I. What is an Idiom?
An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning different from the words used. For example, “kick the bucket” is an idiom for “death.” In this sense, idiom is pretty much synonymous with “figure of speech,” though with a slightly narrower definition: an idiom is part of the language, whereas a figure of speech may simply be invented by an individual author. In some cases however, an author may have invented a figure of speech so long ago, that it’s become an idiom and no one really remembers where it came from – this is the case with many lines from Shakespeare that were once figures of speech, but have become idioms.
II. Examples of Idiom
In English, one of the most common idioms is “pulling someone’s leg,” or tricking them for fun. Usually, this refers to something harmless – you’re just kidding around, not actually trying to deceive or mislead the person. The idiom has its origins, though, in the fairly violent practice of pulling people by their legs so that they fall onto the pavement, which was popular with British youths in the 19th century.
All languages have idioms for death, and they range from somber (e.g. “passed on”) to rude, humorous, or flippant (e.g. “croaked,” “snuffed it,” or “kicked the bucket”). In Danish, for example, one might say that the deceased tog traesko, or “took off the clogs,” while in Urdu the idiom is haathi nikal gaya dum phans gaya (“the elephant escaped but his tail got stuck”).
III. The Importance of Idiom
Idioms can be used for many purposes. Like all metaphorical expressions, they add spice and character to the writing, and make it seem less flat. In addition, they can act as euphemisms, allowing the author to discuss uncomfortable topics indirectly. All languages have idioms for death, as we saw in Section II. There are also idiomatic euphemisms for various diseases that people don’t want to discuss directly. Like all euphemisms, these expressions are intended to make the discussion easier by bringing in a more gentle (or sometimes humorous) term to replace a harsher one.
Finally, idioms show the cultural origins of the writing: if you are a Danish author, for example, you might use the Danish idiom tog traesko, which we saw in Section II. For a reader familiar with Danish culture, this would be a great clue as to the work’s cultural origins. However, you would have to include some clarification for other readers less familiar with Danish culture.
The same thing is true of slang, which refers to the various “insider” idioms of young people. A slang terms is just an idiom that people use to show that they are cool, hip, and in touch with popular culture (or with a particular sub-culture such as punk or surf culture).
IV. Examples of Idiom in Literature
“Achilles heel” is a common idiom for the one weakness in something that’s otherwise extremely strong. This idiom has its origins in Homer’s Iliad, where Achilles is one of the heroes. Achilles has just one weak spot, his heel, and this makes him extremely powerful in battle. However, at the Battle of Troy he has the misfortune of getting shot with a poisoned arrow – right in his heel.
Many, many English idioms come straight from the pages of Shakespeare. But they are used as idioms because almost no one knows where they come from – they have simply become a part of the language! Examples include: “send him packing” (Henry IV), “lie low” (Much Ado About Nothing), and “one fell swoop” (Macbeth).
V. Examples of Idiom in Pop Culture
Oh, I already brought it! I brought it, set it down on the table, and opened it!
This line from South Park is a classic example of what we’ve called “extending” the idiom. “Bring it” is a common idiom in English that doesn’t really have a literal translation, but is basically a way of taunting and challenging someone. In this South Park episode, Cartman responds to the challenge by extending that idiom so far that it starts to sound absurd.
The song Night Owl was originally written by James Taylor, but has been recorded by many other artists, including Little Big Town and Carly Simon. Of course, “night owl” is an idiom for someone who likes to stay out late (it’s not a literal owl). However, most people don’t realize that the idiom “night owl” actually originated with Shakespeare – it’s a line from his Richard II.
VI. Related Terms
All idioms (on our current definition) use metaphor to some extent. That is, they use words non-literally in order to get their point across. “Butterflies in the stomach” is a common English idiom for feeling nervous or anxious. But obviously it doesn’t refer to literal butterflies – it’s just a metaphor for the experience of nerves.
Metaphor: “My love is a bonfire”
Simile: “My love is like a bonfire”
Metaphor: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”
Simile: “It is the east, and Juliet is as radiant as the sun!”
Similes (also called analogies) work very well in formal essays, especially in making abstract ideas more concrete. A simile allows the author to clarify his or her ideas without taking on the risks that come with using an idiom.
Example with Simile: “The magnetosphere works like a big tinted window, protecting the earth from the sun’s harmful rays while still letting some light and heat pass through.”
A euphemism is an indirect expression that refers to something unpleasant or socially taboo. Euphemisms are usually used to discuss topics like death, bodily functions, and disease. In most cases, the euphemism is also an idiom, and can be called an idiomatic euphemism. However, a euphemism can also be an original expression created by the author, and therefore not an idiom.