What is the linguistic term to describe such phrases as "Jackie stole John's heart."? All things being equal, such pronouncements are rarely literal, and even with an emotional understanding in no way does it assert that John's emotional heart was stolen. In fact, it doesn't assert the absence or theft of John's heart in any sense, but rather that John's heart has been acted upon in some extreme manner.

I am also interested in what phrases like these are called in the context of ancient scripture or (presumably) in the common vernacular of ancient peoples all the way through the vernacular of (English?) people up to about 1800 or so. This because I'm guessing constructions like the one mentioned used to be a lot more common in our language "back then" than now.

Any hints would be appreciated.

  • 4
    Figurative, idiom, or metaphor
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 1 '16 at 6:03
  • Can you give more details (and more examples) of the phenomenon you want a name for? It's unclear right now what exactly you are describing beyond that it is not literal.
    – Mitch
    Nov 4 '16 at 14:47
  • this is rather obviously a metaphor. why do you think it used to be more common "back then" than now? it seems unlikely to me.
    – mobileink
    Nov 5 '16 at 21:41
  • btw, what do you mean by "ancient scripture"?
    – mobileink
    Nov 5 '16 at 21:43

It is or idiomatic expression.

Use of segmentally complex expressions whose semantic structure is not deducible jointly from their syntactic structure and the semantic structure of their components. — Weinreich (1972:89)

Ancient scriptures are also full of Fixed expressions, so one may need to check this term, too.


Well, although i'm not a professional linguist, my recent reading on semantics(Katz-Fodor, 1963) tells(me at least) that semantics are notions that are applied by speakers within certain conditions, and both the composites(steal and heart) and their usages aren't literal all by themselves. one doesn't steal a heart, nor is it available for stealing, as you say.

English speakers just know out of general usages that "A stole B's heart" means that B's got feelings for A. Now this is in the common-sensical usage(the conditions). One can sit and argue how stealing is, in a certain context, different from courting and so on, but that's not how an english speaker wonders about the sentence itself. Interpretations are subject to the conditions/contexts.

Another one's "stealing someone's thunder". ;) though it's sort of complex(how exactly, i'm not sure) on its own.

I hope I'm making sense.

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