Qualities and sequences in English idioms

Updated: Feb 27


(1) English idioms contain references to one or more of the more exciting qualities hot, fluid, disorder, dynamic, bright, red, white, up, out, multiple and/or one or more references to their opposites cold, order, static, dark, blue, black, down, in, few or reasonably synonymous things at unexpectedly high rates. (2) Idioms contain two or more psychothermal qualities in a sequence at unexpectedly high rates. (3) Idioms with such sequences may be psychothermal (with two qualities from the same category) or mixed (with at least one quality from each category). Mixed sequences are more common than simple ones in idioms. (4) Mixed sequences can be either perceivable (made of opposites we can observe to be opposite) or imperceivable (made of opposites we can't directly observe). Imperceivable complex sequences are as common in English idioms as perceivable ones.


More and less exciting qualities, or references which are reasonably synonymous with them, occur at higher than expected rates in English idioms and probably idioms in all other languages. Consider the following random sample of ten idioms: Sample 1: under your nose (down), down to the wire (down—long), playing possum (dynamic), I smell a rat, down and out (down—out), read ‘em and weep (fluid), keep your shirt on, par for the course, burst your bubble (disorder—round), tug of war (in—disorder), generated by Seven out of ten (70%) of the idioms in the sample reference one or more of the qualities hot, fluid, disorder, dynamic, bright, red, white, up, out, multiplicity, novelty or their opposites. Using a random set of the same number of different qualities in the same way, rather than the ones set out here, is probably much less effective in matching idiom structure, and it should be remembered that idiomatic language, to begin with, has no sufficient explanation and neither do any of the idioms themselves with respect to their literal meaning. References reasonably synonymous with the qualities are colored blue if they correspond to lower excitement and pink if they tend to correspond to higher excitement. The quality or sequence they appear to represent usually follows in parentheses. We can see the high rate at which idioms are made up of a sequence of two or more references to thermal qualities. In this sample 30% of the idioms contain a sequence, and all of the sequences happen to be mixtures. Consider another set of ten random, popular phrases, from Sample 2: dressed to the nines (many), back the field, the whole nine yards (many), blast from the past (disorder—past), a watched pot never boils (solid/in—hot/fluid/disorder/dynamic), men's evil manners live in brass, their virtues we write in water (dynamic—solid—fluid), fifth column, sayings and phrases about March, movers and shakers (dynamic—dynamic), stiffen the sinews (solid—solid). In this sample 70% of the idioms reference at least one given quality and 50% contain two qualities in a sequence, results similar to those for the first sample. Some things represent more than one quality simultaneously, as in a pot, which has an essence of both solidness and inwardness, or boiling water, which is simultaneously synonymous with four of the more exciting qualities. Idioms sometimes contain information revealing how we feel generally about a thing referred to in terms of excitement. For instance that “the whole nine yards” is more exciting than “the whole two yards,” which doesn’t exist, is an indication that larger numbers are more exciting than smaller ones, in accordance with the hypothesis that multiplicity or many is universally more exciting than singularity and few. Some idioms containing sequences of two or more of the given qualities are simple in the sense that they reference only those from within a single category. "Movers and shakers” is an example of a simple sequence of more exciting things, which, fittingly, is used to describe energetic people. The combination is more exciting than calling such people only movers or only shakers. Ultimately, the phrase exists for our mutual amusement, in hearing and saying it, rather than as a useful or accurate description of reality, and it shows the excitement we attach to dynamic motion and the extra excitement we attach to double dynamic motion. Consider a third set of random idioms. Sample 3: top notch (up), read between the lines, shoot through, that's all she wrote, full of piss and vinegar (fluid—fluid)/ a piece of cake, fools’ gold (bright), hooray henry, like a moth to a flame (hot/bright), the pot calling the kettle black (solid/in—dark), 50% refer to one or more given quality and there’s one sequence of more exciting fluids and one of less exciting solid dark inwardness, or two simple sequences, and there are no mixtures. “The pot calling the kettle black” contains the information that there’s something more extreme about being a dark solid container than a solid container, or that the sequence dark—solid—in is more extreme in the less exciting direction than solid—in. “Piss and vinegar” is like “movers and shakers” but with double fluidity instead of double dynamism conveying excitement, and similar to “stiffen sinews” and “kettle black” in being a simple sequence. There’s something logical about the idea of adding more exciting things together to be even more exciting, or enhancing the less exciting by stringing together references to things we find less exciting. It's relatively simple to understand how these came to be popular compared to complex sequences and mixtures such as “pot never boils,” “tug of war” and “live in brass.” Like simple sequences they can tell us about the mind. Along with other examples to be found in everyday language, they could be used to discover that the brain is liquid crystalline or make predictions about animal behavior. They should be interpreted as strong evidence for a thermoaesthetic approach.

More samples: Sample 4: carry coals to newcastle, good samaritan, half-hearted, ne'er do well, there are three kinds of lies, ring any bells, chop-chop, higgledy-piggledy, hot off the press, the die has been cast. Sample 5: fair play, a riddle wrapped up in an enigma, wreak havoc, the powers that be, on the fiddle, tilting at windmills, get the sack, say cheese, Canterbury pace, blow your own trumpet. Sample 6: a norange, catch 22, stool pigeon, on a wing and a prayer, ring a ring o'roses, a pocketful of posies, atishoo, atiishoo, all fall down, a pig in a poke, doesn't know shit from Shinola, a bee in your bonnet, misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, cooking the books, faff about. Sample 7: bucket list, keep your eyes peeled, fool's errand, local derby, through thick and thin, my mind's eye, two down one to go, done to a turn, in the box-seat, Achilles’ heel. Sample 8: deus ex machina, broad in the beam, be still my beating heart, music has charms to soothe the savage breast, third time lucky, rack your brains, have an axe to grind, blood sweat and tears, without so much as a by your leave. Sample 9: a plague on both your houses, cherchez la femme, it is meat and drink to me, separate the sheep from the goats, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, cut off your nose to spite your face, a turn up for the books, the belle of the ball, go to the mattresses, trip the light fantastic. Sample 10: cut the mustard, from strength to strength, the living daylights, smoke and mirrors, the game is afoot, high five, level playing field, shoddy, driving while black, a wide berth.


Out of 10 samples of 10 idioms, every sample contained at least 1 reference to a thermal quality. On average there were 8.8 qualities per set of ten idioms, or 0.88 qualities per idiom. Every sample contained at least 1 thermal sequence. On average there were 3.1 sequences per sample, or 0.031 sequences per idiom. All but one, or 90% of the samples contained a complex sequence but only 70% contained a simple sequence. On average there were 2.2 complex sequences per sample and 0.9 simple ones. Across all the idioms regardless of samples 52 out of 100 contain at least one thermal quality reference and 34 contain a sequence. Among sequences, 10 are simple and 24 are complex. Among complex sequences 75% are made of imperceivable opposites.


Any sufficiently large collection of idioms or artistic language which is randomly generated with respect to whether or not it contains the given qualities will contain references to them and synonymous things at high rate.


The rate at which the qualities or sequences of interest are found depends on agreement about what constitutes something synonymous to a quality, on the number of qualities used to make the assessment, and the art form in that some use more fantastic language than others. For example poetry is likely to have a higher proportion of references to qualities and mixtures than idioms or band names because idioms are partially practical and band names are likely to be the names of artists.


The literal meanings of popular idiomatic expressions, used here as evidence of a surprisingly simple physical mechanism acting in the mind, don’t explain why use them, by definition, and neither do their origins. The idea of a cloud having a silver lining, for instance, appears to have come from lines of John Milton’s Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634: “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night? / I did not err: there does a sable cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night,…” but this tells us nothing about how and why the phrase has become so popular. The sentiment expressed—that there’s always good mixed in with bad—could be conveyed by any number of other expressions having nothing to do with clouds and silver. The origin of the phrase and its application have little to do with its popularity; the mystery lies in why it came to Milton's mind, and why others were then so amused by the idea of the mixture of a fluid cloud with solid, bright silver that we adopted it as a standard way of expression optimism. The lines could be translated, roughly, into a sequence of reasonably synonymous phenomena such as lie—dark—fluid—dynamic—solid/bright—line—dark—truth—dark—fluid—dynamic—solid/bright—line—dark, which provides a clue to the popularity of “every cloud has a silver lining,” in that the phrase is a mixture of opposing qualities, fluid—solid/bright—line, in the same way that the surrounding lines of the poem are. Elsewhere in the poem clouds and other essentially fluid phenomena are used in combination with stasis, darkness, solidness inwardness and downwardness: “Stay thy cloudy ebon chair…,” “Hid them in some flowery cave…,” “Bore a bright golden flower, but not in this soil…,” “That stayed her flight with his cross-flowing course…,” “The water-nymphs, that in the bottom played…,” and “There I suck the liquid air….” Contradictions involving the qualities mentioned above make up a large part of this and many other poems. For example the first five lines: "Before the starry threshold of Jove's court / My mansion is, where those immortal shapes / Of bright aerial spirits live insphered / In regions mild of calm and serene air, / Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot...," provide examples of excitement in a container and roundness disruption in the form of brightness, fluidity and life in a sphere and a mansion, excitement at an entrance, like pearly gates, in the form of a "starry threshold," dynamic order in "immortal shapes," static fluidity in "mild of calm and serene air," and dark fluidity in "smoke and stir of this dim spot." The abundance of other examples of fluidsolid mixtures throughout the lexicon and in art generally indicates that we shouldn't try to explain popularity of "cloud with a silver lining," or any other expressions with the same structure in terms of their individual meanings and origins, but rather in terms of psychology and physics.

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