Some words or phrases have 'special' meaning beyond the combination of constituent parts.

For example:

  • 'White House' is the white house where the US president lives.
  • 'black board' is where you draw on with chalk at school [actually more recently a green board and in the past 20 years a 'white board' (which is white)].

Negative examples (phrases or constructions that are not examples of the concept):

  • 'quasi-' anything: (I find) is -not- a 'special thing' for me, it is not a new word with a meaning all its own, 'quasi' is just a productive modifier that doesn't mean anything more than itself and the new word it makes can be judged simply as 'almost like an X'
  • colors usually (with some example exceptions above) don't make anything 'new' - a 'red door' is just a door colored red. If it took on some cultural connection, then it might need an additional dictionary specification for that term 'red door'.

I'm not talking about the figurative (non-literal, metaphorical) uses of such terms, but certainly metaphor ("White House' as the seat of American government), and idiom ('raining cats and dogs') are examples of the idea 'a set phrase'. When a neologism or coinage becomes an accepted item.

For example, if you look at a list of words that begin with the prefix 'quasi-', almost entirely, these words are not special or used ever again, or if they're used again it is simply out of logical need of the construction. They don't describe a recognizably repeatable 'thing'.

What I'm looking for is the appropriate way to designate a locution that is more than the sum of its parts.

I've been using the bland term 'set phrase' to call this phenomenon. It itself is not particularly evocative of the 'noncompositional' aspect of some phrases.

Is set phrase the best way to name this phenomenon? or is there another?

  • 1
    I like this question, but I think your first example is incorrect. It is used in different disciplines, not just engineering so has no overall 'set phrase' other than the meaning understood within those disciplines.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 14:59
  • 4
    White House, the way you used it, is a metonym. Dynamical just part of a term in computational linguistics.
    – prash
    Commented Jul 22, 2011 at 22:44
  • @prashnrao: Yes, to both your statements. I am looking for a word or phrase for the concept that a word or phrase has significance more than its constituent parts. Most metaphors, like metonymy, meet this requirement already. I think I will try to come up with more examples.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 15:40
  • 1
    Dynamical is not a phrase in the first place. Set phrase does not include individual words or maybe even hyphenated 'phrases'. So set phrase is not the term to suit your requirement.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 6:59
  • The motivation for this question was a trend in Yoichi Oishi's questions to ask if a turn of of phrase was a common saying. And I often found that it was not so common, but that the phrase meant the meaning of its parts. And I didn't know how to say that ('common saying' just didn't capture the sentiment). For example 'not quite a haiku'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 13:25

3 Answers 3


A set phrase, a fixed expression, an idiomatic expression: all these would seem excellent terms to describe what you mean. They all imply that the phrase means more than the sum of its parts, as one would ordinarily expect, and is often found in this exact form. These terms serve their purpose quite well; I doubt whether anything better exists.

  • These are all good. The difficulty I was facing (which had me wanting a term) was that anything special that I felt required a dictionary entry, I ended up calling in a inarticulate fashion, just 'a thing'. "Is that a 'thing'?" "No, it's not a thing."
    – Mitch
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 13:58
  • @Mitch When no umbrella term has been found, how would you accept an answer yet? :) (I'm seeing this Q. just now, must have missed it earlier.) -- Because even I would like to know.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 7:01
  • @Kris: Cerb's 3 examples all work as umbrella terms. I feel like 'idiomatic expression is probably best.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 13:26
  • @Mitch An idiom doesn't expressly include the 'idea' itself, so it cannot be called idiomatic or idiom-like. After all, black board and White House do include the essential words themselves. Am I missing something here?
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 14:04
  • @Kris: I don't understand. 'idiom' has the dictionary meaning of "an expression that means something other than the literal meanings of its individual words" which pretty much corresponds to what I was asking for. The meaning of 'black board' is not just a board that is black but is something to write on with chalk (and may not be black).
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 14:20

Another common term is "idiom", though it has several interrelated meanings. Linguists and lexicographers have some more specific terms too, including "lexical item" and "listeme".

Thinking about it now (and I've thought about it several times before) I might describe a set phrase as "something between an idiom and a collocation":

  • An idiom having set parts with a meaning not related to those parts: red herring = false clue, kick the bucket = die.
  • A collocation being a group of words with a high statistical rate of occurring together, but not necessarily having any special meaning: "knife and fork", "cross the road".

A set phrase might have a literal "sum of parts" meaning or an unrelated meaning, but unlike a collocation, a set phrase always refers to a certain specific concept though it doesn't have to be as fixed as an idiom.

Idiom v Set phrase v Collocation

For your particular examples, I would say that set phrase is often a good term for those which consist of multiple words, but for those you listed which are single words, one of the other terms suggested would be better.

It's worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for "set phrase" has been struggling for years, suggesting it's not a fully accepted term or not a well defined concept.

The current entry on Wiktionary does seem to be doing well though, and looks pretty sensible to me.

To answer the title of your wording, "I would say yes set phrase is a set phrase, but it might not be universally accepted as one."

Disclaimer: I believe I created the initial Wikipedia entry some years ago, and I've almost certainly contributed to the Wiktionary entry over the years as well.

  • "almost definitely" is un-idiomatic (or is that un-collocative?). Shouldn't it be "almost certainly"? :)
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 6:41
  • 2
    @AndrewGrimm: Really? It's almost definitely part of my idiom. But it hardly rates in comparison on Google Ngrams so I guess I'll almost certainly accept your advice. Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 6:48
  • That does make sense. 'Set phrase' is bland enough not to evoke a definite meaning. I think 'idiomatic' (like an idiom) gets closest so far.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 12:53

Wiki likes to call this:
SOP, SoP — "[the] sum of [its] parts".
Describes a multi-word term whose meaning follows directly from the combination of its constituent words

The following definition is broader; includes regular words.

the smallest unit of meaning recognized in semantics, refers to a single characteristic of a sememe. These characteristics are defined according to the differences between sememes. The term was introduced by Eric Buyssens in the 1930s and developed by Bernard Pottier in the 1960s. It is the result produced when determining the minimal elements of meaning, which enables one to describe words multilingually. Such elements provide a bridge to component analysis and the initial work of ontologies. [emphasis mine]

What we need here is a 'Soppy Seme'.

  • I think you are mixing two things: meanings and expressions. I am looking for a term for -expressions- (words) of a certain kind as opposed to a property of the constituent meanings. Semes or sememes are not words themselves (words can be used to describe them). An SOP (though an abbrviation and a neologism) would label the opposite of the concept I am looking for. A SOP is literal, it means what its parts mean.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 13:33
  • I had not suggested either SoP or Seme: "What we need here is a 'Soppy Seme'." "but that the phrase meant the meaning of its parts", which is what I understand as the semantic angle of your question. Yet, frankly, I am not convinced even this coinage will suffice. Let's wait for more inputs.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 2, 2012 at 14:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.