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Headline emotion idioms.

Theoretical background

Prototypical idioms are syntactically frozen non-compositional expressions, i.e. expressions whose "global meanings cannot be predicted on the basis of any stable readings that their constituents may have in other contexts." (Cruse 2006: 82)

From a semantic point of view, idioms have been divided into compositional idioms (spill the beans meaning "to disclose a secret") whose components have identifiable meanings contributing to the meaning of the whole (cf. Wasow et al 1980) and non-compositional idioms (kick the bucket meaning "to die") that cannot be decomposed. Many compositional idioms are partially variable in their form (cf. Moon 1998), while non-compositional idioms are syntactically frozen.

Research on idioms has highlighted the three main properties of such expressions cross-linguistically: idiomaticity, stability and lexicalization (see Fellbaum 2011, Moon 1998, and Cacciari 1993, among others, for English; Groza 2005, Hristea 1984, and others, for Romanian). Idiomaticity, concerning the unpredictable global meaning of the idiomatic construction, is a variable property that helps distinguish between pure or full idioms and half-idioms. In a full idiom, the meaning of the whole idiom is totally different from the meaning of the components, while in half-idioms certain components preserve their literal meaning. Stability means that an idiom, as a prefabricated unit, is reproduced with approximately the same form and meaning. Lexicalization implies that idioms are part of the collective memory of a linguistic community and they are memorized holistically by the language users.

In this paper, we restrict our research area to the study of idioms with a verbal base that express emotional states in Romanian. Their idiomaticity varies, with idioms ranging from non-compositional to compositional; they evince structural stability and are an active component in the collective memory of the native speakers of Romanian.

The typology of emotion idioms

Cross-linguistically, the typology of emotion idioms can be sketched along a semantic criterion, the meaning conveyed by a verbal idiom, as a whole, and a syntactic criterion, the position occupied by the Experiencer argument in the structure of the idiom. In what follows we will provide the data on emotion idioms in Romanian, the inventory of which is based on a selection from a Romanian phraseological dictionary (viz. Dumistracel 2011).

Semantic grouping of emotion idioms

Emotive idioms convey a varied range of emotional states, such as: anger, fear, sadness, love, happiness or surprise. Illustrative examples of such idioms in Romanian are given below, with a translation into English, a gloss and a semantically equivalent English idiom, where available:

1) anger, fury: a-si iesi din balamale/ tatani/ dinpepeni 'to get angry/ furious'

(lit.) to come out of seams/ hinges/ water melons

(id.) to jump salty, to hit the roof

fright, scare: a baga pe cineva in racori 'to strike panic/fear into sb. '

(lit.) to put sb. in shivers

(id.) to give sb. the creeps

sadness: a i se ineca corabiile 'to be upset'

(lit.) to have one's ships sunk

(id.) to be down in the dumps

love: a-i cadea cu tronc 'to suddenly fall in love'

(lit.) to fall with a bang (to one's heart)

(id.) to have a crush on sb.

happiness: a fi in al noualea cer 'to be very happy'

(lit.) to be in the ninth heaven

(id.) to be in the seventh heaven

surprise: a cadea cerulpe cineva 'to be (extremely) surprised'

(lit.) the heaven fall on sb.

What can be easily noticed is that there are no perfect equivalent idioms in the two languages, i.e. idioms with the same lexical and syntactic realization; an exception is the idiom a fi in al noualea cer with a semantic and syntactic equivalent in English, be in the seventh heaven, which is, however, lexically different in the choice of the numeral. All the other emotion idioms are language- or culture-specific.

Syntactic grouping of emotion idioms

The typology of verbal idioms of emotion is based on the position occupied by the Experiencer argument in the thematic grid of the verb. The Experiencer is the thematic role of the human participant emotionally involved in a relationship with some Theme.

We rely on Belletti and Rizzi's (1988) division of psych verbs into two main classes: verbs such as admire, like, love, with the Experiencer argument in subject position, and verbs like astonish, amaze, entertain, with the Experiencer role assigned to the NP in Object position:

2) John admires the landscape. Subject Experiencer verb

The landscape amazed John. Object Experiencer verb

As with psych verbs, the Experiencer argument in verbal idioms that express emotional states can also occur in subject position or in object position, hence the division of such idioms into: Subject Experiencer idioms and Object Experiencer idioms.

There are few Subject Experiencer idioms in Romanian. Their thematic grid commonly includes an Experiencer in subject position and a Location argument:

3) Ion este in al noualea cer. (=Ion is happy)

John is in the seventh heaven.


Object Experiencer idioms, on the other hand, are quite well represented. They take an Experiencer in Object position, for instance, a baga pe cineva in racori 'frighten sb.' in example (4a) or, occasionally, an Experiencer in Attributive position, as in the idiom a pune sare pe rana cuiva 'to rub salt into sb.'s wound,' in example (4b):

4) a) El l-a bagat pe Ion in racori. (=He frightened John)

He him-has put John into shivers. (=He gave John the shivers)


b) El a pus sare pe rana victimelor. (=He upset the victims.)

He has rubbed salt onto the victims' wounds.


This structural distinction between the two groups will be applied to the analysis of the emotion idioms in headlines of Romanian newspapers in section 3.

Body part emotion idioms

Cross-linguistically, there are verbal idioms that include a component with the semantic feature [+part of the human body], very often the noun heart or blood, that is typically associated with an emotional state or reaction. Such idioms can also be classed as Subject or Object Experiencer idioms. In Romanian, the set of body part nouns often includes: inima 'heart,' and sange 'blood,' and only rarely the nouns: cap 'head' and ochi 'eyes,' ficat 'liver,' fiere 'bile,' oase 'bones,' picioare 'feet,' maini 'hands.'

In Subject-Experiencer idioms the noun semantically marked as [+part of the human body] denotes the body part affected by an emotion as in (5 a), or the Location of an emotion, as in (5b):

5) a) a avea inima grea/neagra ('to be sick at heart,' 'to miss sb.')

(lit.) to have a heavy/black heart

a-si face sange rau/inima rea ('to fret one's gizzard')

(lit.) to get bad blood/heart

b) a vedea negru in fata ochilor ('to become angry/ furious')

(lit.) to see black before one's eyes

a-si lua inima in dinfi ('to take one's courage in both hands')

(lit.) to take one's heart in one's teeth

In Object-Experiencer idioms the [+part of the human body] noun indicates the Location of emotion:

6) a unge pe cineva la inima ('please sb.')

(lit.) to anoint sb. to the heart

Verbal idioms with the Experiencer in the dative case as in (7a) occur in clauses with a fixed subject that metaphorically points to the Cause of emotion, and a Location expressed by the [+part of the human body] noun, as illustrated in (7b):

7) a) a i se pune cuiva un ghimpe/cutit la inima/ stomac

(lit.) to have a thorn/ knife in one's heart/stomach

a i se ridica cuiva o piatra de pe inima

(lit.) to have a stone taken from the heart

b) Un ghimpe i s-a pus lui Ion la inima.

A thorn him Refl.-has thrust to John. Dat to heart. fixed Subj. EXPERIENCER LOCATION

'A thorn was thrust into John's heart.'

The fixed subject may be realized either by a noun with the semantic feature [+concrete] as in (7b), or by [+ part of the human body] noun as in (8):

8) a i se urca sangele la cap ('to get one's blood up')

(lit.) to have one's blood climbing to one's head

Sangele mi se urca la cap de furie.

The blood me. Dat rises/shoots to head because of anger fixed Subj. EXP. [+part of the human body] CAUSE

Such verbal expressions allow one of their constituents to be expressed by an emotion noun: fear, despair, anger, love, surprise, horror, fright, dismay, etc., functioning as Cause of an emotional reaction.

The examination of the semantic and syntactic properties of emotion idioms with a verbal base will help us organize the data in the next section and establish a correlation between these idioms and the emotional response, negative or positive, that the journalists expect to stir in the readers.

Emotion idioms in newspaper headlines

It is generally accepted that the headline mediates the relation between author-text-reader, guiding and influencing the reader before reading the newspaper article.

Headlines have two major functions: providing simplified information and arousing interest. There is a close relationship between the headline and the article text, the headline sets the scene for the reading stage, by stirring readers' interest and building up expectations. The headline highlights, through its denotation and connotation, the main theme, the author's innovative technique in devising the headline and points to his attitude towards the topic. Familiarity in the author-reader relation is often achieved by using idioms.

A recent contribution to the study of phraseological units in newspaper headlines in English-speaking press has been put forth in Jaki (2014), who examines phraseological substitutions in German, English and French newspapers. She argues that the main reasons why writers tend to produce modifications in the structure of idiomatic phrases they use in newspaper headlines are: adaptation to a specific context; creation of a humorous effect; highlighting the producer's intelligence; creation of increased attention; condensation of a complex message; economical triggering of complex associative networks. In this section we will apply Jaki's arguments, concerning changes in the structure of idioms, to the study of the effects that journalists aim to achieve when their choice of vocabulary involves the semantic group of emotion idioms. Just as modifications in the structure of idioms have an impact upon the reader, so do emotive idioms through their emotion-stirring function.

Typology of emotion idioms in Romanian headlines

The distinction between the Experiencer in Subject and Object position aids in the syntactic analysis of the data collected. The corpus of research is a collection of authentic examples, based on a google search of newspaper headlines in Romanian, irrespective of the type of newspaper, whether tabloids or broadsheet newspapers.

The two groups identified on syntactic grounds in section 2.2. are well represented in newspaper headlines. Thus, with Subject Experiencer idioms, such as a-si iesi dinpepeni (lit. 'to come out of the water melons'; 'to flip one's lid'), a nu fi in apele lui (lit. 'not to be in one's waters'; 'not to feel quite well'), emphasis is on the human experiencing the emotion, who appears in initial subject position, a focus position favoured by journalists:


Primarul Clujului si-a iesit din pepeni la sedinta de Consiliu Local.

'The mayor of Cluj got angry at the Local Council meeting.'

( Mai 2015)

Al doilea om in stat nu era in apele lui!

'The second in rank to the President was not quite himself! '


On the other hand, Object Experiencer idioms allow the Cause of emotion to occupy the front position, the Experiencer occurring at the end of the idiomatic structure, as an Object in the accusative case (a scoate din pepeni pe cineva, lit. 'to take sb. out of water melons'; 'to make sb. angry'):


Imbulzeala l-a scos din pepeni pe Mos Craciun.

'The overcrowding annoyed Santa Claus.'

(, Dec 24, 2013)

The Experiencer may also occur as an Object in the dative case, in idioms such as: a-i cadea cineva cu tronc cuiva (lit. 'to fall with a bang to sb.'; 'to have a crush on sb.'):


Mai multi fotbalicti constanfeni i-au cazut cu tronc unei zeite.

'Several football players in Constanta have become attractive to a goddess.'

'A goddess has had a crush on several football players in Constanta. '

( Jul, 2013)

The journalist's intention and the impact on readers

Journalists aim at stirring emotional states and emotional reactions to events. For this goal to be achieved through language, journalists will use lexis or grammatical structures with which the readers are familiar and to which they can relate. Crucially, the use of adequate emotional lexis can create familiarity, trust, empathy.

Starting from Jaki's (2014: 35-64) account of the reasons lying behind the journalists' preference for modifications in idioms or set phrases, we will inquire into the reasons for the choice of emotion idioms and the effects of their use in newspaper headlines. Jaki argues that the use of modified idioms is related to the journalist's need to adapt a headline to a context, to create a humorous effect and increased attention, to condense a message, to economically trigger complex associative networks. Stylistically, the same effects can be achieved by resorting to emotion idioms.

Adaptation to a specific context. The readership of tabloids and quality papers differ in their educational background. Tabloids favour a more colloquial style, to which the use of idioms, among others, belongs. Through their special semantic connotations, emotion idioms, in particular, create a feeling of familiarity among the readership. The reader may identify the original, or, at least, recognize the rhythmical pattern as one they are familiar with:


Victoria Beckham si-a iesit din pepeni la meciul sofului sau.

'Victoria Beckham hit the roof at her husband's match.'

( 04 Apr 2011)

The focus is on the first constituent, the Experiencer of the emotion, a celebrity. The highly informal, familiar tone of the idiom (a-si iesi din pepeni, lit. 'to come out of water melons'; 'to hit the roof') seems particularly appropriate to express the diva's irritation at what was going on in the field. Although a place where spectators can give full vent to their feelings, the stadium did not shield the much honoured British musician from public exposure, i.e. from the piercing eyes of the omnipresent reporters, who did not hesitate to sanction her emotional outburst.

Creation of a humorous effect. Idioms, in general, convey mildly ironic opinions and have an increased emotional effect on the readership. Emotion idioms may be used both for humorous effects and to arouse empathy in the readers. An illustrative example is the use of the idiom a i se aprinde cuiva calcaiele (lit. 'one's heels take fire'; 'to suddenly fall in love') in the following headline:

13) Amorezul Iasiului, Gheorghe Nichita: Nu stiam ca a ti se aprinde calcaiele dupa o femeie e un delict.

'Gheorghe Nichita, the lover-boy in Iasi: I didn't know that having one's heels burning for a woman is a crime.'

(http://www.stiripesurse. 08/05/2015)

The Experiencer of emotion, a local mayor and politician, no longer in his prime, is both humorously and ironically sanctioned for having an extra-marital love affair, while still holding an official position that demanded of him attention to keeping appearances, and public exposure. The writer simply quotes the politician's point of view, expressed in a colloquial idiomatic style, achieving thus humorous effects, and allows the reader to notice the contrast between facts and appearances. In the following example the source of humour is different:


Chinezii se dau in vant dupa ceasuri de lux.

(lit.) 'The Chinese glide in the wind after luxury watches.'

'The Chinese like having/buying luxury watches very much. '

(, 20.02.2012)

The Experiencer of the emotion is not an individual, but the population of a country/ a nation, the Chinese, who are generally perceived as hardworking people. Though most of them have a low income that does not allow them dreaming wild dreams of prosperity, a growing minority have become immensely affluent, and therefore, could be interested in luxury goods. Humour here springs from over-generalizing; we are invited to imagine that each and every Chinese has developed a fondness or a preference for such luxury items, and from the idiom a se da in vant dupa ceva (lit. 'to glide in the wind after/ for sth.'; 'to like sth. very much').

Highlighting the producer's intelligence. Giving prominence to the producer's intelligence has the effect of building up confidence in the quality of reporting, in the choice of stylistic expressions. If a headline is perceived as humorous or extraordinarily smart, the reader may not only be delighted, but also attribute a refined intellect to the author of the article. This may lead to interest in the respective article or to an approving attitude towards the newspapers.

Headlines may reveal the writer's emotional intelligence, i.e. his empathy with the people involved in the reported events, which may also be revealed by the use of emotion idioms:


Oprea pune sare pe rana lui Fenechiu.

'Oprea rubs salt into Fenechiu's wound.'

(, 10 septembrie 2015)

Both protagonists are politicians, the first one is perceived as the Agent of hurting, while the second one is the Experiencer, the one that is being hurt. By using the idiom a pune sare pe rana cuiva ('to rub salt into sb.'s wound'), the writer reveals his capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e. the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes.

Creativity in manipulating idioms is also perceived as a sign of stylistic intelligence:

16) A rupt gura targului... de carte/ Galateanul Fanel Teodorascu, remarcat la bookfest.

(lit.) 'He tore the mouth of the fair... of books/ the townsman of Galati, Fanel Teodorascu, noticed at the bookfair.'

'He amazed the people at the bookfair/ the townsman in Galati, Fanel Teodorascu was noticed at the bookfair.'

(; 11 iunie, 2014)

The Experiencer of amazement is not mentioned straightforwardly, but it is understood to be the people visiting the fair. The writer delays revealing the identity of the Causer of the emotion by using a pun, a play for words, based on the combination of the emotion idiom a rupe gura targului (lit. 'to tear the fair's mouth'; 'to amaze sb.') and the phrase targ de carte 'bookfair.' The identical noun targ 'fair' allows the writer to attach the phrase to the idiom.

The same idiom has also given rise to a pun based on ellipsis in the following headline:

17) Cele mai frumoase oi sunt la noi. Turcana a rupt gura targului si a ministrului.

(lit.) 'The most beautiful sheep are at us. Turcana (a local breed) has torn the mouth of the fair and of the minister.'

'The most beautiful sheep are with us. Turcana (a local breed) has amazed the fair visitors and the minister.'

(, 05oct, 2014)

Ironically the Causer of the emotion is a local breed of sheep, turcana, that amazes both the visitors and the minister. The writer avoids repeating the idiom (a rupt gura targului and a rupt gura ministrului; 'has torn the fair's mouth' and 'has torn the minister's mouth') by omitting the repeated words, the verb and its object. The result of the reduction is a coordination pattern gura targului si ministrului ('the mouth of the fair and of the minister'), which has a powerful impact on the reader, by putting the layman and the highest authority on equal level, as Experiencers of the same emotion.

Creation of increased attention. The attention-grabbing function is essential in the choice of a headline. The writer catches the readers' attention, and prepares him for shocking news, by using question-like headlines:


Corina, fi-a picat cu tronc primarul din Baia Mare? ....

'Corina, have you fallen in love with the mayor?'

(, 30 September 2012)

The Experiencer of love, a young woman, named Corina, is questioned directly and apparently summoned to give an answer. Familiarity and a mildly ironic attitude is suggested by the use of the emotion idiom: a-i cadea cineva cu tronc cuiva (lit. 'to fall with a bang to sb.'; 'to have a crush on sb.'). The headline also reveals the person about whom she is emotional, the town mayor, an official expected to have a more reasonable, restrained behavior, incompatible with flirtation.

Another technique of creating increased attention is anticipation. The emotional state is anticipated, i.e. it is induced in the readers's mind. The reader is told in advance what emotional state he is going to experience, after reading an article:

19) Iti ingheata sangele in vene. Marturia unei femei din telescaunul blocat la Bunios: ,,Nu maiputem de frig".

'Your blood freezes in your veins. A woman's testimony from the chair lift in Bunlos: "We can't bear the cold any longer."'

(, 31 Decembrie 2014)

The anticipative use of idioms may also point in advance to the emotional state of the protagonists involved in the event reported in the newspaper article:

20) A cazut cerulpe ei: 19 ieseni care se credeau sanatoci au aflat ca au hepatita C.

'The sky has fallen on them: 19 young men thought they were healthy when they found out they suffered from hepatitis.'

(, 19.11.2014)

Delia e in al noualea cer! ,, O surpriza a intervenit in aceste zile in viata mea: sunt insarcinata

'Delia is in the ninth heaven! "Something surprising has happened in my life these days: I am pregnant."'

(, 29 octombrie 2016)

The Experiencers, a group of young men or a music diva, Delia, feel intense shocking emotions, like: amazement, happiness. The anticipative use of idioms can render headlines more expressive and interesting, which might animate the reader's interest to proceed with the article. Thus, the message carried by the emotion idioms is intensified.

Condensation of a complex message. This is an essential feature of newspaper headlines. It is decisive for a headline to convey the main message in the shortest sequence of words possible. It is commonly known that condensation is achieved in elliptical patterns. Thus, for instance, the sentence structure may be reduced by omitting the verbal component in (21a) to the postmodifying structure, a prepositional phrase, in (21b):


a) Sedinta s-a desfasurat cu spume la gura.

'The meeting unfolded with foam at the mouth.'

b) sedinfa de Consiliu Judeiean cu spume la gura.

'County Council meeting with foam at the mouth.'

( ianuarie, 2)

This is an instance of reduction to a postmodification pattern, where cu spume la gura 'foam at the mouth' functions as a postmodifier for the noun sedinta 'the meeting.' The human participants are not mentioned, but they are undestood to be the people attending the meeting. Their emotional state, marked by anger and fury, is highlighted in the idiomatic expression.

Condensation may also arise from the reduction of passive sentences in which the auxiliary be is usually omitted, since it has only a grammatical function and bears no great relevance to the understanding of the meaning of the whole structure:


a) Ponta a fost scos dinpepeni de jurnalisti.

(lit.) 'Ponta was driven out of the melons by the journalists.'

'Ponta was angered by the journalists.'

b) Ponta, scos din pepeni de jurnalisti.

(lit.) 'Ponta, driven out of the melons by the journalists.'

'Ponta, enraged by the journalists.'

( 26 martie 2015)

In this case the past participle scos 'driven out' is enough to mentally reconstruct the whole idiom: a scoate din pepeni (lit. 'drive sb. out of melons'; 'make sb. angry/ furious'). The writer makes use of the reader's knowledge, since in most cases one part of an idiom is enough for the reader to recall the whole structure. Both the Experiencer of anger, Ponta, the Prime Minister, and the Causers of his outburst, the journalists, are mentioned in the headline. The idiomatic expression briefly points to the journalist's ironic point of view.

Elliptical use of idioms in headlines is a favourite pattern for media journalists. It catches the eye of the reader and commands attention. Furthermore, it brings the idea of the text to the fore and also invites the reader to read the whole article. The use of elliptical forms can also be explained in terms of the "economical" syntax that is typical of journalistic language and especially of headlines.

Economical triggering of complex associative networks. Through structural manipulation of existing idiomatic expressions, a short sequence of words can establish a whole universe of associations around the canonical form of an idiom. An idiom may appear as a relative clause, modifying a noun. This frequently used technique puts emphasis both on the noun modified and on the idiom occurring in the relative clause:


Vestea care a bagat in racori administraba locala.

'The news that gave creeps to the local administration.' (with equivalent idiom)

'The news that frightened the local administration.'


Declaratia care pune sare pe rana tuturor romanilor.

'The declaration that rubs salt into all Romanians' wound.'

'The declaration that upsets all Romanians.'

(http: //

In these headlines, the fronting of vestea 'the news' and declaratia 'the declaration,' respectively, arouse a strong feeling of anticipation in the reader, while keeping him/her in heart-pounding suspense, which the qualifying clauses that follow only enhance, by adding a significantly "dramatic" proportion to the events under scrutiny. The focus of attention is on the Cause of the emotion vestea 'the news' and declaratia 'the declaration,' while the Experiencer, the local administration or the population of Romania, occur in final position. These alterations in the structure of the idioms are related to the effects journalists aim to achieve upon the readers.

Using idioms provides the possibility of rendering headlines more appealing, more informative, more intelligent, which is why the phenomenon is so frequent. The paper proposes a semantic and syntactic grouping of verbal idioms of emotion in Romanian, and highlights the effects achieved by journalists when using emotion idioms in devising newspaper headlines. Semantically, verbal idioms of emotion cover such notions as: fear, love, anger, hatred, sadness. Syntactically, emotion idioms allow an Experiencer, the human being experiencing an emotional state, to be expressed by a noun in Subject or Object position in the structure of the verbal idiom.

The examination of the data collected from the Romanian newspapers has shown that the preference for emotion idioms is related to the effects journalists aim to achieve upon the readers: familiarity, humour, empathy and increased attention through concise, condensed, easily grasped expressions of emotion.


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Camelia Bejan, PhD; Associate Professor of Linguistics, Ovidius University; Constanta, Romania;
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Author:Bejan, Camelia
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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