Definition of Idiom

An idiom is a saying, phrase, or fixed expression in a culture that has a figurative meaning different from its literal meaning. An idiom gains that meaning through repetition in a culture, and is often introduced via literature, media, famous people, or associations that originally make sense but lose their literal meaning.

There are examples of idiom in almost all languages, and many thousands unique to English. It can be fun—and difficult—to learn idioms in other languages, which introduce us to different ways of thinking and challenge our own idiomatic understanding of things in our own language. For example, in English we say something is a “piece of cake” when it’s easy; Spanish speakers may say something is “pan comido” when it’s easy, which means “bread that’s eaten.” Also note that some idioms may be popular in, for example, New York, but completely unknown in London. Thus, some idioms are dependent on dialect and colloquialism.

The definition of idiom comes from originally from the Greek word idíōma, which means “a special feature, a special phrasing, or a peculiarity.”

Common Examples of Idiom

As stated above, there are many thousands of idiom examples in English. Many of these we use every day. Here are some common idioms:

  • It’s all Greek to me. = I don’t understand it; it’s as if it were written in the incomprehensible language of Greek.
  • It costs an arm and a leg. = It’s expensive.
  • You’re barking up the wrong tree. = You’re making a mistake by trying to achieve something in the wrong way.
  • You should bite your tongue. = You should be quiet.
  • Break a leg! = Good luck, as said to performers (it’s considered a jinx to directly wish a perform “Good luck!”)
  • You’re close, but no cigar. = You’re close to the solution, but not quite there.
  • Don’t cry over spilt milk. = Don’t worry about something that’s already happened.
  • I’ll play devil’s advocate. = I’ll argue the opposite side of something, just to push the argument further.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. = Don’t put all your hope in one thing, as it may not work out.
  • Excuse my French. = Excuse my curse word.
  • She has an axe to grind. = She has a problem she wants to dispute with someone.
  • Hold your horses! = Wait!
  • It takes two to tango. = There isn’t just one person to blame in this situation.
  • Let’s let bygones be bygones. = Let’s put the past behind us.
  • I’m on pins and needles. = I’m waiting anxiously.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs. = It’s raining a lot.

Here are some other examples of idioms from Spanish similar to idioms in English, in order to compare their literal and figurative meanings:

  • Tomar el pelo = Literally: “Take the hair”; Figuratively: Making fun of something (similar to “You’re pulling my leg)
  • Estar más sano que una pera = Literally: “To be healthier than a pear”; Figuratively: To be very healthy (similar to “Fit as a fiddle)
  • Empezar la casa por el tejado = Literally: “To start a house at the roof”; Figuratively: To start things in the wrong order (similar to “Putting the cart before the horse)

Significance of Idiom in Literature

Authors may sometimes be the originator of idioms. This is especially true of William Shakespeare, who coined many hundreds of new words in English and created phrases that are still in use today. We will see some examples of these below. Authors also may use idioms in their works of literature in dialogue to show a character’s nature and speech patterns.

Examples of Idiom in Literature

Example #1

He at the last appointed him on one,
And let all others from his hearte gon,
And chose her of his own authority;
For love is blind all day, and may not see.

(The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)

Geoffrey Chaucer coined the famous idiom example “love in blind” in “The Merchant’s Tale” from his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare later used this phrase and popularized it even more by using it in several plays, for example in The Merchant of Venice, where the character Jessica says, “I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me, / For I am much ashamed of my exchange: / But love is blind and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit.”

Example #2

PRINCE OF MOROCCO: All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

This example of idiom comes William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; suitors from around the world have come to try for Portia’s heart. The princes must solve a riddle of choosing the correct casket of three. The Prince of Morocco chooses the golden casket, and inside he finds the message beginning “All that glitters is not gold.” He has chosen incorrectly. He assumed that the golden casket was the most valuable, and thus would be the correct one, but this idiom means that not everything superficially attractive is valuable.

Example #3

Old Black Joe started crowing out in the henhouse. Then Mother’s rocking chair cricked for all the world like she was sitting in it. You know I don’t take truck with that but it set me minding backwards, you know how you do sometimes.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

There are several examples of idiom in this short excerpt from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, though it may not appear that way at first glance. Consider the following phrases, though: “For all the world,” “I don’t take truck,” and “Set me minding backwards.” These are all idioms. “For all the world” means definitely seeming a certain way. “I don’t take truck” means to not have a problem with something. “Set me minding backwards” means to remember something. This comes from a letter in which the character Charles is rambling in a somewhat strange way, and Steinbeck’s usage of idioms portrays his state of mind and everyday speech patterns.

Example #4

[Jay Gatsby:] “Well, this would interest you. It wouldn’t take up much of your time and you might pick up a nice bit of money. It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing.”

[Nick Carraway:] “I’ve got my hands full,” I said. “I’m much obliged but I couldn’t take on any more work.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Nick Carraway uses the common idiom “I’ve got my hands full” in this excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This is a simple way of saying that he’s too busy. He’s trying to cut Gatsby off, who is offering him a shady business deal. Though Carraway needs the extra money, he bluffs by saying he has no time so that he doesn’t get mixed up in a bad business deal.

Test Your Knowledge of Idiom

1. Choose the correct idiom definition from the following statements:
A. A stupid phrase that has no meaning.
B. A common expression that has a figurative meaning different from its literal meaning.
C. A saying that is obscure and not used in ordinary speech.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Choose the idiom from the following excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

MACBETH: If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all

A. If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
B. Trammel up the consequence
C. The be-all and the end-all

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Othello:

IAGO: For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

What does Iago’s idiom “Wear my heart upon my sleeve” mean?
A. To be open and vulnerable, displaying emotions transparently
B. To feel his heartbeat in his arm
C. To conceal his feelings so that no one will understand him

Answer to Question #3 Show