Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Interpreting idioms


Immediate comprehension processes involved in the interpretation of idiomatic expressions were investigate. Idioms like “bury the hatchet” were used in sentential contexts that (1) biased the listener toward a literal interpretation, (2) biased the listener toward a figurative interpretation, or (3) left the interpretation ambiguous between the literal and figurative readings. In control sentences, the final words of the idioms were used in nonidiomatic expressions. Listeners monitored the sentences for specified targets. In all cases, the target words were the final words of the idiomatic phrases. The listeners were instructed to detect words that were identical to cue words, that rhymed with the cue words, or that were members of semantic categories specified by cue words. Thus, “hatchet” was cued with either “hatchet”, “ratchet”, or “a tool”. Reaction-time latencies from the onset of the targets to the listeners' responses were obtained. Identity, Rhyme, and Category matches were detected more rapidly in all three idiomatic contexts than in the nonidiomatic controls. These results suggest that idioms are automatically processed as discrete lexical entries, and that previously observed reaction time advantages for figurative expressions may reflect integrative processes rather than retrieval of meaning.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Bolinger, D. Meaning and memory.Forum Linguisticum, 1978,1, 1–14.

  2. Fraser, B.The verb-particle combination in English. Tokyo: Taishukan, 1974.

  3. Gibbs, R. W. Spilling the beans on understanding and memory for idioms in conversation.Memory and Cognition, 1980,8, 149–156.

  4. Heringer, J. Idioms and lexicalization in English. In J. P. Kimball (Ed.),Syntax and semantics (Vol. 9): The Grammar of causative constructions. New York: Academic Press, 1971.

  5. Honeck, R. P., Voegtle, K., Dorfmueller, M. A., & Hoffman, R. R. Proverbs, meaning, and group structure. In R. P. Honeck & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.),Cognition and figurative language. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1980.

  6. Kemper, S. Comprehension and the interpretation of proverbs.Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 1981,8, 367–371.

  7. Marslen-Wilson, W., & Tyler, L. K. The temporal structure of spoken language understanding.Cognition, 1980,8, 1–71.

  8. Ortony, A. Some psycholinguistic aspects of metaphor. In R. P. Honeck & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.),Cognition and figurative language. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1980.

  9. Ortony, A., Schallert, D., Reynolds, R., & Antos, S. Interpreting metaphors and idioms.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1978,17, 465–478.

  10. Steinmann, M. Figurative language and the two-code hypothesis. In R. W. Fasold & R. W. Shy (Eds.),Analyzing variation in language. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1973.

  11. Swinney, D. A., & Cutler, A. The access and processing of idiomatic expressions.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1979,18, 523–534.

  12. Weinreich, U. Problems in the analysis of idioms. In J. Puhuel (Ed.),Proceedings of the Summer 1966 Linguistics Forum at UCLA, 1967,11, 23–81. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Susan Kemper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Estill, R.B., Kemper, S. Interpreting idioms. J Psycholinguist Res 11, 559–568 (1982).

Download citation


  • Target Word
  • Semantic Category
  • Lexical Entry
  • Sentential Context
  • Final Word