Idiom – Definition, Meaning & Examples

27.03.24 Sayings Time to read: 10min

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Idiom-01

Sayings enrich our language, adding depth, color, and texture to our communication. They are the threads that weave together our cultural fabric, offering insights into our collective psyche and values. One of those sayings is called an idiom. They’re a phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be understood from its literal interpretation. In this article, you will find more information on its definition, various examples, their distinct meaning, and common misunderstandings that can occur.

Idiom in a nutshell

An idiom is a common phrase that means something different from what the words actually say and can only be learned as a whole. These sayings have a figurative, non-literal meaning and can confuse someone who is not familiar with them.

Definition: Idiom

The word idiom comes from the Greek word “idiōma,” which means “peculiar phraseology.” In linguistics, phraseology is the study of expressions that belong to a specific language, field, or community.

Over time, the term evolved to refer to the unique way of speaking or the characteristic language of a specific group of people, and eventually to the more specific linguistic sense in current usage: a phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning different from its literal meaning. This evolution reflects the concept of cross-language idioms as expressions that are ‘owned’ or particular to a certain language or group of people.

To help you obtain a better comprehension of idioms, here are some common examples of English idioms.

Examples

  • I was nervous until a kind stranger came over to break the ice with a joke.
  • When you said we need more teamwork, you hit the nail on the head.
  • I’m feeling a bit under the weather today, so I think I’ll stay at home.
  • This repair is going to cost me an arm and a leg.

These examples illustrate different typical examples of idioms in the English language. As you can see, they include an underlying meaning and can’t be understood by their literal meaning.

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Types

Idiomatic expressions can be categorized into various types based on their idiomatic meanings and the ways they express ideas. Here are some different types with examples and their actual meanings.

These English idioms use comparison to describe one thing in terms of another, often employing similes with figurative meanings.

Examples

  • As busy as a bee. (Very busy)
  • As blind as a bat. (Poor eyesight)
  • As cold as ice. (Very cold, either physically or emotionally)

This category of idioms highlights a contrast between two things or ideas.

Examples

  • All bark and no bite. (Someone who is threatening but not willing to take action)
  • Bite the bullet. (To endure a painful experience or to face a difficult situation bravely)
  • Burn the midnight oil. (To work late into the night)

This type of idiom uses colors to convey figurative meanings or emotions.

Examples

  • Feeling blue. (Feeling sad or depressed)
  • Green with envy. (Very envious)
  • Red tape. (Excessive bureaucracy or adherence to rules and formalities)

Culinary idioms that incorporate food items to convey meanings unrelated to the food itself.

Examples

  • Piece of cake. (Something easy to do)
  • Spill the beans. (Reveal a secret)
  • In a nutshell. (Summarized in a few words)

These idiomatic expressions involve parts of the body to describe feelings, actions, or situations.

Examples

  • Cost an arm and a leg. (Expensive)
  • Give a hand. (To help someone)
  • Cold feet. (Nervousness or hesitation before a significant event)

Examples of these types of figurative idioms include animals, to express ideas about human behavior or specific characteristics.

Examples

  • Let the cat out of the bag. (To reveal a secret mistakenly)
  • A dark horse. (A person with hidden abilities or who unexpectedly wins)
  • Cry wolf. (To give a false alarm)

Figurative idioms drawing from elements of nature to illustrate concepts or situations.

Examples

  • Every cloud has a silver lining. (There is something good in every bad situation)
  • Out of the woods. (No longer in danger or difficulty)
  • Down to earth. (Practical and realistic)
Idiom-Types

Effects

The use of idioms in language has several significant effects, both on communication and on the listener or reader’s perception. Here are some of the key impacts.

1. Cultural Connection

Idiomatic expressions often carry cultural significance and historical context, making their use a way to connect with a particular cultural identity or heritage. They can provide insight into the values, attitudes, and experiences of a community.

Using idioms specific to a region or country can foster a sense of belonging or shared understanding among speakers of the same cultural background.

Example

Saying “It’s a piece of cake” instead of “It’s easy” reflects a cultural context where cake is associated with celebration and ease.

2. Enhanced Expressiveness

They add color and vividness to language, allowing speakers to express ideas in a more engaging and imaginative way. They can convey complex emotions or situations succinctly, making communication more interesting, lively, and dynamic.

Example

Saying “It’s raining cats and dogs” instead of “It’s raining very hard” paints a more vivid picture of the situation.

3. Increased Informality

Their use tends to make language more informal and conversational. This can help break down barriers between speakers, creating a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

Example

Saying “Let’s not beat around the bush” instead of “Let’s get straight to the point” adds an informal tone to the conversation, encouraging a more open and direct dialogue.

4. Potential for Misunderstanding

For non-native speakers or those unfamiliar with the cultural context, idioms can be confusing and lead to misunderstandings. The figurative meaning of idioms is not always obvious, which can complicate communication in diverse settings.

Example

Saying “He kicked the bucket” instead of saying “He died” could be literally interpreted, leading to confusion.

5. Creativity in Language

Idiomatic expressions encourage creativity in both speech and writing. They challenge speakers and writers to think beyond literal meanings and explore more figurative, imaginative ways of expressing themselves.

Writers often make use of idioms to craft more compelling narratives or dialogue that resonates with readers on an emotional level.

Example

Saying “She’s playing her cards close to her chest” instead of “She doesn’t reveal her intentions easily” conveys more creativity.

6. Cognitive Development

Learning and understanding idioms can aid in cognitive development, especially in language acquisition. It requires understanding context, figurative language, and nuances of meaning, which can enhance problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Example

Saying “He’s burning the midnight oil” instead of “He’s staying up late working” helps develop the ability to interpret figurative language and context clues.

7. Social Inclusion or Exclusion

The appropriate use of idioms can signal social inclusion or membership within a particular linguistic or cultural group. Conversely, misuse or lack of understanding can highlight an outsider status, leading to exclusion.

Example

Saying “She’s throwing the towel” instead of “She’s giving up” conveys a shared understanding between those familiar with the phrase, while those unfamiliar with it may feel excluded.

Examples

In a previous paragraph, we have already gotten to know some common examples in the English language. Now we can use them in sentences of various fields and interests.

Here are some examples on how you can use idiomatic expressions in everyday life.

Examples

  • After procrastinating for weeks, she finally bit the bullet and started her assignment.
  • I didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party.
  • We’ve been together through thick and thin.

Some professional examples that can be used in the workplace can be seen below.

Examples

  • Let’s touch base next week to discuss the project’s progress.
  • Innovation requires us to think outside the box and try new approaches.
  • It’s frustrating when management moves the goalposts after we’ve already started.

English idioms can also vary depending on the region you’re living in.

Examples

  • He forgot his wife’s birthday again, bless his heart. (Southern US)
  • Fill out the form, press submit, and Bob’s your uncle, you’re registered. (British)
  • You’ve finished the entire project overnight? Fair dinkum! (Australian)

Here are some examples that started their origin from literature.

Examples

  • He seemed like a perfect candidate, but all that glitters is not gold. (Shakespeare)
  • Moving to the city felt like entering a brave new world. (Aldous Huxley)
  • Needing a car to get to work and needing work to afford a car is a catch-22. (J. Heller)

English idioms are also used in the context of shows, movies, theater, backstage and on television.

Examples

  • Love is Blind. (TV show and idiomatic quote from Geoffrey Chaucer)
  • Before the curtain rose, the director told the cast to break a leg.
  • Are you binge-watching “Breaking Bad” again?

Musical idioms can often be found in songs once you look for them.

Examples

  • Poker face (Lady Gaga)
  • Fight fire with fire (Metallica)
  • Opposites attract (Paula Abdul)

There are plenty of idioms that are fun to learn for English language learners, and especially for kids.

Examples

  • That was a piece of cake! (Easy)
  • You two are like two peas in a pod. (Always together)
  • It is raining cats and dogs. (Very heavy rain)

International Examples

Sayings and idioms are deeply rooted in the cultural and linguistic context of their origin, making them particularly challenging to translate. Here are examples from other countries.

English idioms

Some examples of English-language idioms in other countries can be seen below.

Origin Idiom Meaning
Australia Fair dinkum. Are you being honest with me?
United Kingdom Bob's your uncle. There you go.
Canada To give'er. Putting in a great effort.

Cross-language idioms

Idiomatic expressions often contain cultural references that lose their meaning or impact when translated. Cultural elements specific to one society may not resonate or even exist in another, making a direct translation of idioms not just challenging but sometimes impossible without additional explanation. The following table shows some cross-language idioms.

Origin Idiom Literal Translation Meaning
French Tomber dans les pommes. To fall in the apples. To pass out.
Spanish Estar en las nubes. To be in the clouds. Head in the clouds.
Ireland The craic was ninety The fun was ninety. Extremely enjoyable.
German Ich glaube mein Schwein pfeift! I think my pig is whistling! I can't believe it!
Tagalog Balat sibuyas. Onion skin. A sensitive person.
Afrikanist (Ag,) Shame! Oh, pity! Cute, pity, admiration.
Hindi Choodiyan todna. Breaking bangles. Significant grief or distress.

Challenges of idioms

The use of idiomatic expressions can bring numerous challenges. Here are some of the main problems.

Bridging and Dividing

While sayings and idioms can bridge cultural and linguistic gaps by providing insight into the shared human experience, they can also divide. For those not privy to the cultural knowledge that sayings and common idioms encapsulate, these expressions can be puzzling, highlighting the insider-outsider dichotomy.

This underscores the importance of context and cultural literacy in communication, as understanding the underlying meanings of these phrases can significantly enhance cross-cultural understanding and dialogue.

Example

To kick the bucket (meaning: to die)

Non-literal translation

An idiomatic meaning cannot usually be inferred from the literal meanings of its individual words. This non-literal nature requires learners to memorize cross-language idioms as whole units of meaning, rather than understanding them through translation or direct interpretation.

Translators must find creative ways to convey the intended meaning without losing the idiomatic expression’s cultural richness or emotional impact, which is quite a challenge.

Example

To spill the beans (meaning: to reveal a secret)

Learning and Teaching

For educators and language learners, idioms represent a significant hurdle. They need to be taught as cultural and linguistic units, requiring learners to engage with the language beyond grammatical and vocabulary studies. This can add complexity to language education, and make the job of an English-speaker considerably difficult.

Example

“Piece of cake” could be misleading if learners try to interpret the words literally rather than understanding the idiom’s actual meaning.

Differences between other sayings

In this paragraph, you will find various figures of speech or literary devices that can be similar to idioms. Yet, they have slight differences that have to be known.

Cliché

A cliché is an overused expression that has lost its originality and impact due to excessive use. Clichés can be a frequent idiom, but an idiom is not always a cliché because while it may have been striking or novel at one point, it has become predictable and unoriginal overtime.

Example

  • At the end of the day…

Proverb

A proverb is a short, well-known saying that expresses a general truth, wisdom, or advice. They’re often culturally specific and passed down through generations. It can be similar to a typical idiom due to their non-literal translation, but also different because it’s used as advice.

Example

  • A stitch in time saves five.

Hyperbole

A hyperbole is a figure of speech that involves exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally. They are used to emphasizing or dramatizing.

Example

  • I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech often included in sayings or phrases that implies a comparison between two unrelated things by stating one thing is another.

Example

  • Time is a thief.
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FAQs

An example of a typical idiom is “Stop beating around the bush.” The idiomatic meaning of this phrase is that someone is avoiding saying something, so you’re asking them to get to the point.

An idiom is a figurative phrase, that has a non-literal meaning. They are specific to a particular language or culture.

It is a phrase that is normal to fluent speakers but strange to others because the words have a different meaning to what they say.

Determining the “most popular” one can vary significantly based on cultural context, language, and even the specific criteria used for measuring popularity. An example for a widely recognized one is:

  • “Piece of cake,” which means something very easy to accomplish.

“It’s raining cats and dogs” is used to describe a very heavy, torrential downpour. The phrase does not mean that animals are falling from the sky, but rather uses exaggerated imagery to convey the intensity of the rainstorm.