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one of the most curious and characteristic features of language, affecting
both syntax and style, is idiom. the meaning of the word 'idiom' is that
which is peculiar, that which is familiar, the word or expression which
strikes us or comes home to us, which is more readily understood or more
easily remembered. it is a quality which really exists in infinite
degrees, which we turn into differences of kind by applying the term only
to conspicuous and striking examples of words or phrases which have this
quality. it often supersedes the laws of language or the rules of grammar,
or rather is to be regarded as another law of language which is natural and
necessary. the word or phrase which has been repeated many times over is
more intelligible and familiar to us than one which is rare, and our
familiarity with it more than compensates for incorrectness or inaccuracy
in the use of it. striking expressions also which have moved the hearts of
nations or are the precious stones and jewels of great authors partake of
the nature of idioms: they are taken out of the sphere of grammar and are
exempt from the proprieties of language. every one knows that we often put
words together in a manner which would be intolerable if it were not
idiomatic. we cannot argue either about the meaning of words or the use of
constructions that because they are used in one connexion they will be
legitimate in another, unless we allow for this principle. we can bear to
have words and sentences used in new senses or in a new order or even a
little perverted in meaning when we are quite familiar with them.
quotations are as often applied in a sense which the author did not intend
as in that which he did. the parody of the words of shakspere or of the
bible, which has in it something of the nature of a lie, is far from
unpleasing to us. the better known words, even if their meaning be
perverted, are more agreeable to us and have a greater power over us. most
of us have experienced a sort of delight and feeling of curiosity when we
first came across or when we first used for ourselves a new word or phrase
or figure of speech.

there are associations of sound and of sense by which every word is linked
to every other. one letter harmonizes with another; every verb or noun
derives its meaning, not only from itself, but from the words with which it
is associated. some reflection of them near or distant is embodied in it.
in any new use of a word all the existing uses of it have to be considered.
upon these depends the question whether it will bear the proposed extension
of meaning or not.

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