What are Idioms: meaning, definition and use

What are Idioms? What is the meaning and definition of idioms and examples of how we use them in English and other languages in general? Idioms are colorful and enrich the language, but they are culture-specific and often confused with proverbs and idiomatic phrases. They can be quite interesting, funny, and sometimes even intense. Idiomatic expressions give a colorful illustration of everyday speech. Therefore, we can easily compare idioms with an artist’s brush giving life to the canvas.

Idioms definition

The best way to understand idioms is to define them. Idioms are sayings, or a group of words with a figurative (not literal) meaning, which have become accepted in everyday usage by a majority of native speakers. Idioms’ symbolism is quite different from the literal meaning of the words which form them. Because of that, the symbolic (figurative) meaning idioms aren’t easy to understand by non-native speakers. 

The difference between phrase, expression and idiom

A phrase is a group of words that form a concept unit within a sentence and have an obvious or literal meaning. An expression is words commonly used together of which the meaning can be deducted from the context by non-native speakers. Expressions are often a colloquial, less formal, or polite way of saying something in less literal terms. An idiom, on the other hand, has a figurative meaning that is not understood by non-native users of the language. Idiomatic expressions are usually short phrases and do not form full sentences.  

What’s the difference between idioms and proverbs?

Both idioms and proverbs (also called a saying, an adage, or a maxim), are fixed expressions with unique cultural components that are used in daily language. The difference is that a proverb or saying provides advice, and is a statement that can be understood on hearing it the first time. Idioms or idiomatic phrases, on the other hand, are phrases that contain a figurative meaning that has a historic, cultural origin that is understood and appreciated only by native speakers. It is for this reason that ESL students are taught only commonly used idiomatic expressions.

Examples of phrases

All that glitters is not gold.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Actions speak louder than words.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Honesty is the best policy.

It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Examples of idioms and their meaning

Here’s a list of the top 10 common English idiomatic phrases with an explanation of their meaning. The popularity of the idioms varies from region to region, but still, this list is rather common around the world.

  • a hot potato

Meaning: an issue or a situation that is difficult to handle or unpleasant to deal with.

Usage in a sentence: The subject of harassment and violence in my school is a hot potato.

  • piece of cake

Meaning: something that is easy to do

Usage in a sentence: Learning English is a piece of cake as long as you have the right teacher.

  • once in a blue moon

Meaning: when something happens very seldom

Usage in a sentence: I go to visit my grandmother only once in a blue moon; she lives in a far-off farmhouse. 

  • a bed of roses

Meaning: an easy option

Usage in a sentence: Taking care of my brother is no bed of roses; he is very silly. 

  • raining cats and dogs

Meaning: raining very severely

Usage in a sentence: I wanted to go for a walk, but it was raining cats and dogs yesterday. 

  • when pigs fly

Meaning: something that is impossible to happen

Usage in a sentence: John will keep quiet only when pigs fly.

  • devil’s advocate

Meaning: a person who presents a counterargument

Usage in a sentence: Hey William! You’re always playing devil’s advocate! For once, mind your own business. 

  • miss the boat

Meaning: you’ve missed the chance.

Usage in a sentence: James wanted to enter the competition, but he was too late to enter, and he missed the boat. 

  • apple of my eye

Meaning: someone who is very precious or dear to you

Usage in a sentence: Every child in the world is the apple of their parent’s eye. 

  • zip your lips

Meaning: stop talking

Usage in a sentence: I don’t want to hear another from you, so zip your lip and for once do as you’re told! 

Idioms for kids

Kids learn idioms from an early age. What’s more important kids use idioms in a really creative and even humorous way. So rather than saying that someone is clumsy, you’ll hear them say “a bull in a china shop”. When something is unclear to them they’ll use the idiom “a grey area”. When a friend has told them a secret, they’ll say “a little birdie told me”. When they’re trying to buy their favorite toy which is too expensive, for them it’s “a rip-off”. And after being “busy as a bee”, being active the entire time, they finally “call it a day”.

Whether used by grown-ups or kids idioms prove once more that they’re the gems of any language. 

Can idioms be used in formal writing?

Better not! Idioms are not suitable in the context of formal writing or speaking. To non-native speakers of English, slang and idioms might not make logical sense. It is good to recognize and be well aware of slang and idioms so they don’t appear in our formal writing. For formal speeches, idioms are not a wise choice of words.

Where do idioms come from?

We use idioms on a daily basis and sometimes without even realizing that what we’re saying is senseless without the suggested and widely acknowledged meaning behind it. Many linguists have devoted themselves to finding the historic origins of the idioms. We can’t unveil where all idioms come from, but we can start by giving some examples featured on this list.

  • turn a blind eye

Meaning: to refuse to admit a known truth

Usage in a sentence: This time I’ll turn a blind eye, but next time you’ll be in trouble.

Origin: While many suggested origins of this phrase are debated, it’s generally accepted that turning a blind eye comes from a statement made by British Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 1801, in the Battle of Copenhagen, he led the attack together with Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Because Admiral Nelson was blind in one eye Parker conversed with him at one point, via flags, that he needed to retreat and disengage. However, Admiral Nelson thought that he could succeed if they pushed onward. Holding the telescope to his blind eye, he pretended not to see the signal making a cunning comment to a fellow officer about reserving the right to use his blind eye every now and again. Interesting right!

  • feeling under the weather

Meaning: to feel sick

Usage in a sentence: My daughter was ill yesterday, and now I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

Origin: It’s believed that this idiom has a nautical origin. When a sailor was feeling sick, he would go beneath the front part of the boat, which is known as the bow. This would hopefully defend the sailor from bad conditions, as he was literally under the bad weather that could further make him ill. Therefore, a sailor who was sick could be portrayed as being “under the weather.”

  • beat around the bush

Meaning: to circle around or avoid the point

Usage in a sentence: Stop beating around the bush and tell me exactly what happened.

Origin: This everyday phrase is thought to have originated in response to game hunting in Britain. In order to draw out the birds while hunting, the participants would beat bushes. And so, they were beating around the bush before getting to the birds which were the main goal of the hunt.

How do idioms help us?

Idioms help us in many ways if used correctly. Writers use idioms when they want to “add color” to their writing, knowing that idioms introduce powerful imagery into their text. Using idioms they literally awaken the senses of their readers. Since “knowledge is power,” first we ought to learn as many idioms as we can. After we get familiar with idioms and their figurative meaning which, as we’ve already established differs from the literal meaning, we’re good to go. Then with the proper usage of idioms, we can amplify any messages we want. And that’s not all!

Idioms help us to:

Think outside the box

An effective way to make your writing more creative is to use idioms. From the introduction through the entire article I’ve emphasized the “artistic” value of idioms. Therefore it’s only natural to use them as an artistic expression. For example, when you’re writing an article related to financial planning instead of saying: “You should save your money.” you could use an idiom like “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Used in this context the idiom refreshes the text and stimulates the readers to think beyond the facts (outside the box), and about saving money from a different perspective. You’re really saving money, by not spending money. Who knew it was so simple! 

Find our sense of humor

Idioms can also add humor into your writing and even mellow the parts that, if written in a different way, could seem insulting. For example, rather than writing about a character who is not clever, or at least not thinking in a conventional manner, you could say “the lights are on, but nobody’s home” or he’s “not playing with a full deck.”

Idioms “dress to impress”

Idioms can take dull writing and make it more creative and impressive. Idioms serve writers well if used in the right context. So, when you’re writing, it’s wise to keep a list of idioms, so you can include these idioms’ expressions into your writing where appropriate. Still, have in mind that too many idioms can be a distraction. What’s even more important, be sure that you know the correct meaning of the idiom before you use it in your writing. Once you prepare your list of familiar idioms, you’ll discover that you already know many of them, and incorporating them in your writing will be “a piece of cake”. 

Conclusion

By understanding idioms, we realize that these expressions share cultural and historical information and broaden people’s understanding of a language. They build up some unique features which can differ from one language to another. One thing’s for sure, idioms are creative and quite memorable. So, the next time your friend is having trouble at work, instead of trying to cheer him/her up by saying: “Don’t worry! The problem you’re having is not as big as you think, I’ve been through similar problems and it didn’t end up being that bad”, you could simply say: “Relax! Those problems are just a storm in a teacup, you’ll be FINE”.

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