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Interpreting idioms

Abstract

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.

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Correspondence to Susan Kemper.

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Estill, R.B., Kemper, S. Interpreting idioms. J Psycholinguist Res 11, 559–568 (1982). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01067612

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Keywords

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