Complainable matters: the use of idiomatic expressions in making complaints

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Holt, Elizabeth ; Drew, Paul (1988)

Idiomatic, proverbial, and other figurative expressions are quite frequently employed by speakers in ordinary talk. Our analysis of idioms in naturally occurring conversations reveals that they are used, not randomly, but most notably when one speaker is complaining to another. In this sequential environment the particularly egregious character of the matter being complained about is portrayed through an idiom. In view of the role complaints play in casting private troubles or anxieties into the public domain, it is significant that typically a complaint is formulated idiomatically at a point where there is some conflict or lack of alignment between complainant and recipient. Thus, idioms are introduced in "inauspicious environments," where, up until then, recipients have withheld sympathizing or affiliating with a complainant. Idioms have a special robustness which lends them the function of summarizing the complaint in such a way as to enhance its legitimacy, and simultaneously to bring the complaint to a close.
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