vol 12, 33-74.

Meunier F. & Granger S. (Eds.), 2008, Phraseology in foreign language learning and teaching, John Benjamins.

Mieder W., 2015, “Origin of Proverbs”, in Hrisztova-Gotthardt H. & Varga M. (Eds.), Introduction to Paremiology: A comprehensive guide to proverb studies, De Gruyter Open, 28-48.

Moon R., 1998, Fixed expressions and idioms in English: a corpus-linguistic approach, Oxford University Press.

Paczolay G., 1997, European Proverbs in 55 Languages, Indiana University: Veszprém: Veszprémi Nyomda.

Piirainen E., 2012, Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond, New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Quirk R., Greenbaum S., Leech G. & Svartvik J., 1985, A comprehensive grammar of the English language, London: Longman.

Sabban A., 2007, “Culture-boundness and problems of cross-cultural phraseoloy”, in Burger H. et al. (Eds.), Phraseology: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research, Berlin: De Gruyter, 237-253.

Szerszunowicz J., 2009, “The linguo-cultural analyses of European phraseological units in a contrastive perspective”, Phraseology, Corpus Linguistics and Lexicography. Papers from Phraseology, 115-132.

Taylor A., 1934, “Problems in the study of the Proverb”, Journal of American Folklore 47, 230-260.

Villers d. & Mieder w., 2017, “Time is Money. Benjamin Franklin and the Vexing Problem of Proverb Origins”, Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship 34, 391-404.

Villers D., 2018, “The cake is a lie: witnessing the birth of a modern phraseme”, in Filatkina N. & Stumpf S. (Eds.), Konventionalisierung und Variation, Berlin: Peter Lang.

Villers D., 2022, “What makes a good proverb? On the birth and propagation of proverbs”, Lexis 19. URL: http:// journals.openedition.org/lexis/6383.

Wray A., 2008, Formulaic language: Pushing the boundaries, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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June 2023: Call for papers

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