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What is an Idiom: Idiomatic Expressions Explained

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Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a particular interest 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.

Idioms Explained

We all use idioms. We say, hear, and read them every day. Yet we are often unaware of the fact.

So what is an idiom, and what is it that idioms do?

An idiom is a memorable statement, often short and concise. But more than this, it is a saying whose message often bears little or no relevance to the words used.

They are often humorous, always memorable, and they condense what might otherwise be a long-winded explanation into a concise message that the person hearing the idiom, instantly understands. We use these idiomatic expressions every day, often without even realizing it.

Key Features of an Idiom:

  • a memorable statement.
  • short and concise (but always more than one word in length).
  • often humorous.
  • provides instant understanding to the listener or reader.

I should explain here that those for whom the English language is a new or a second language, these idioms can be very confusing, but well worth the effort to learn and understand. Complicated, because 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 continuing to have the same meaning as the original expression.

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

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

The Function of an Idiom

Idioms add richness and a bit of spice to our language. They enable the communication of an idea that cannot be easily conveyed through everyday language. They can also add subtle context to their remarks, with many idioms having both a negative and a positive meaning depending on how they are used.

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.

Definition of an Idiom

A group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own.”

— Cambridge Dictionary

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.”

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons Associated With Idioms

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

AdvantagesDisadvantages

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 a 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

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 the majority of 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 expressions relating to sailing 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.

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, it is of great benefit to understand and learn 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

References

  • Boer, Frank. Macmillan Dictionaries.com. Med- Magazine, February 2008.


Comments

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.