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Spreading the word
by Jonathan Marks

• Where does it all come from
• A thought experiment
• But seriously...
• Phrasal verbs: continuity and change in English
• References
• Next in the series

Where does it all come from?

How many words are there in English? Hundreds of thousands, at least. I'm not going to attempt to answer this question more exactly; it's much more complicated than it seems. What about lexical phrases, or multi-word items, or the various other names they're given – how many of them are there? Even more complicated! And then, how many different meanings do all these words and phrases have?

Even if you thought you could answer these questions accurately, your answer would in any case only be provisional. New words and phrases, and new meanings of established words and phrases, are entering the lexicon all the time – just look at the Macmillan English Dictionaries' Word of the Week, for example. And let's not forget that at the same time, quietly and unnoticed, other vocabulary items and meanings are falling out of use.

Where have all these words and phrases, and all their meanings, come from? Vocabulary doesn't just grow on trees, and it's hardly ever invented completely out of the blue. (The trade name Kodak is supposedly an exception.) There are various recognised ways in which English has expanded its vocabulary, and you can read about them in books such as Stockwell & Minkova. Here I want to consider just one, which dates back to the early development of English and much earlier than even that, in fact but which is still very productive today, and underlies the proliferation of phrasal verbs, as well as a lot of other vocabulary.


A thought experiment

Think yourself back a hundred thousand years ago or so, into the shoes of one of your ancestors (no, you wouldn't have had shoes, I know, but I'm speaking figuratively) at the time when they've decided it would be a good idea to invent language, in order to communicate more effectively, conduct their lives more efficiently and generally give themselves an evolutionary advantage over monkeys, lions, mosquitoes, earthquakes and existential angst.

This is an undertaking of unprecedented proportions. Think of the innumerable things that need to be decided: Are you going to have 'th' sounds, or do you think people will find them too difficult? Are you going to have genders, and if so, will 'sun' be masculine, feminine or neuter? Are you going to let people get away with deleting object pronouns in defining relative clauses? And so on. But through eloquent use of primitive grunts and semaphore, the work is farmed out to various committees, and you get assigned to the vocabulary committee. Work proceeds slowly but surely. At one point there's a bit of a mutiny when a majority agrees that 'tree' would be a nice word for that big wooden thing with leaves, but a group of rebels insist that it should be 'Baum', storm out of the meeting and stomp off to a different part of the savannah, where they declare independence and invent German. But eventually, after an exhausting series of meetings lasting a few thousand years, you're ready to report back to the elders of the tribe. You do this by pointing or drawing and naming things: 'tree', 'zebra', 'fire', 'scattered showers', 'that bloke in the corner yawning', or by demonstrating or miming: 'walk', 'run', 'stroll', 'saunter', 'up', 'down', 'in', 'on', 'a couple of yards to the left of'. And so on. This is, in fact, the first-ever dictionary, although it only exists in oral/kinaesthetic form. Your presentation is inevitably lengthy, but the elders watch and listen attentively, and seem quite impressed. But after a bit of consultation among themselves, they say ('say' using grunts and semaphore, of course) "Nice though the dictionary was, we have to point out that there were quite a few things missing. Yes, of course we'll need words like 'daisy', 'dandelion', 'buttercup', 'tulip', 'lupin', 'lager' and 'trombone' when we migrate to northern Europe. But what about abstract vocabulary? How are we going to talk about hypotheses, develop philosophical concepts, and discuss the pros and cons of different systems of government, for example?"


But seriously...

The answer is: Take the vocabulary you've got already, and spread it over new areas of meaning by using it metaphorically. For example, you can talk about some situations or abstract concepts as if they were physical places. Just as you can get into or out of a cave or a forest, you can get into or out of difficulty, debt, a habit or a routine.

You can also get into a discussion or conversation with someone. And once you're in there, the discussion or conversation is like a space to move around in, with tracks, obstacles, detours and destinations. Just as you can go back or return to a place you were in earlier, you can go back or return to something you were saying previously. You can stop to take stock of where you are, you can get lost, wander off the track or lose sight of your destination.

Here are some examples of how this conceptual metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson, Moon) is exploited in the English lexicon:
Let's go back to what you were saying earlier.
Can we return to the previous point?
I can't quite see where you're heading.
The conversation took an unexpected turn/direction.
I'm listening go on!
Our discussion has covered a lot of ground.
I was just coming to that.
We eventually arrived at a conclusion.
It's a roundabout way of saying she's refusing our offer.
You're on the right/wrong track.
We wandered off the topic.
The conversation drifted along rather aimlessly.
We can now see a way forward to an agreement.
We kept going round and round in circles.
If I can digress for a moment.
Yes, that's true, but we're getting away from the point.
Conversation was beginning to drag.
But you can't get away from the fact that ...
Can we go over that again?
He suddenly veers off and starts talking about something different.
We can discuss this further next week.
I'm afraid you've lost me now.
I can't see what you're getting at.
We had a rather meandering conversation.
Let's not get bogged down in details.

Notice that this selection includes a number of phrasal verbs, which are interpretable in exactly the same way as the rest of the highlighted vocabulary, with reference to the underlying conceptual metaphor.

Similarly, when we say that applications are pouring in, or flooding in, or that they have dried up, we're using the conceptual metaphor 'a large number of something is like a large amount of water', which also generates:
a deluge of phone calls
a torrent of abuse
a trickle of interest


When we say that a search operation has been scaled down, or that the government has played down a threat to public health, we're using the conceptual metaphor 'more is up, less is down', which also generates:
Prices soared after the strike.
The population peaked at 5.5 million.
The economy is in freefall.


When we tell someone to cheer up, we're using the conceptual metaphor 'happy is up, sad is down', which also generates:
walking / floating on air
on top of the world
down in the dumps


As I showed in Phrasal Verbs International this process of 'spreading the word' of stretching the meanings of already-available concrete vocabulary, including combinations of verbs and particles, into metaphorical dimensions is typical of other languages as well as English. The explanation for this is presumably partly that it spread through the borrowing of vocabulary between languages, partly that it originated at an early stage before Indo-European languages became differentiated, and partly that it's the product of a universal human disposition to relate to the world through conceptual metaphor.


Phrasal verbs: continuity and change in English

If we compare modern English with Old English, we can see a certain continuity but also a change in preference for exactly how this vocabulary-building process works.

Old English abounds in particle+verb compounds, like modern German and Slavonic languages. From þyncan (= seem, appear) for example, the following are derived:
ofþyncan = displease
æfþonca = grudge (noun)

In this extract from an Old English biblical fragment (in Sweet/ Whitelock) we see the contrast between a simple verb and a particle+verb:
Sw se inwidda [...] dryghtguman sne drencte mid wne, [...] oð þæt he on swman lgon /
oferdrencte his duguðe ealle, swylce he wron dðe geslegene
(So the wicked one [...] gave his warriors wine to drink, [...] until they lay in a swoon /
He inebriated his followers all, as if they had been struck down dead)

The verb drencan is the ancestor of the modern drench, and oferdrencan is formed in the same way as modern verbs like oversleep and overreact.

Some Old English particle+verb compounds have survived, such as withstand, forbid and overcome. Mass expansion of the phrasal verb component of the English lexicon as we know it, with verb+particle word order, is a fairly recent phenomenon. The shift in preference from particle+verb (one word) to verb+particle (two words) is assumed to be part of the general development of English from a more analytic to a more synthetic language (from a fairly free word order with a great deal of inflection to a fairly fixed word order with very little inflection). It's suggested (Baugh & Cable) that the spread of verb+particle combinations would have happened faster, but was delayed by the mass importation of Latin/French vocabulary items in the wake of the Norman Conquest and later in the Renaissance of course, these used the order particle+verb: e.g. suggest, combine, delay, import, inflect, assume, develop. Early examples of the verb+particle structure, when they did arise, were mostly literal in meaning, like climb up, fall down, but they later came to be used, as we know, to express metaphorical meanings, falling into line semantically with Old English forms like oferdrencan and Latinate ones like suggest.

The result of this history is that English has (like the Scandinavian languages) both verb+particle and particle+verb combinations of Germanic origin, and particle+verb combinations of Latin/French origin. In modern English, the particle+verb construction is still productive to some extent (e.g. outperform, upload, download) but the verb+particle construction is much more productive, and the result is all those 'phrasal verbs' that we know and love so well.



A History of the English Language, A. Baugh & T. Cable (Routledge, 1951, 4th edition 1993)
Metaphors We Live By, G. Lakoff & M. Johnson (Chicago University Press, 1980)
'Metaphor', R. Moon (Language Awareness pages, Macmillan English Dictionary, 2002)
'Metaphor and Phrasal Verbs', R. Moon (Language Study pages, Macmillan Phrasal Verbs Plus, 2005)
English Words: History and Structure, R. Stockwell & D. Minkova (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Anglo-Saxon Reader, H. Sweet/D. Whitelock (Oxford University Press, 1876/1967


Next in the series

In the final article in the series I will review some approaches to teaching and learning phrasal verbs.