What is an idiom?

Get the ball rolling on learning idioms.

Carla Greenwood

March 2024

What is an idiom?

Get the ball rolling on learning idioms.

Carla Greenwood

Feb 26, 2024

What is an idiom?

Get the ball rolling on learning idioms.

Carla Greenwood

Feb 26, 2024

Key takeaways

  • Idioms differ worldwide — Each culture, language, or region has its own unique group of idioms. These are generally only understood by native people.
  • Idioms add expression and cultural meaning — Idioms can make boring writing more engaging and culturally relevant. They can also be used to shorten complex ideas or phrases. 
  • There are several different types of idioms — Idioms are defined by their unique properties and figurative meanings. The three types of idioms include proverbial, expressive, and euphemisms.

Have you ever told a friend, “I’m feeling a bit under the weather,” or perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “That was a piece of cake” on your favorite TV shows? These phrases are called idioms. 

If you take the literal meaning of each word, the phrases become senseless (and sometimes a bit silly-sounding!). But idioms are an important part of cultures around the world.

In this article, we explore what idioms are and the different types of idioms you can use to add context or humour to engage readers.

Understanding idioms

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an idiom is a group of words with a meaning different from the meaning of each word. This may sound a little complicated, but essentially, it’s a type of figurative language that’s often used in daily speech or literature. 

An example of an idiom is “to kill two birds with one stone” because this phrase has nothing to do with birds or stones! It’s an idiomatic expression that refers to someone completing two tasks at the same time. Most native English speakers will immediately understand this phrase’s meaning and that it’s not about harming birds. 

Remember, idioms are not meant to be taken literally. They’re expressions commonly understood in certain cultures or languages but meaningless or confusing to others. Think of idioms as inside jokes between the people who know them.

For instance, the phrase, “It’s raining cats and dogs” originated in the 17th century in England when drainage was so bad that dead pets would often be seen drifting through flooded streets. Today, the phrase is used to describe heavy rains.

Ironically, the word “idioma” is thought to derive from the Greek word “idioma,” which means “unique feature” or “peculiar phraseology.” 

Each idiomatic expression was formed during a particular time in history to reflect unique cultural traditions or habits and passed down through the generations. Language and culture are closely connected. For example, afternoon tea is a big part of British culture, whereas jumping over a broom on your wedding day represents commitment in African cultures.

Types of idioms

There are three different types of idioms, all with their own specific uses. Below are some of the more common types of English idioms:

  • Proverbial idioms. Proverbial idioms are similar to proverbs in that they express common sense, knowledge, or experience passed down through generations. For example, “like a bad penny” means our mistakes always come back to haunt us. 
  • Expressive idioms. Expressive idioms are used to portray emotions or feelings. For example, “down in the dumps” means someone feels upset, whereas “on cloud nine” means someone is very happy or elated.
  • Euphemisms. Euphemisms are idioms that use non-harsh words or mild language to describe an unpleasant or offensive idea. For example, “he’s creative with the truth” simply means he is a liar, and “vertically challenged” is a nicer way of saying someone is short.

Function and importance of idioms

Idioms play an important role in the enrichment of language around the world and improve conversational skills. 

Below, we delve into the main functions and significance of idioms:

Use in literature and speech

Idioms, proverbs, and expressions come up all the time in speech and writing. For example, one of the most common English idioms is “break the ice,” which was first used in the famous novel The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. Today, this phrase is used in everyday speech to refer to something said or done that makes strangers feel more comfortable with each other.

In linguistic and social context

Idioms are connected to cultures rather than being language specific. They reflect the history, life, culture, and environment of native speakers. For example, in Brazil, “to peel a pineapple” means to cope with a complex or tricky situation. This might sound confusing to English speakers unless you think about how difficult it is to peel a pineapple, spikes and all!  

How to use idioms in writing and speech

The use of idioms can add expression and drama to everyday writing or speaking. 

For example, you can use idioms to:

Add humour — When it comes to writing or speaking, colourful expressions tend to engage more readers and listeners than drab language. For example, instead of saying, “He isn’t very clever,” you could say, “He isn’t the sharpest tool in the box.” The latter version is bound to get more giggles from your audience than the former! 

Share your point of view — Depending on the type of idiom, you can entirely change the point of view on a subject. For example, you could say, “She was hot under the collar,” to describe someone who is irritated. Alternatively, you can say, “She was spitting nails,” which portrays more intense anger or irritation.  

Simplify ideas — Using an idiom can prevent you from going into too much detail and just get straight to the point. For example, “Back to the drawing board” is a much easier way of saying, “The plan didn’t go well, so you are going to have to regroup and start again.”

When NOT to use idioms in writing

As much as idioms are beneficial in writing, you still have to be careful when and where you use them because they are very language/culture based.

Below are a few examples of when it’s best not to use idioms:

  • Formal writing. Idioms add character and flair to pieces of writing, but you need to make sure you use them in the correct context. For example, idioms are not typically used in formal writing, such as technical essays, because they can take away from the important details you’re writing about. 
  • Non-English audiences. Idioms are not universally understood. So, consider your audience when deciding whether to add idioms because they can easily be misinterpreted. 

Tricks and tips on using idioms

Idiomatic expressions are an essential part of language to convey culture, ideas and feelings. However, there are certain rules you need to adhere to when using idioms. 

Avoid clichés — A couple of idioms can really improve the relatability and conversational style of a piece of writing. However, too many idioms can easily become cliché. An overreliance on idioms may cause your reader or listener to lose interest.

Change-up repetitive descriptions — The overuse of common words like “angry” and “happy” can make your writing boring and repetitive. Adding idioms such as “seeing red” or “walking on air” can really add texture and variety to your writing.

Examples of idioms

There are estimated to be over 25,000 idioms in the English language. Below is a list of some of the more common idioms and their meanings:

  • Break a leg. Break a leg is a term often used to mean good luck, especially when someone is about to perform.  
  • The early bird catches the worm. The early bird catches the worm means that someone who does something immediately or before everyone else has an advantage. 
  • The last straw. The last straw, or the final straw, refers to the last in a series of undesirable events that make you realise you can’t continue to accept a bad situation.
  • Once in a blue moon. Once in a blue moon means something that happens rarely. For example, “The bus turns up once in a blue moon.”
  • Wild goose chase. If you’re on a wild goose chase, you are wasting a lot of time searching for something with very little chance of finding it. 
  • A blessing in disguise. This idiom refers to a good thing that appears bad at first. For example, losing a job only to be offered a better opportunity. 
  • Flog a dead horse. If someone is flogging a dead horse, they are wasting time and effort on something that’s impossible.

Idioms are a great way to add character, expression, and cultural references to writing or speech. Just be sure that you understand the meaning of each idiom you use, and don’t overdo it.

Explore idioms with DoodleEnglish

DoodleEnglish is an app that’s filled with thousands of fun, interactive exercises covering grammar, punctuation, spelling and more!

Designed by teachers, it creates each child a unique work programme tailored to their needs, boosting their confidence and skills in English. Try it for free today!

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FAQs about idioms

An idiom is a group of words that have a separate meaning from the meanings of the individual words. For example, “The cat that got the cream” or “beat around the bush.” Idioms are common in cultures around the world and are often related to times in history that have been passed down through the generations. 

Idioms are common expressions with meanings that are understood by native speakers. They are often used to add colour, expression and humour to speech or a piece of writing. Basically, they can turn a dull phrase into something more interesting. 

Idioms play a great role in enriching language. They represent cultural and historical information or events, broadening our understanding of our own heritage.  

Screenshot 2023-10-13 at 16.29.14

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