What is an Idiom?

This post covers basics of idioms: their origin, their importance in communication, and more.

What’s an idiom?

A non-native speaker of English who is new to idioms hears this: “I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.” How will she react?

“Maybe this person has bitten off more than a mouthful and is now struggling to eat it.”

Welcome to idioms!

An idiom is a phrase or expression whose meaning cannot be deduced directly from individual words in that phrase or expression. The idiom bite off more than you can chew, for example, doesn’t mean you bite more than a mouthful of something and then struggle to chew. It means you try to do something that is too difficult for you. In other words, idioms are figurative language.

Idioms are culture specific: An idiom in one culture may not be understood in another. For example, one hundred holes and one thousand wounds (a Chinese idiom) and to die dressed (a Spanish idiom) may not be understood by people new to these languages, just like bite off more than you can chew may not be understood by people new to English. And within widely-spoken languages, Spanish being a case in point, idioms may be overlaid with regional hue, varying in popularity from country to country.

More resources on idioms:

How idioms originate?

Many idioms start their journey literally, but over a long period drift away to be used only figuratively.

Here is how the idiom white elephant originated. The kings of Siam (now, Thailand) used elephants for carrying heavy loads, but they exempted the rare white (albino) elephant from work duties. As the legend goes, one of the kings struck a novel idea to punish a courtier without appearing to be punishing him. He gifted him a white elephant. The poor courtier paid through the nose to feed the elephant but couldn’t put it to work (it was against the rules) to recover the cost. The idiom started its journey literally but, over generations, it came to be associated with anything that requires lot of upkeep but doesn’t yield commensurately.

To give another example, the phrase worth his salt actually valued a person highly. (In ancient Rome, salt was a precious commodity, and soldiers were paid their wages partly in salt.)

Why are idioms important?

For beginners in a language, knowing at least the popular idioms will improve their communication skills, both written and oral. For example, a small-scale initiative to improve idiomatic understanding of non-native engineering students at Universidad Santo Tomás – Tunja, Colombia, found that ‘use of idioms helped students learn new vocabulary, improve their communicative skill based on the use of idioms in their spoken/written English’.

Once you get adept at idioms, you can use them to make your writing interesting. That’s what any figurative language does. The same sentence has been written in two different ways below – with and without idiom. Readers are more likely to pause and notice second of the two.

We’ll continue discussion when the excitement and screaming stops.

We’ll continue discussion when the dust settles. [Idiom]

My father had diabetes, and I too have.

Diabetes runs in our family. [Idiom]

By blaming negative coverage by media and lack of funds for his unsuccessful campaign, the politician was blaming the wrong things.

By blaming negative coverage by media and lack of funds for his unsuccessful campaign, the politician was barking up the wrong tree. [Idiom]

Idioms can also make writing concise, the first two examples being a case in point.

Idiom vs. proverb

1. Idioms and proverbs have different function

A proverb is folk wisdom or advice expressed through short, pithy sentences. For example, the proverb If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys expresses common wisdom that less wages attract low-quality human resource. An idiom, though, doesn’t express wisdom or advice. It simply means something that can’t be inferred from the words in the idiom.

2. An idiom is figurative language. Proverb, not necessarily.

You can’t understand an idiom by taking it literally, implying they’re figurative.

Proverbs, however, can be literal or figurative. Examples:

When a twig grows hard, it is difficult to twist it. [Figurative]

Prosperity makes friends, and adversity tries them. [Literal]

3. A proverb is written as a sentence. An idiom, usually not.

Proverbs are written as sentences. Idioms, mostly as phrases.

Prosperity makes friends, and adversity tries them. [Proverb: a sentence]

Hit the nail on the head [Idiom: not a sentence]

Few idioms can be converted into proverbs

Few popular idioms can be converted into proverb form. Examples (notice that the proverb is in the form of advice):

Throw the baby out with the bath water [Idiom]

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. [Proverb]

Put the cart before the horse. [Idiom]

Don’t put the cart before the horse. [Proverb]

Idiom vs. metaphor

Both idioms and metaphors are figurative language as their meaning can’t be deduced literally. Beyond that, they’re very different.

1. Idioms and metaphors have different function

Metaphors compare one thing to another by saying that one thing is another.

He is a walking encyclopedia.

My niece is a little devil.

Unlike metaphors, idioms don’t need two things to compare. They’re a group of words that mean something, which can’t be deduced from its constituent words, and can fit into a sentence like any other word or phrase.

The two brothers are as different as chalk and cheese.

We’re paying through the nose for fuel.

2. Metaphors are more universal than idioms

Idioms are usually culture-specific, implying that an idiom in one culture/language may not be recognized in other culture.

Metaphors though have wider recognition as people, irrespective of their language and culture, can understand the two sides of the equation. These two metaphors, for example, will be understood cutting across regional and language barriers.

He is a bulldozer when he grabs the ball.

Michael Phelps was a dolphin in the pool.

3. Idioms are more commonly used

Idioms are an integral part of any language and are used in day-to-day conversation and writing. Without idioms, a person may struggle to communicate. Metaphors, outside of few common ones, though aren’t used as commonly. They’re more used by writers to add color to their writing. Unlike metaphors, they’re not necessary to understand a language.

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