Proper names in the structure of English idioms

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The article is devoted to the study of phraseological units with an anthroponymic component in their structure. The targeted group of the English vocabulary is analyzed from the point of view of their structure and semantics. In addition, a list of the most frequently used personal names in idioms has been identified, and their etymological analysis has been carried out.

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Phraseological units or idioms are described by many scholars as the most picturesque, colorful and expressive part of the language’s vocabulary. The very miscellaneous nature of these units and their huge number suggests that before being subjected to any linguistic analysis they must be sorted out according to a certain criterion and, thus, arranged into definite classes with identical characteristics.

The object of study in this article is a group of idioms united by the presence in their structure of one common element identified as a proper name.

Proper names which constitute a part of the language correlate with the objects of the world that surrounds us. From the point of view of their composition, the proper names are of varied character because they cover personal names and surnames of individuals, the names of works of art, nicknames of animals, geographical and astronomic names, and so on. We are going to consider only one group of idioms, the ones, with a component that belongs to the category of personal names.

According to their origin idioms containing personal names can be broken down into the following groups: a) idioms of foreign origin; b) native English idioms.

Regardless of their origin, all English idioms with personal names reflect different aspects of life and human experience. Since idioms originate in popular speech, their internal content is related to human life in its various manifestations. The basic theme of idioms is the attitude of people towards each other. Among idiomatic expressions there are those that disclose such topics as, ‘friendship’: David and Jonatan = inseparable friends; ‘human vices and weaknesses’: peeping Tom = too curious person; an artful Dodger = an experienced thief (the nickname of John Dawkins in the novel ‘Oliver Twist’); Paul Pry = man, popping the nose into other people's affairs; ‘features of character’=Tom Thumb–a petty or insignificant person; ‘drinks’= Tom Collins = a cold drink made of gin, lemon, or lime juice, sugar or carbonated water; Tom and Jerry = a hot drink made of rum, sugar, beaten eggs, spices, water or milk; Bloody Mary means a mixed alcoholic drink consisting of tomato juice, gin, lemon or lime juice and various seasonings.

etc. In addition to this, there are idioms denoting a certain feature of character: Jekyll and Hide = a person who shows two opposing or completely different natures or tendencies in his character (He is a real Jekyll and Hide at home he is kind and loving but in business he’s completely without principles); idioms denoting various kind of predicaments, difficult situations; idioms denoting various kind of weapons: Big Bertha = a long range weapon, the name being originated from the name of Bertha Krupp fon Bolen, wife of the head the plant that produced weapons; idioms denoting clothes: Mother Hubbard = long women’s apparel, etc.

From the syntactic point of view all English idioms with personal proper names can be divided into the following groups: a) idioms — words; b) idioms — sentences; c) idioms — phrases: noun (personal name) in the possessive case + common noun.

Let us consider idioms of foreign origin. Classical antiquity, the old antique world, the Bible have retained many of their heroes and gods whose names are used in idiomatic English expressions. Among expressions of biblical origin we can find the following ones: Naboth vineyard = object of envy, desire; The Song of Solomon = a book consisting of a love poem, dramatic and lyrical in character, etc. The number of idiomatic collocations contain their own personal names from the Bible is quite large.

A somewhat larger number of idioms with personal names date back to ancient literature. For example, Pandora’s box = a source of man’s troubles, from the Greek mythology the box containing all human ills: Zeus gave the box to Pandora who opened it and let escape all the human ills which made mankind now suffers from.

The names of the heroes of literary works have been firmly established in the English language in common meaning and are used to refer to qualities, properties, classes and ranks: Rip Van Winkle = someone who is unaware of current events and conditions (named after the hero of the story by V. Irving); A Mark Tapley = man not pessimistic under any circumstances ("Martin Chezzlvit")

Personal proper names that have originated in the pages of works of art, serve as generalizations and typifying specific features of literary characters.

In terms of their structure the following groups can be distinguished: a) idioms — words which consist of personal names — Jack Ketch = a public executioner,a hangman; b) idioms can have a structure of a sentence: Before you can say Jack Robinson = very quickly (He pulled the papers from the drawer, chose the most important ones, then, before you could say Jack Robinson, he was down the stairs and out of the house); c) expressions with the pattern [personal name in the possessive case + common noun]: Achilles’ heel = a weak point in a person’s character (His Achilles’ heal was his pride — he would get very angry if someone criticized his work); Juda's hair = red hair; Hobson's choice = no choice at all, esp. because one has to choose between what one is offered or nothing at all.

Analysis of this type of idioms, has shown that a personal name in most cases does not change its shape and acts in idiomatic phrases in the function of an adjective and a noun. In many cases, the use of certain personal names in idiomatic phrases in the function of a common noun can be explained by the frequency of their use, in general, or in a particular area. It turned out that the most common names are the following ones: Jack, John, Tom, Nick, Harry, Peter, Jill, Jane, Sally

Among the less frequently used names there are those that have been borrowed by the English language from different sources: Roland, Eve, Adam, Job, Simon, Mark.

The analysis of about 300 personal names has shown that bibleisms constitute about 38%, borrowings from the ancient Greek and Roman languages make up nearly 50%, and the names of literary characters are equal to nearly 11% of the total number of borrowed personal names that function in English idioms as their constituent element.

The research has made it possible to reveal that almost 50% of personal names are full names (male and female), about 12% are nickname-names, 16% are the names of actually existing people, and about 20% are the names of literary characters. What has found its reflection in personal names is the history and epic, national identity and the uniqueness of people. In ancient proper names we see reflection of language and cultural monuments. There is no name that would not have its history dating back to ancient times, and this history is not limited to the territory of one nation. Very often, it finds its continuation in other cultures.

Personal names under the influence of certain conditions start functioning as a common noun or can be completely converted into it. The emergence of values typical to common nouns in personal names or a complete transition of the latter into the category of common names helps to considerably enrich the vocabulary of the language as well as its expressive means.

Detailed study of idioms, in general, and the targeted group, in particular, is sure to promote language learning further. In addition, since cultural development of people, ethnic and private concepts are reflected in the lexicon under consideration, the study of the latter allows language learners to get acquainted with the features of national culture and national worldview. This is one of the primary reasons of the necessity of their being in the focus of attention in the EFL classroom.

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Список литературы

  1. A.V. Kunin Phraseology of the English language Moscow 1972
  2. Longman dictionary of English idioms London 1990
  3. A.V. Kunin English- Russian phraselogical dictionary M. Russky Yazyk 1994


Кудиярова, Г.М. Proper names in the structure of English idioms / Г.М. Кудиярова, М.К. Бегизова. — Текст : электронный // NovaInfo, 2023. — № 137. — С. 42-43. — URL: (дата обращения: 10.06.2023).