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Idioms

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English

An idiom can be several different things - it could be another word for dialect, or the specific character or individuality of a language. The dictionary has quite a few different definitions for the word “idiom”, but in this article, we will be looking at one specific meaning: idiom as a type of common phrase or expression that has a figurative, rather than literal, meaning.

What is an Idiom?

And so by this definition, an idiom is:

  • A figure of speech, meaning that it is not to be taken literally.
  • A well-established phrase or expression.
  • A phrase or expression that is specific to a particular language or dialect - if you were to directly translate an idiom into another language, it would make no sense.

Are you ready to look at some examples of idioms? Well, let's "get the ball rolling" ...

What are some examples of idioms?

There are many, many idioms in the English language (The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms lists over 10,000!). We've picked five common idioms that you may already be familiar with from everyday language (with some fun facts about their origins), and five interesting uses of idioms in Literature.

Idioms from everyday language

Below are some examples of idioms that are often used in daily language. Do you recognise or use any of these?

Start from scratch.

To “start from scratch” means to start from the very beginning without being able to build on something that already exists.

If you lost all of your work and didn't have a backup, you could say, "Now I have to start again from scratch!" Or, if you were to bake your own bread from raw ingredients, then you could state, "I made this bread from scratch".

As you can see, these are figurative uses of the term, as neither of them involve any actual scratching.

This idiom most likely originates from cricket; lines have to be scratched into the ground to mark the pitch before a game begins, hence “starting from scratch”.

Let the cat out of the bag.

To "let the cat out of the bag" means to accidentally give away a secret. This could mean revealing too much information in a conversation and then getting caught out.

For example, you're talking to your teacher and you accidentally mention the party you went to when you should have been revising: "I can't believe it, now I've let the cat out of the bag!" Or let's say you bought a surprise gift for your friend and they find the receipt: "Well, the cat's out of the bag now!"

Once again, these are figurative uses of the term as there is no actual cat involved.

This idiom originates from the 1700s; Merchants would sell piglets in bags, but would often trick customers by giving them a bag with a cat inside. If the cat got out of the bag, then the trick would be ruined; the cat would be literally out of the bag.

Idioms, Let the cat out of the bag, Study SmarterNow the cat's out of the bag! (pixabay.com)

Steal someone's thunder.

When people use the idiom “stealing someone's thunder” these days, they usually mean stealing the attention or praise that somebody else wants - upstaging them, if you will. For example: Steve is just about to announce that he has found a four-leaf clover, and you wow the crowd by pulling out a ten-leaf clover. Steve says, "Way to steal my thunder!"

Another use of this idiom is to say that somebody stole another person's idea. Though rarely used in this way now, it is closer to the original, literal use of the phrase: in the early 1700s, a writer called John Dennis invented a way to create the sound of thunder so that he could use it as an effect in his play, Appius and Virginia (1709). After this play flopped, he was not very happy to find somebody else using the same effect in a production of Macbeth (1606). They literally stole his thunder!

Turn the tables.

To “turn the tables” means to reverse a situation where one side has the advantage. For example, if your football team is losing 5-0 at halftime, but then they come back and manage to score 6 goals, you might say, "We really turned the tables there!"

This idiom has its origin in “tables games” such as backgammon, and the practice of turning the table so that players' positions in the game would be reversed.

Burn your bridges.

To "burn your bridges" means to do something (usually drastic) to cut yourself off from going back on a decision. Let's say it's Sarah's last day working for a company and she decides to shout insults at everyone in the office and paint the walls with peanut butter before she leaves. It's unlikely they'll ever allow her to work there again, so Sarah could say, "I've burnt my bridges with that company!"

Just like the other examples, this idiom once had a literal meaning; during a military campaign, the act of burning bridges over rivers would stop the enemy from fleeing but would also mean that you could not go back - there would be no way but forward. People believe that this idea of literally burning bridges originated during the days of the Roman Empire.

In all of the examples above, the meaning of these phrases is now almost exclusively figurative. They have become well-established, common phrases in the English language and people use them in a way that is completely divorced from their original (literal) meaning.

Idioms in Literature

Below are some examples of idioms found in literature:

Breaking the ice.

This is an idiom that I'm sure we're all familiar with - to “break the ice” means to break the social awkwardness, usually by starting a conversation. For example, John wants to speak to an attractive lady but is too shy so turns to his friend and says, “I really want to get to know her but I don't know how to break the ice”. Or, at the start of a new term, a tutor might announce, “We're going to begin with some ice-breakers”, meaning little introductory games or exercises to get the students talking to each other.

This term appears in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1594) when Tranio tries to encourage Petruchio to speak to his love interest, Katharina:

“And if you break the ice and do this feat,

Achieve the elder, set the younger free

For our access ... "

As dead as a doornail.

People generally use this idiom to describe something that isn't working anymore, for example: “That computer is as dead as a doornail”. You could also use it to describe a person or animal who has died, but this is obviously quite a flippant (and possibly disrespectful) term to use in that context!

This idiom features in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843):

"Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

This is also an example of simile, as it directly compares two things (in this case, a doornail and Jacob Marley - both are stiff and lifeless).

Burning the candle at both ends.

Most of us know this idiom to mean “working morning till night” - in other words, burning the candle at both ends of the day . For example: “You need a holiday, you've been burning the candle at both ends”.

In Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, “First Fig” (1920), she makes use of this imagery, perhaps to express her attitude towards life:

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light! "

This short poem is also an example of an extended metaphor.

Idioms, Burning the candle at both ends, Study SmarterBurning the candle at both ends. (pixabay.com)

Pushing up (the) daisies.

This idiom could also be classed as a euphemism, as it is a less blunt way of saying that somebody is dead. For example: “I really miss my goldfish - he's pushing up daisies now”.

Wilfred Owen, the famous poet who fought in World War I, used this phrase in his poem, “A Terre” (1917-1918):

“'I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone'

Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned:

The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now. '

Pushing up daisies' is their creed, you know. "

In this extract, Owen talks about the Romantic notion of death being a return to nature ( “Shelley” refers to the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) before reminding us that there is nothing glorious about death. "Pushing up daisies" is a suitably sanitized, flowery term that contrasts the brutal nature of the battlefield.

Elephant in the room.

An “elephant in the room” refers to a controversial or awkward topic that is obvious, but that nobody wants to acknowledge. For example: “I was at a family gathering the other week, and everyone knew that Uncle Albert had just come out of jail - it was the elephant in the room”.

In Lemn Sissay's poem, “Elephant in the Room” (2008), he takes this common idiom and makes it literal, as you can see in this extract:

"It wasn't the footsteps stamped all over our home,

The cracked floorboards or its wont to roam.

It was the lie established, after I said, 'It's there.

For years you looked at me and said, 'Where, dear, where?' ”

Idioms vs proverbs - what's the difference?

A proverb is very similar to an idiom. Like an idiom, it is also a well-established short phrase or expression and most of the time it is figurative (meaning that it is metaphorical and should not be taken literally). The key difference is this: a proverb is designed to give advice or state a general truth, whereas an idiom does NOT give advice or wisdom - it is just a figure of speech that expresses a simple feeling or idea.

We're sure you are already familiar with many proverbs, but here are a few common examples, just so you get the idea:

Actions speak louder than words.

Meaning: a person's actions say more about their character than what they say.

Rome wasn't built in a day.

Meaning: creating something great may take a long time.

A stitch in time saves nine.

Meaning: it is better to fix a problem while it is small than to wait and let it get bigger.

Don't judge a book by its cover.

Meaning: don't value a thing, or person, by outer appearance only.

All good things come to an end.

Meaning: even positive experiences come to an end.

(Note that this proverb has a literal rather than figurative meaning.)

Let's compare idioms with proverbs so that you can see the similarities and differences more clearly:

Idioms

eg, let the cat out of the bag.

Proverbs

eg, actions speak louder than words.

Are always figurative.Are usually figurative.
Are well-established phrases.Are well-established phrases.
Express ideas or thoughts.Give advice or pass on wisdom.

Idioms vs metaphors - what's the difference?

Metaphor is a type of figurative language (meaning that it is not to be taken literally) that refers to one thing as another thing to make us see the similarities between them.

There is a lot of crossover between idioms and metaphors, as idioms often use metaphor. For example, when we talk about “the elephant in the room”, the “elephant” is a metaphor for something else (such as Uncle Albert's prison sentence, or your friend's terrible haircut that nobody wants to comment on!).

So when is a metaphor not an idiom? The answer is simple: when it is not a well-established phrase or expression. If I was to say, “I've parked my tin can outside”, this would be a metaphor (as I'm referring to my rusty old car as a tin can), but it is not an idiom, as it is not a set phrase or expression in the same way that, for example, "burning the candle at both ends" is.

Also, remember that idioms are specific to a particular language or dialect - if you were to translate them to another language, they would make no sense without explanation. "Let the cat out of the bag" is a meaningless phrase unless you understand the context or are already familiar with the idiom. Metaphors are generally more universal and require less context, so you could directly translate them to another language and (most of the time) they would still make sense.

Idioms

eg, let the cat out of the bag.

Metaphors

eg, sadness is a rainy day.

Are figurative.Are figurative.
Are well-established phrases.Do not have to be well-established - can be completely original.
Express ideas or thoughts.Draw a comparison between two things.
Are specific to a particular language or dialect - directly translated to another language, they would make no sense.Do not have to be specific to any language or dialect - if translated, could be universally understood without explanation.

Idioms - key takeaways

  • An idiom can be several different things - it could be another word for dialect, or the specific character or individuality of a language. The definition of idiom we explored in this article is a common phrase or expression that has a figurative, rather than literal, meaning.
  • Many idioms were originally used in a literal sense. For example: “letting the cat out of the bag” used to refer to the practice of having actual cats in bags that merchants would try to pass off as piglets. Over time, phrases like this lose their literal meaning and they become purely figurative, or figures of speech.
  • Idioms are very common in everyday speech, and they also appear frequently in Literature.
  • Idioms and proverbs are not the same thing. A proverb is designed to give advice or state a general truth, and it is usually figurative, but with some exceptions. An idiom does NOT give advice or wisdom; it is designed to express a simple feeling or idea, and it is always figurative.
  • Idioms often use metaphor, but a metaphor is not an idiom unless it is a well-established phrase or expression.

Idioms

An idiom is a common, well-established phrase or expression that has a figurative, rather than literal, meaning.

Here are 10 examples of idioms:

  • Start from scratch.

  • Let the cat out of the bag.

  • Steal someone’s thunder.

  • Turn the tables.

  • Burn your bridges.

  • Breaking the ice.

  • As dead as a doornail.

  • Burning the candle at both ends.

  • Pushing up (the) daisies.

  • Elephant in the room.

You pronounce idiom: i-dee-uhm (/ɪdɪəm/). Note that the first syllable is not pronounced “eye” (like the letter “I”), but rather like the first syllable in “Illustrate”, “Imitate” or “Icarus”.

An idiom expresses an idea or thought, whereas a proverb gives advice or passes on wisdom. Idioms are always figurative, meaning that they are not to be taken literally; proverbs are usually figurative, meaning that some of them can be taken literally.

'Idiom' has multiple meanings - it could refer to a dialect, or the character/individuality of a language. In terms of lexis and semantics in the English language, idiom refers to a common phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning.

Final Idioms Quiz

Question

Which of the following best describes what an idiom is?

Show answer

Answer

A well-established phrase or expression with a figurative meaning.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?

Show answer

Answer

Breaking the ice.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?


Show answer

Answer

Elephant in the room.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is an example of an idiom?

Show answer

Answer

Running around like a headless chicken.

Show question

Question

True or false?


An idiom gives advice or states a general truth.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms should not be taken literally.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms are only for everyday conversation and do not appear in literature.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

How many idioms are there in the English language?

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Answer

More than 10,000.

Show question

Question

Which of the following does NOT apply to an idiom?

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Answer

It is an obscure phrase.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of an idiom?

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Answer

Let’s begin.

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms often use metaphors.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What does the idiom “throw a spanner in the works” mean?

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Answer

To stop a plan going smoothly.

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Question

What does the idiom, “my neck of the woods” mean?

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Answer

The place where I live.

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Question

What does the idiom, “kick the bucket” mean?

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Answer

To die.

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Question

Which of the following idioms refers to a reversal of fortunes?

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Answer

Turn the tables.

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Question

An idiom is __________ phrase.

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Answer

a common

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Question

An idiom has a _________ meaning.

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Answer

figurative

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


An idiom is a ______ of speech.

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Answer

figure

Show question

Question

True or false?


Idioms are not well-established.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


An idiom is the same as a proverb.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false?


An idiom does not give advice or wisdom.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blanks:


A proverb is designed to give ______ or state a general _____.

Show answer

Answer

advice, truth

Show question

Question

Do proverbs always have to be figurative?

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Answer

No

Show question

Question

True or false?


Unlike idioms, metaphors don't have to be well-established.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

An idiom is a phrase or expression that is __________ to a particular language or dialect.


Show answer

Answer

specific

Show question

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