Tag Archives: Phraseologisms


Collocation (derived from Latin collocatio [con + locare ‘put together / side by side’]) [=> see "What we mean by collocation"]: According to a narrow, semantic definition, collocations are specific types of phraseologisms that fall somewhere between free word combinations on the one side and idiomatic expressions (e.g. fixed idioms) on the other. Collocations are thus neither "freely" combinable, nor fully idiomaticized. This is why they are often referred to as "semi-fixed". Typically, they are binary word combinations that are made up of two parts: the so-called base and the so-called collocator. The base is hierarchically higher than the collocator (in other words, the choice of collocator is always dependent on the base). The base word is usually used in its literal sense, while the meaning of the collocator within the collocation can be different from the word's basic or literal meaning. The collocator is thus the "unpredictable" half of the pair, the part that may differ from language to language, and the part that foreign language learners often don't know, get wrong or have to look up. For instance, in the collocations piantare un chiodo (‘hammer / drive [lit. “plant”] a nail into a wall’), la lezione salta (‘the lesson is cancelled [lit. “jumps”]’), and un CD / DVD vergine (‘a blank [lit. “virginal”] CD / DVD’), the nouns chiodo, lezione and CD / DVD are the bases, and the verbs piantare and saltare and the adjective vergine are the collocators.

Collocational range: This term refers to the sum of all words (lexemes) with which a specific word can enter into a lexical combination. If a word can be combined with a large number of other words, it has a large / broad collocational range (e.g. profondo ‘deep’, mangiare ‘eat’). If it can only be combined with few words, it has a narrow collocational range (e.g. commettere can only be used in combination with a few nouns that have negative connotations, such as reato ‘crime’, omicidio ‘murder’, furto ‘theft’ etc.). A very few lexemes even have a so-called “unique” or maximally restricted collocational range, such as scozzare, which can practically only be used with le carte (‘(playing) cards’) to mean 'to shuffle the cards'.

Conceptualization:  The term denotes the particular “angle” or “perspective” a language takes when considering a specific object. The conceptualization forms a sort of “bridge” between the mental image / concept and the linguistic form used to express it, highlighting a specific aspect of the object. Conceptualization is often different from one language to another. The German Handtuch lit. “hand-cloth” is thus a cloth / towel intended for hands, while the Italian asciugamano is simply ‘something which dries the hands’; the function of the object is thus foregrounded to a much greater degree in Italian (asciugare = ‘to dry’, mano = ‘hand’). In some cases, conceptualizations can be similar or even identical across languages, as in ammazzare il tempo - die Zeit totschlagen - to kill time (in German lit. “to beat to death”).

Free word combination: a grouping of two or more words that can be combined (more or less) “freely”, though always within the limits of certain semantic minimal rules (so-called “selectional restrictions”). For instance, the verb mangiare (‘to eat’) can be combined with una mela (‘an apple’), un panino (‘a sandwich’) or una pizza (‘a pizza’), but not with un tavolo (‘a table’), since the latter not generally considered edible. However, this degree of “freedom” can vary greatly. It is therefore impossible to draw a clear line between free lexical combinations and collocations.

Glottodidactics (also: (foreign) language didactics; derived from Ancient Greek glotta ‘language’ and didáskein ‘teach’): Glottodidactics are a field of study concerned with the theory and practice of teaching and learning foreign languages or languages in general.

Idiom (also: idiomatic expression, figure of speech; derived from Ancient Greek idíōma ‘special phrasing’): An idiom is a phrase or lexical combination whose overall meaning cannot be derived or understood from the meanings of its parts. For instance, even if we can understand the literal meaning of the Italian idiom cadere dalla padella nella brace, lit. “fall from the pan into the blaze” (similar to the English equivalent “out of the frying pan into the fire”), we wouldn't necessarily arrive at the implied idiomatic meaning of ‘things going from bad to worse’ or ‘escaping one bad situation only to find oneself in an even worse one’. This does not mean that idioms have no motivation, or that the motivation is always opaque or lost over time. In many cases, the original motivation of an idiom is easy to recognize, e.g. in alzare il gomito (‘have a few [drinks] too many’, lit. “lift the elbow”), since people typically lift their elbow when draining a glass or a bottle (containing alcohol). The same is true for avere le mani di pastafrolla (‘to be clumsy / all thumbs’, lit. “to have hands made of dough”).

Lemma (from Ancient Greek lemma ‘premise’, ‘assumption’): the canonical form, citation form or headword of a set of words; i.e. the heading under which you would find a specific word (lexeme) in a dictionary or book of reference. For example the entry / lemma andare (‘to go’) includes other forms of the same verb, e.g. vado (‘I go’), andato (‘gone’) or andando (‘going’).

Lexeme combination (also: lexical combination; cf. Ancient Greek léxis ‘word’): the linguistic term for a combination of two or more words (lexemes), which are rigid / fixed to a greater or lesser degree. The types range from free word combinations (which are unfixed or hardly fixed), to collocations (semi-fixed) to idioms (strongly fixed). Deciding whether such a word group is a phraseologism (phraseme) is difficult and depends very strongly on the definition of phraseologism. The term "lexeme combination" is more neutral and less specific, since it encompasses all types of word combinations, even free ones.

Lexicalized metaphor: Most of us know metaphors as the kind of “flowery” language, “verbal images” and “figures of speech” found in literature or poetry. Once a metaphor has entered into common use (i.e. most speakers of a language are familiar with it; it is not created on the spot by an individual author or in a specific situation), it is called a “lexicalized metaphor”. Metaphors play an important part in the changing meaning of words over the course of history, and contribute considerably to the development of polysemy (one word with several meanings). For instance, the collocation covare una malattia (‘to incubate a disease’ / ‘to be coming down with something’) came about through the metaphoric use of the verb derived from covare le uova (‘to hatch / incubate eggs’) (concrete -> abstract). Today, this former metaphor is lexicalized, and the word covare in the sense of ‘incubate [a disease]’ can be found in dictionaries. Native speakers often don’t even recognize lexicalized metaphors as metaphors, but foreign language learners have to consciously learn polysemous words and lexicalized metaphoric use of words.

Lexicography: a practically oriented subfield of linguistics dedicated to compiling and writing dictionaries and similar reference works. The more theoretical scholarly discipline of metalexicography focuses on the scientific analysis of existing dictionaries and the concept of dictionaries in general.

Motivation: This term refers to the semantic transparency of linguistic signs and units, i.e. whether one can tell what a word (combination) means just from the way it sounds or looks. With most single linguistic signs (e.g. words), the connection with their meaning is arbitrary (for instance, there is no good reason why a particular animal is called dog in English, cane in Italian and Hund in German). Lexical combinations, however, are always (at least initially) motivated in some way or other and characterized by a specific conceptualization. Motivation in synchronous language usage is only given in those cases where the meaning of a lexical unit can be understood on the basis of its form and of the speakers’ knowledge of the world (cf. the semantically transparent collocations listed under Examples”). Sometimes, however, the original motivation has been lost over the course of history and is no longer obvious in the present. One such example is stipulare un contratto (‘seal a contract’ or ‘to stipulate’), which is derived from the Latin word stípula or ‘straw’: in Ancient Rome, it was customary to seal a contract by breaking a straw in half.

Phraseology and phraseologisms (also: phrasemes): Phraseology is the subfield of linguistics that studies phraseologisms / phrasemes (e.g. set expressions or set phrases). There are broad and narrow views both of phrasemes and phraseology. In a more narrow notion of the terms, phraseology deals only with true idioms, i.e. the kind of lexical combinations whose overall meaning cannot be understood from the meaning of its parts. A broader definition also considers other types of fixed word combinations as phrasemes, including collocations, routine formulae (e.g. Quanti anni hai? - How old are you?), and proverbs (Chi fa da sé fa per tre. - If you want something done (right), do it yourself).

Polysemy (derived from Ancient Greek polýs ‘many’ / ‘several’ and séma ‘sign’) means the capacity of a linguistic sign to have several meanings, which is typically found at word (lexeme) level. A word is considered polysemous if it has two or more meanings that share an etymological and semantic connection. The most basic meaning of the Italian word spina is ‘thorn’; in a derived meaning however, based on a metonymic cause-effect relationship, the word can also mean ‘an intense / stabbing pain’. That is why in a dictionary you will typically find the various meanings of a polysemous word under a single lemma (entry). In collocations, polysemy plays an important role, particularly with verbs and adjectives as collocators, since these word types are often polysemous and have taken on a metaphorical use, as in abbracciare una professione ‘take up a career / profession’, lit. “to embrace / hug a career / profession”, or in una curva cieca ‘a blind curve’. Since polysemy is distributed very differently depending on the language, collocational range, verbal imagery and collocations also differ strongly from language to language.

Semi-idiomatic collocations (also: semi-idioms, partially idiomatic collocations, partial idioms) [=> see "What we mean by collocation"]: In this type of collocations, the collocator is idiomatized, such as in the collocation un numero verde ‘a (toll)free [lit. “green”] (phone) number’. However, since the base is not used idiomatically (numero = ‘(phone) number’), this type of lexical combination is only partially idiomatic, and thus cannot be considered as fully idiomatic; it is still a collocation because at least one part of the combination is used in its literal sense and the overall meaning can still be derived from the meanings of its parts. Some semi-idioms show an “unusual collocational syntax”, as is the case with divertirsi un mondo (‘to be highly diverted / amused / to have a wonderful time’, lit. “to be a world amused”). In this case, divertirsi is the base because it is the part that can be understood literally, while the modal adverb un mondo is an idiomatically used collocator.

Stretched verb construction (SVC; also: light verb construction): This type of word combination is sometimes seen as a specific type of collocation, and sometimes seen as separate. These constructions consist of a verb + direct object (e.g. fare / porre una domanda - ask a question; prendere una decisione - make a decision) or of a verb + prepositional phrase (e.g. mettere a disposizione - to put (sth.) at (sb.’s) disposal, prendere in considerazione - to consider sth. / take sth. into consideration). SVCs’ distinguishing feature is that the verb mainly conveys grammatical information while the main semantic information is carried by the noun. A SVC is therefore often the synonym of a simple verb, with little difference in the connotative meaning (e.g. fare una domanda - domandare, prendere una decisione - decidere).


Funding institution/s: Press and media: Project publications available online: Websites of the University of Innsbruck and of project team members: Cooperating schools: Further cooperating partners: Publisher (Book publication of the learner's dictionary): Scientific associations relevant to the project (selection): Other projects and initiatives on collocations and phraseologisms: Italian and German web corpora (selection): Online bibliographies on the topics of phraseology and lexicography: Selection of publications on collocations, phraseologisms and lexicography available online: