Pay lip service

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| Grammarist

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| Idiom

Pay lip service is an old idiom. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom pay lip service, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

Pay lip service is a verb phrase that means to pledge allegiance to an idea but to not take any concrete actions in support. Pay lip service also means to promise to do something but not do it or to make statements of support that are insincere. The phrase pay lip service came into use in the 1500s; at that time, it was primarily used to describe praying insincerely. Other popular terms in the 1500s were lip-labour and lip-devotion, both expressions that mean praying insincerely. Though the term pay lip service is sometimes seen hyphenated, the Oxford English Dictionary spells the phrase without any hyphens. Related phrases are pays lip service, paid lip service, paying lip service. The term lip service is also used independently, to mean an insincere promise.


The rules on the erection of banners and cutouts in the Union Territory have been watered down by successive governments over the years, thanks to poor enforcement by local bodies and promises by political parties remaining only lip service. (The Hindu)

Following the release of a report by the Office of the Auditor General outlining government’s failure over the last few years to act on PAC reports and recommendations, Ezzard Miller said the government’s responses to the reports “paid lip service to reform and greater accountability” and that “nothing was ever really done”. (Cayman News Service)

For traditional profit-seeking companies, investors will understand if executives pay lip service to social goals. (Forbes)

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