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The other day I was listening to a videobook titled David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and encountered this idiom: cut up rough

English is my fourth language, I've never lived in an English-speaking country, and actually the bulk of my English knowledge may be attributed to listening to English videobooks on the Internet.

Now, I don't understand this: The idiom discussed here was used by Charles Dickens, one of the most important English writers, long time ago... will this idiom always retain its initial status - informal? I was expecting such an idiom to become part and parcel of standard English after so many years of use... My question is then who determines whether a word is none standard or not, and how does a word passes from one phase to another in its lifetime.

Thank you...

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    This may be out of scope for ELL. It's a very broad question - all languages evolve over time, driven by the millions of people who speak them. Part of your post makes me think there may be some confusion, though: "will this idiom always retain its initial status - informal? I was expecting such an idiom to become part and parcel of standard English after so many years of use..." Informal doesn't mean "not standard", it just means something like "casual, loose, relaxed, not adhering to strict rules." Something can be informal and still be very standard.
    – stangdon
    Commented May 20, 2022 at 18:00
  • There is nothing special about English in this respect. Phrases can be formal, and become informal. Or be informal and become more formal. Its more likely that phrases are just completely dropped than change register. However in this particular case there happens to be a rarity: a bit of slang that still is informal in modern English. Rare but not exceptional. I've voted to close, as I don't think an answer is possible here.
    – James K
    Commented May 20, 2022 at 19:13
  • @James K I think an answer is quite possible, having given one, and I do not think it is opinion-based either. I urge you to retract your close vote. Commented May 20, 2022 at 20:34
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    Being used by Dickens doesn't automatically make an expression 'standard English'. Your link shows that the words are spoken by the character Uriah Heep; they are a representation of his way of talking, not part of the author's narrative. Commented May 21, 2022 at 8:32
  • This should have been migrated to ELU.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 7:09

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A newly minted phrase does not become an idiom when it is first used. At that point is is merely a metaphor, or perhaps, some other figure of speech. If it is used with some frequency and acquires a fixed meaning different from the literal meanings of the individual words, it may become an idiom. If it drops out of use again, it may become "old-fashioned" and later "obsolete".

My question is then who determines whether a word is none standard or not, and how does a word passes from one phase to another in its lifetime.

No one person or group of people make such decisions, rather, the whole community of speakers, and particularly of fluent speakers do.

At one point it might have been said that the writers of dictionaries and grammars made these decisions. But most dictionaries now aim to record current usage, not to fix or prescribe what is correct.

Some idioms live on for a very long time, hundreds of years or longer. Some become distorted and the original meaning, the original metaphor, becomes forgotten by most fluent speakers. (So do some words) Others become unused and eventually forgotten in a relatively short time.

I would define an idiom as a phrase with a widely understood meaning which is not derivable from the individual meanings of the words. It is most often a frozen metaphor, although the metaphor may be forgotten while the idiom remains in active use.

Merriam-webster gives as sense 1 of "idiom":

an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for "undecided") or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)

Once the meaning of an idiom, as an idiom, is no longer widely understood, it is no longer an idiom. It might be called a "former idiom" or an "obsolete idiom". An obsolete idiom will usually be seen only in historical contexts, and used only in historical novels, or in an attempt to recreate the speech of a time when the idiom was live, or to recall such a time.

The Merriam-webster dictionary entry linked above goes on to say:

If you had never heard someone say "We're on the same page," would you have understood that they weren't talking about a book? And the first time someone said he'd "ride shotgun", did you wonder where the gun was? A modern English-speaker knows thousands of idioms, and uses many every day. Idioms can be completely ordinary ("first off", "the other day", "make a point of", "What's up?") or more colorful ("asleep at the wheel", "bite the bullet", "knuckle sandwich"). A particular type of idiom, called a phrasal verb, consists of a verb followed by an adverb or preposition (or sometimes both); in make over, make out, and make up, for instance, notice how the meanings have nothing to do with the usual meanings of over, out, and up.

The status of an idiom as new, active, old-fashioned, or obsolete, is separate from its status as formal or informal. Most idioms are neither particularly formal nor informal. They can be used in all registers of speech or writing. Some are clearly informal. A few are strictly formal, particularly those used only in formal settings. For example "To powder her nose" is an idiom meaning "to use the restroom". It is now used almost exclusively in formal settings, I believe. It is also becoming old-fashioned, and may soon become obsolete.

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