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Phraseological units of biblical origin in modern aspects of language analysis


This article reflects key moments of using phraseological units in the copmplex of linguistic system; phraseology, being the salt of the language and the quintessence of the folk wisdom, presents in itself a reliable source of knowledge for thinking teacher, especially it concerns those of biblical origin, due to their moral and ethical value.

Key words: phraseology, language analysis, biblicisms, phraseological unit, types of variability.


Phraseology as a complex area of the linguistic system is a developing field of research and has attracted interest from many sides. The linguistic attention has been paid to the semantic, syntactic and textual properties of phraseological units, to different approaches of their synchronic and diachronic description, and to cul-tural specificity.

The term “phraseology” originated in Russian studies which developed from the late 1940’s to the 1960’s (Cowie 1998, 4). In linguistics, the term “phraseology” describes the context in which a word is used. This often includes idioms, phrasal verbs, and proverbs. These words reflect the essence of my theme: “Phraseology is a fuzzy part of language. Although most of us would agree that it embraces the conventional rather than the productive or rule-governed side of language, involving various kinds of composite units and “pre-patterned” expression such as idioms, fixed phrases, and collocations, we find it difficult to delimit the area and classify the different types involved” (Altenberg 1998, 101). Linguists have provided various definitions of phraseological units and various criteria to classify them.

One of the main goals of modern education here both general and linguistic consists in cultivating their cultural and intellectual dialogue on the basis of mutual understanding and tolerance. The study of the Holy Bible and linguistic analysis of its phraseology both in Russian and in English will contribute to it.

Every thinking teacher seeks to determine the ways and techniques of teaching that will not only provide her or his students with profound knowledge but will also contribute to the development of their thought. Thus, charting and implementing a programme of a special course in English Phraseology for university students I came to the conclusion that phraseology, being the salt of the language and the quintessence of the folk wisdom, presents in itself a reliable source for students’ education, especially those of biblical origin, due to their moral and ethical value.

It should be also pointed out that biblicisms as the object of study arouse great interest not only with linguists but also with philosophers, historians, pedagogues and other specialists due to their inexhaustible philosophical, ethical, aesthetical, pedagogical and moral potentiality. From the ethical point of view phraseological units of biblical origin may be classified into two unequal groups, the greatest one of which is directed to censuring human vices and the smallest one-to lauding their virtues. Linguistic approach to biblicisms: types of variability.

The language of the Holy Bible has greatly influenced English as well as Russian, but in this artice I want to reveal the wealth of modern “biblical” English as the rigid framework of the article doesn’t permit me to touch base and note Russian phraseological units completely. Back on topic I want to mention that the Bible enriched different languages with numerous phraseological units, proverbs and sayings. The object of this article is phraseological units (PhUs) of Modern English having biblical origin.

According to prof. A.V.Kunin’s definition “the phraseological unit is a set combination of words with a complete or partial transference of meaning, and idioms are those phraseological units that have a complete transference of теапіпд”/Кунин, p. 210/. The study of biblical phraseology brings me to the conclusion that it is not rigid, not completely unchangeable. On the contrary due to the mobility of syntactic ties between the components of PhUs, occasional changes take place in the component structure of biblicisms which in the course of time acquire stability in speech and as a result become fixed in dictionary entries as phraseological variants. The research of the problem of variability of PhUs- biblicisms enables me to classify them according to the types of their variability: a) grammatical variants (morphological variants, morphologo-syntactical variants), b) lexical variants (verbal variants, substantival variants, adjectival variants, prepositional variants), c) quantitative variants (reduced- quantitative variants, extended-quantitative variants), d) mixed variants.

Morphological variants.

Morphological variants among PhUs-biblicisms are rare and they consist in changing the category of number of the substantival component, e.g.: the idiom of biblical origin “be in deep waters” and its later morphological variant “be in deep water” /Psalms 69, 2/ have the identical meaning “in difficulty, in distress, in a situation with obscure and menacing possibilities” /Webster’s, p. 589/ and differ only in the morphological form of the substantival component “water(s)”, cf.:

e.g.1: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.” /Psalms 69, 2/

e.g.2: “Morris had heard that Frisco himself was in deep water. He had been involved in a duel between two rival groups of company promotes, and come a cropper.” /K.S.Prichard, “The Roaring Nineties”/ In Modern English the biblical variant with the substantival component in the plural “waters” is hardly ever used.

The idiom “make broad one’s phylactery” having the meaning ‘to show off one’s piety’ also originated from the Bible with the noun component in the plural ‘phylacteries’ but at present it is mostly found in the singular:

e.g.3: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.” /Matthew 23, 5/

As to morphological variability of verbal components in biblical phrases it is not frequent and comes to the change of the ending in the third person singular from ‘eth’ to ‘es’ as in ‘pride goeth (goes) before a fall’ /Proverbs 16, 18/ with the meaning ‘a person who behaves in a proud and impatient manner is likely to suffer an early misfortune’ /Courtney, p. 244/, cf:

e.g.4: “Pride goeth before destruction and a hauty spirit before a fall.” /Proverbs 16, 18/

e.g.5:”Last week Jimmy was boasting about his large salary. This week he is without a job. Pride goes before a fall.” /Cowie I, p. 133/

The biblicism under study also develops a lexical variant in which the verbal component ‘goes’ changes for ‘comes’:

e.g.6: “Remember, John, pride comes before a fall. Don’t go round talking about your success in business all the time.”/Warren, p. 216/

Coming back to morphological variability in substantival idioms it should be pointed out that some biblicisms developed variants by means of acquiring (but not losing) plurality of the noun component as in: ‘out of the mouth (mouths) of babes and sucklings’ /Psalms 8, 2/ with the meaning ‘babies are unable of telling lies’ or ‘the power (powers) of darkness’ /Colossians I, 13/ with the meaning ‘some dangerous, menacing force’. This type of morphological variability can also be illustrated by the biblicisms ‘strengthen somebody’s hand’ /I Samuel 23, 16/ and ‘strengthen somebody’s hands’ having the identical meaning ‘increase somebody’s power to do something in the face of opposition or competition’ /Cowie, p. 524/, cf.:

e.g.7: “And Jonathan Saul's son arose and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God.” /I Samuel 23, 16/

e.g.8: “The power stations, which have so far coped remarkably well with the problems thrown up by the miners’ strike, will be disturbed by an overtime ban and work-to-rule. This will both strengthen the miners’ hand and produce a drastic worsening of the problems of keeping the country adequately supplied with fuel.” /Cowie, p.524/e.g.9: “Their hands would be immeasurably strengthened if they could get him back here. He’s really their only impartial witness, you know.” /F.Knebel, Ch.Bailey, “Friday Morning”/

Morphologo-syntactical variants.

The phraseological unit under analysis develops the following morphologo-syntactical variants ‘strengthen the hand of smb’ and ‘strengthen the hands of smb’ and that is confirmed not only by the context but also by the data fixed in the entries of defining dictionaries:

e.g.10: “This gave the Prime Minister the realisation that although Britain may have been satisfied with what the Government was doing, Scotland was not. That strengthened the hand of the Secretary of State (for Scotland) in dealing with his cabinet colleagues.” /Cowie, p, 524/

The essence of the morphologo-syntactic variability lies in the following: the prepositional attribute expressed by the noun in the Genetive case or by the possessive pronoun is changed for the postpositional nominal or participial attribute or vice versa, e.g.: the biblicism ‘the land of promise’ /Hebrews 11, 9/ acquires its morphologo-syntactical variant ‘the promised land’ that retains the meaning of the original phrase: ‘heaven or an earthly place, situation or condition where people are promised, and hope to get, happiness and security...’ /Cowie, p. 466/, cf.:

e.g.11: “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise.”/Hebrews 11, 9/

e.g.12: “Hornby (with a little smile). Well, are you enjoying the land of promise as much as you said I should? Nora. We’ve both made our bed and we must lie on it.” /W.S. Maugham, “The land of Promise” / e.g.13: “There is not half enough of this type of propaganda today. We have all become so hard and practical that we are ashamed of painting the vision splendid - of showing glimpses of the promised land.” /H.Pollitt, “Serving My Time”/

Lexical variants.

Lexical variants are most widely spread among biblicisms with variable verbal components, e.g.: ‘ask for bread and be given a stone’ /Matthew 7, 9/ and ‘ask for bread and receive a stone’; ‘tread under foot’ /Isaiah 25, 10/ and ‘trample under foot’. The biblicism ‘cast (in) one’s lot with somebody’ /Proverbs 1, 14/ acquired its lexical variant ‘throw in one’s lot with somebody’ having the identical meaning ‘to associate oneself with for good or ill, share the fortune of, take the side of, allign oneself with’ /Webster’s, p. 348/, ‘to join as an associate, share the fate’ /Webster’s, p. 2385/, cf.:

e.g.14: “Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse:” /Proverbs 1, 14/

e.g.15: “She felt thoroughly bound to him as a wife, and that her lot was cast with his, whatever it might be... /Th.Dreiser, “Sister Carrie”/

e.g.16: “I have a friend - a very good friend. He has suggested more than once that I should throw in my lot with his. On that afternoon I accepted his proposal.” /A.Christie, “Appointment with Death”/

Some biblicisms acquire four or even more verbal variants, e.g.: the phraselogical unit ‘stop one’s ears’ /Psalms 58, 4/ and its synonym ‘turn a deaf ear to something’ were borrowed from the Bible with the meaning ‘not to take notice of, to refuse to listen to’ /Seidl, p. 193/ but in the course of time they developed their lexical and lexico-quantitative variants: ‘close one’s ears to something’, ‘shut one’s ears to something’, ‘seal one’s ears to something’ , cf.:

e.g.17: “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear.” /Psalms 58, 4/

e.g.18: “This was an appeal to which Eleanor was incapable of turning a deaf ear.” /W.S.Maugham, “The Lion Skin”/

e.g.19: “The government has shut its ears to our protests.” /Warren, p. 254/

The biblicism ‘proclaim upon the housetops’ /Luke 12, 3/ gave rise to three more lexical variants ‘cry from the housetops’ , ‘declare from the rooftops’, ‘shout from the housetops’ with the identical meaning ‘to let everybody know (a piece of information)’ /Longman, p. 172/, cf.:

e.g.20: “Therefore whatsoever we have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which we have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” /Luke 12, 3/

e.g.21: “I tell you I’m proud of them, so proud that I could shout it from the housetops.” /N.Coward, “I’ll Leave It to You”)

Substantive components undergo variability much more seldom and that testifies to a greater stability of the biblical idioms they belong to, e.g.: the idiom ‘a drop in the bucket’ that was derived from the biblicism ‘a drop of a bucket’ /Isaiah 40, 15/ develops the variant ‘a drop in the ocean’ having the identical meaning ‘something of inconsiderable value, importance, esp. as compared with something larger in total or in kind’ /Cowie, p. 159/, cf.:

e.g. 22: “The House is aware that experiments in this direction have already been made with conspicuous success, but such experiments are but a drop in the bucket.” /J.Galsworthy, “The Silver Spoon”/

e.g.23: “According to Karl, the diamond which Kutze had lost on Belt Bridge was a mere drop in the ocean.” /Cowie, p. 159/

The idiom ‘a lion in the way’ /Proverbs 25, 13/ was borrowed from the Bible with the meaning ‘a difficulty or obstacle (real or supposed) given as a reason/ excuse for not doing something’ /Cowie, p.

358/ and in the course of time it developed the substantival variant ‘a lion in the path’ having the identical meaning, cf.:

e.g.24: “The slothful man saith, there is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.” /Proverbs 25, 13/ e.g.25: “Would it be so easy to ask? But if lions in the path thought they would have an easy job with Harold they were mistaken. Once his mind accepted its new orientation it would go on boldly.” /Cowie, p. 359/

Adjectival components are subjected to variability occasionally, e.g.: the biblicism ‘shining light’ /John 5, 35/ obtains its variant ‘leading light’ having the identical meaning in both contexts ‘outstandingly good in any field of activity’ /Cowie, p. 497/, cf.:

e.g.26: “He was a burning and a shining light: and we were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.”/John 5, 35/

e.g.:27: “Entries would be accepted only from writers ‘sponsored’ by others already recognised in dramatic circles. Well, of course, anyone would do, really. Say a leading light in the local amateur dramatic society.” /Cowie, p. 344/

Prepositional variants and mixed variants.

Prepositional components of biblicisms are also variable, e.g.: ‘shake the dust from/ off one’s feet’ /Matthew 10, 14/. But the prepositional variability is often combined with some other kind of variability, e.g.: in the idioms ‘a brand plucked out of the fire’ /Zechariah 3, 2/ and ‘a brand from the fire’ it is combined with the reduced quantitative variability and in ‘a brand from the burning’ it is combined with the reduced quantitative-lexical variability.

The extended quantitative variability is also characteristic of biblicisms. It consists in increasing the number of components of the given phraseological unit and retaining the invariant of meaning, e.g.: the biblicism ‘clean hands’ /Psalm 23, 4/ acquires the extended variant ‘one’s hands are clean’, cf: e.g. 28: “...some of those who have condemned him most vigorously haven’t done so with entirely clean hands.” /E.O. Connor, “The Last Hurrah”/

e.g. 29: “Sartorius And now. Dr. Trench, may I ask what your income is derived from? - Trench (defiantly). From interest, not from houses. My hands are clean as far as that goes. Interest on a mortgage.” /B. Shaw, “Widowers’ Houses”/

The mixed type of variability may be also represented by the following phraseological units of biblical origin: ‘blind leaders of the blind’ /Matthew 15, 14/ :‘the blind leading the blind’; ‘labourers in somebody’s vineyard’ /Matthew 20, 1/ : ‘labourers in the vineyard’; ’bone of one’s bones and flesh of one’s flesh’ /Genesis 2, 23/ : ‘bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh’; ‘lift up one’s heart’ /II Chronicies 17, 6/ : ‘take heart’ and ‘take heart of grace’, etc.


Summing up the above discussion I would like to emphasize the following: in this paper I have tried to summarize the most important information about phraseological units of biblical origin in modern English.On the whole my approach to the problem of language phraseological units may be regarded as one of the attempts at solving one of the most important and complex problems of comparative phraseological analysis in the field of semasiology and phraseology. Since biblicisms have been borrowed and assimilated in different degrees by many European languages, there seems to be a fruitful perspective of their comparative study. Besides, for all EFL learners the information seems to be interesting.



1. Федуленкова Т.Н., Гирич О.В. 1996. Вариантность фразеологизмов библейского происхождения // Проблемы прикладной лингвистики: Сб. материалов семинара. Пенза. 94 - 99. Web - site source.

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