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What is an Idiom?

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Ben has a life-long interest in language and is particularly interested in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.

Idioms are a great way to add richness and  fluency to a language.

Idioms are a great way to add richness and fluency to a language.

What is it That Idioms Do?

We all use idioms, often without even realizing it. They form part of everyday speech, and we adopt their use from a young age as we hear, read and share them as part of our natural conversation with others. In part, this tends to make idioms so difficult for those trying to learn English for the first time.

It's the cultural aspect of an idiom that is harder to understand when learning a new language. We can experience this for ourselves—how often have you heard a saying or expression with its roots in another language or country and don't understand the meaning or context?

An example might be for those holidaying in Spain, who have learned enough of the language to enable them to get by when ordering food, asking directions, or even engaging in a little banter with locals. They might hear this idiom "Tirar la casa por la ventana," which your knowledge of the words translates as "to throw the house out of the window." I don't know about you, but this would completely throw me out of the conversation after all its nonsense-surely! In reality, it's an idiom meaning "to spare no expense." For the native language speaker, perfectly understandable; for others, something of a nightmare.

The above example provides the first truth about an idiom—an idiom is a memorable statement that is often short and concise. But more than this, it is a saying whose message often bears little or no relevance to the words used. The very nature of idiomatic expressions is that it is a construction of words that cannot be directly translated word-for-word into another language while having the same meaning as the original expression.

The Function of an Idiom

Idioms add richness and a bit of spice to our language. They enable the communication of an idea that isn't easy to convey through everyday language. They are also capable of adding subtle context to their remarks.

The function of an Idiom:

  • Adds richness and color to our language and writing.
  • Enable the communication of ideas.
  • Provide the utmost meaning with the use of minimal words.

Key Features of an Idiom

Idioms are:

  • A memorable statement.
  • Short and concise (but always more than one word in length).
  • Often humorous.
  • They provide an instant understanding of the intended message to the listener.
The idiom's beauty is that it enables the speaker, or writer, to make an essential point in very few words.

The idiom's beauty is that it enables the speaker, or writer, to make an essential point in very few words.

Idioms and Culture

Idioms evolve from our experiences of life. In an article on Med Magazine issue 49, Frank Boers describes how some share common themes across languages, usually based on shared physical attributes, such as being hot or cold. He suggests that most idioms are more specific to individual languages and cultures due to the history and events that affect these different cultures.

For example, English idioms are rich in sailing expressions due to the countries' historical reliance on its navy and fishing fleets. Other "landlocked" nations would not have experienced sailing in the way, and as a consequence, fewer idioms based upon this aspect of life exist.

An Idiom can Have Both a Negative and a Positive Meaning

Example of an idiom with both a negative and a positive context.

This example is a modern-day addition to the list of idioms:

  • Shut Up!

An exclamation used to say, “stop talking—be quiet.” However, it can also express the view, “wow, that’s unbelievable and incredible – tell me more.”

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Hearing "Shut Up!" in this context can be alarming.

Hearing "Shut Up!" in this context can be alarming.

Hearing "Shut Up!" can be fun and enjoyable in this context.

Hearing "Shut Up!" can be fun and enjoyable in this context.

Pros and Cons Associated With Idioms

As with most things in life—idioms have positives and negatives associated with their use.
For the Second Language Learner (S.L.L), they can be confusing and challenging to handle.


Idioms add color and creativity to a language. They paint a picture.

They can be difficult for the extra language learner to get to handle.

Idioms condense what might otherwise be a long and convoluted story into a short, snappy statement that encapsulates the entire story or message.

Unless the reader or listener is aware of the inference and not just the actual words used, it can be unclear.

It provides greater fluency to the user and shares cultural and historical information.

It is not always easy to recognize when an idiom is in use.

Idioms communicate a specific and precise meaning for which there is no exact word.

Translation to other languages can be difficult.

A Fun Video Discussing The Problem With Idioms

The Difficulty Associated With Idioms Often Experienced by English Language Learners

Two examples of idioms where the actual words used appear to have no bearing with the meaning of the expression itself:

  • To play Ducks and Drakes.

To suggest that a person is taking unjustifiable risks. Usually with money.

  • Carrot and Stick.

In this context, the carrot is the reward or encouragement offered, and the stick is the threat of something unpleasant. Upon hearing this expression, most people imagine a donkey being encouraged to move forward by the promise of a carrot dangling on a stick in front of it. The "stick" representing the threat should the donkey not respond to the carrot.

It is hardly surprising then that understanding the meaning of idioms can be a daunting task.

So how is it then, that people for whom English is their first language might understand the meaning of idioms with comparative ease? There is evidence that children as young as five or six years of age start to understand these expressions. They become ingrained in our vocabulary and in the literature we read. We hear them repeated in the media, and they soon become second nature to us all.

To be truly fluent in the English language, a person will significantly benefit from understanding the idiomatic expressions that litter the language. To finish, I have one last idiom for you:

  • Know the Ropes
  • Learn the Ropes

These two idioms are a variation of the same expression. They share a standard message, which is to acquire expertise, and they oft-quoted as having their origin in the 1800s, entering the English language from life on sailing vessels.

With a myriad of ropes aboard a sailing ship, it certainly pays to "know the ropes"

With a myriad of ropes aboard a sailing ship, it certainly pays to "know the ropes"

An Idiom Poll


Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on February 27, 2020:

I think idioms add a great deal of interest to our conversations and they often make me stop and think about individual idioms and they came into daily use.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 26, 2020:

For those who learn English as second language in their lives, idioms are always baffling. Still it makes sense in learning them as they make the language interesting.

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