The are phrases whose meaning is not what you would get from combining its constituent words (i.e., they violate the Principle of compositionality).

  1. Some are entity names, e.g.,
    • "weird science" is (usually) a movie, not a kind of science,
    • "grand theft auto" is a specific kind of felony or a computer game, not stealing a big car
  2. Others are idioms, e.g.,
    • "kick a bucket" or
    • "pull a leg" or
    • "break a leg"
  3. something else which escapes my mind at the moment...

What is the general term for this?

"Non-compositional phrase"?

The only other thing which comes to mind is mass-defective phrase :-)

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    weird science would be a kind of science, Weird Science would be the movie (the title of which implies the 'science' in the movie is weird). – Mr.Mindor Nov 13 '13 at 19:23
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    not sure 'grand theft auto' (not the title) really violates the principle of compositionality. It is a further categorization of grand theft (large theft) which is typically defined as theft with a total value over some threshold. Now 'grand auto theft' would be 'theft of a big car'. – Mr.Mindor Nov 13 '13 at 19:38

What you describe is referred to as a multiword expression (MWE) - one definition of which is idiosyncratic interpretations that cross word boundaries (or spaces). A fuller description (too detailed to be sensibly reproduced) can be found here.

Examples include: kick the bucket, throw to the lions.

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  • How does a 'multi-word expression' differ from an idiom? – WS2 Nov 13 '13 at 20:25
  • It encompasses idioms and more ...it's a more 'general term' . – user49727 Nov 13 '13 at 22:35
  • Could you give me an example of one of your 'multi-word expressions' which is not an idiom, please? – WS2 Nov 15 '13 at 8:10

At least in Natural Language Processing, yes, this is frequently referred to as a "non-compositional phrase", or occasionally "non-compositional expression", "non-compositional idiom" or "non-compositional compound".

A couple examples:

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The answer is 'idiom'.

This is the original meaning of the term, from French idiome, via late Latin from Greek idioma. (Oxford Dictionary of English; not OED). 'A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.'

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    I was going to answer like this, but idiom is already listed as a subset in the question (subset number 2). Oh: and someone else has obviously thought the same and downvoted. – Andrew Leach Nov 13 '13 at 16:17
  • @Andrew Leach I am not sure that I grasp the hair's breadth distinction between category 1 and category 2. 'Weird science' (though I was not previously aware of the term) would seem to fit the requirements necessary to be described as an 'idiom'. (see ODE above). That is, unless you are arguing that 'weird science' is not 'established by usage'. I am not sure what the OP means by 'entity names'. – WS2 Nov 13 '13 at 16:22
  • I'd certainly use the term idiom here. It is, however, a term that is used with many different shades of meaning. Idioms differ in compositionality. The best treatment I know of of this whole area is Rosamund Moon's 'Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach'. This is available over the internet, though you might be better googling an excerpt "many earlier, more traditional models focus" then downloading from docstoc. The author covers 'idioms and non-idiom FEIs'. There is an in-depth study of related terminology. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 13 '13 at 16:45
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    Moreno also mentions the difficulty of agreeing on a definition of idiom. The meaning of 'ship of the desert' might be deduced by an intelligent but ignorant anglophone; 'dree one's weird' might defeat him. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 13 '13 at 16:59
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    @WS2 An intelligent speaker of English who has not encountered the specific idiom. Ignorant = not possessing (specific in some way, or the term is hardly necessary) knowledge. If he was aware of the common usage of various idioms, and had a typical modern general knowledge, but had never met this particular idiom, there's a reasonable probability that he could deduce it was a picturesque substitute for 'camel'. 'Kick the bucket' is far more opaque. If opaqueness is a necessary condition for a fixed expression to be deemed an idiom, the next question is 'How opaque?' – Edwin Ashworth Nov 13 '13 at 17:22

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