Cuddling with words and phrases

teddy bear hug

Everybody seems to have an individual way of speaking in terms of which words somebody uses, a so called idiolect. Sometimes it is just fashion and the words might change over time but for the case of learning a foreign language for example learners tend to use some words more frequently than native speakers would do in comparison. For me personally it is e. g.  precisely or very in English or precies or heel in Dutch: Common and very (1) frequently applicable words, yet very (2) vague concerning their meaning. Confronted with this phenomenon I came across the term ‘lexical teddy bear’ coined by Anita Hasselgren in an article about the differences of advanced Norwegian English learners’ and native English speakers’ vocabulary (cf. Hasselgren 1994: 237). Often those words are learnt in a very! (3! and here we go again) early stage and speakers tend to stick to applying of those phrases and words wherever possible because they feel safe to use them. Hasselgren (1994) calls this phenomenon ‘lexical teddy bears’, words, which are comfortable for us to apply as they are “widely usable, and above all safe (because they do not show up as errors)” (p. 250).  This can be observed for the employment of verbs, too, as Ellis (2012) highlights with the following figure.

Fig. Ellis 2012: 36
Fig. Ellis 2012: 36

So as Hasselgren (1994) puts it: “stripped of the confidence and ease we take for granted in our first language flow, we regularly clutch for the words we feel safe with: our ‘lexical teddy bears’” (p. 237) and go on cuddling with our most favourite multi-purpose words we carry around with us all the time to give us an impression of childlike security. Isn’t that cute!

For further reading explore the literature below.

Jonas Schreiber (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
Intern at Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography


Ellis, Nick C.: Formulaic language and second language acquisition : Zipf and the phrasal teddy bear. – Annual review of applied linguistics 32, 2012, 17-44.

Hasselgren, Anita: Lexical teddy bears and advanced learners : a study into the ways Norwegian students cope with English vocabulary. – International journal of applied linguistics 4/2, 1994, 237-260.

Millar, Neil: ‘Lexical teddy bears’ and the processability of learner language by native speakers. – Studies in foreign language education 38, 2016, 17-28. URL:

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