What Is an Idiom?

What are idioms?

If English is your second language, idioms may well puzzle you. The words that are used have little or nothing to do with the topic under discussion, but English speakers slip them in without thinking twice (if you’re interested in learning the meaning of many common idioms, you can use this random phrase generator). If you are a native English speaker and you’re wondering how on earth these figures of speech came to be a part of the English language, in many instances you’ll have your work cut out tracking their origins. Sometimes they’re well known, and sometimes, they’re quite obscure.

You may have noticed I used the phrase ‘have your work cut out’. It’s a typical example of an idiom. For those looking for a definition, an idiom is a frequently used saying where the words of the saying don’t relate to their literal meaning. To illustrate, what has cutting out got to do with having a difficult task to perform? The answer is simply “We don’t know”. There are a lot of stories about how this phrase slipped into common parlance, but nobody is absolutely sure.

Mad hatters, cats and dogs and more

Although idioms are a bit crazy – after all, the individual words don’t make literal sense, they do make the language more fun and colorful. For example, you could say that it’s raining very hard, but that isn’t nearly as colorful as saying it’s raining cats and dogs, even though canines and felines are not falling from the sky. The origins of this particular idiom are also foggy, but that doesn’t stop us from using the phrase.

English is an eccentric language, and its students might even think we’re all as mad as hatters. Lovers of literature may be pardoned for thinking that the idiomatic phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from the classic children’s story “Alice in Wonderland”, but they’ll have to look for darker origins to get to the truth of the matter. Old-fashioned hat makers worked with mercurous nitrate, and mental disturbance was a symptom of its poisoning effects.

Common Idioms: what they mean and where they come from

You can purchase whole dictionaries of idioms, so covering them all with a blog post would be absolutely impossible, but we’ve tracked down some common ones and did our best to uncover their origins.

“Driving me up the wall / round the twist” means that something is, at least figuratively speaking, maddening. A constant noise, someone else’s irritating habit or trying to grasp a difficult concept are all things that might drive you up the wall. No-one really knows when this idiom slipped into English, but the words themselves create the image of someone desperately trying to get away.

“Once in a blue moon”, “Over the moon” and “Asking for the moon” are among the many moon related expressions we use. A happy person who has just had something wonderful happen to them is “Over the moon” with this turn of events. A demanding person who wants you to do the impossible is “Asking for the moon” and something that happens very rarely occurs “Once in a blue moon”. So-called blue moons occur when there are two full moons in one month. It’s a rare occurrence, hence it’s use as an idiom.

“A case of the pot calling the kettle black” is a very old idiom and was first recorded by Cervantes in his classic book “Don Quixote”. It is used to describe someone who accuses another person of being something that they are themselves. Of course, back then, all cooking was done over the fire, so you can be sure that both pots and kettles were equally black.

“Beat around the bush” means avoiding the main point or issue. It’s one of the oldest idioms in English, and the oldest example we know of that comes from a medieval poem. Hunters would send ‘beaters’ out to beat at bushes so that birds or game would emerge, and then the hunt would be on. Obviously, the beaters didn’t get any game themselves, hence the saying. The 1440 example reads: “Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo, Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.”

“Bad books” and “Black Books” are idioms for being displeased with someone. On the other side of the coin, there are “Good books”. This idiom demonstrates how the English language has changed. The word “books” was used in the same way as we use the word “esteem” today. There wasn’t actually a book about how you felt about others, so back in the Middle Ages, these sayings weren’t even idioms – they were a literal form of speech. “Passing the buck”, a disapproving way of saying that someone is handing on responsibilities to others, has its origins in the Wild West. Poker players took their game seriously, and to keep it as fair as possible, each player would have an opportunity to deal the cards. To show who would be dealer next, a knife, usually with a buck horn handle, would be placed on the table. Players called this knife, “the buck”.

Sometimes idioms come from folk wisdom. “Crying over spilt milk” would be a good example of this. Sometimes they come from stories and literature, and sometimes they have their origins in the obsolete uses of words. Studying them is more interesting than you might expect, so getting an idiom dictionary can be a worthwhile investment, even if you already know the meanings of many of them.

(Photo courtesy of gfpeck)

  • I love English idioms! I think they bring such interesting twist and turns from the literal meaning of words. I’m sure it’s difficult for those learning English to understand them, but they make the language so much less boring.

    • Great article regarding idioms. Personally I think they aren’t used enough these days. Yet I do understand they are challenging to understand if you are just starting to learn the language. There is quite a wide range of them.

  • Idioms are really awesome and very confusing sometimes, as you said. I have often wondered where strange phrases have come from. My parents always used so many idioms while I was growing up and I didn’t know what a lot of what they meant until I was grown up.

  • I appreciate you worked you heart out on this article. It really is the cat’s meow and I think a lot of people will see the light after reading it. Keep your nose to the grindstone and I look forward to more of your writing in the future!

  • Once in a blue moon you come across a good article and this might just be one of them. I think idioms are great especially for those who write a lot. They can surely put humor in some articles or Books.

  • I have a friend who came to the US to visit me and stay for 3 months last year and idioms are so difficult to explain why they mean what they mean. I never thought about it before because I just know what it means, but trying to explain it to someone else made me realize how ridiculous some of the idioms we use really are.

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