What are idioms? with examples

What are idioms? With examples - Best idioms in 2020
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What are idioms? with examples

An idiom can be a phrase, saying or a group of words that has a specific meaning.  However,  the words used often don’t give any indication of the meaning.  Idioms are used very commonly in all languages including English and they can be quite difficult to understand for non-native speakers.  

An idiom's symbolic sense is quite different from the literal meaning of the words of which it is made. There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language and we tend to use them even without knowing.  Idioms are used a lot in spoken language but they are not used as much in written language, depending on the kind of writing you are doing.  If you are writing an official or academic document or article you should avoid idioms but you will often see them in the media, blogs and less formal writing.

We use idioms to make our language more alive and colourful.  For example, if you say, ‘actions speak louder than words’, it sounds more to the point and dynamic than ‘he’d better do something rather than just talk’.  Idioms bring creativity and imagination to everyday speech and once you master a few, your English will start to sound more like that of a native speaker.

When English learners reach a certain level of English, it becomes important for them to start learning idioms. It can seem scary learning idioms especially as there are so many, but it is also fun.  By learning idioms, and learning how to use them correctly when speaking, you will sound more like a native speaker so it is important for you to dedicate some time to learning them.

Idiomatic expression - to cry wolf
Idiomatic expression - to cry wolf

The History of Idioms

Nobody really knows when the first idioms were used in English, some say the 18th century but I think they have always really been around.  People like to be creative with language and in the past writing was a common past time amongst the more wealthy of the population.  Some say that idioms have been around since Roman and Greek times and since both languages influenced English greatly, it is very likely idioms in these languages became part of the English language.  Have a look at this website for more info: https://antiquitynow.org/2013/08/13/this-history-in-our-language-idioms-from-ancient-times-part-1/

Some believe that idioms are metaphors that have became fixed or fossilized over time. This means that they have not changed and while in some cases the meaning of the metaphor is clear easy to understand, even by non-native speakers, for example it is clear that kill two birds with one stone means to achieve two things at the same time.

In other cases the metaphor is not so clear and if the person hearing the idiom is not familiar with it, it can cause confusion, for example kick the bucket means to die.

Idioms can take many different forms, for example they can begin with a preposition like out of the blue which means unexpectedly or from scratch which means from the beginning.

They can begin with a verb, for example add insult to injury which means to make a bad situation worse, or bark up the wrong tree which means to get something wrong, to look in the wrong place or to accuse the wrong person.

They can also begin with a noun, for example bed of roses, an easy, comfortable situation or an easy life.  Idioms can even begin with an adjective, for example, bitter pill, a situation that is difficult or unpleasant but must be accepted.

So idioms can be found in many different grammatical structures and, if you use them in speaking or writing, don’t forget that you need to know which part of speech the idiom begins with so you can make a grammatically correct sentence.  For example, the following is incorrect:

*She has an add to injury by saying that - add here is a verb so it should be:

She has just added to injury by saying that.

Idiomatic expression - An elephant in the room.
Idiomatic expression - An elephant in the room.

Are idioms the same as proverbs?

No, they aren’t.  Proverbs state something that is accepted as true whereas idioms are more like metaphors. For example, the proverb ‘a picture is worth thousand words’ is considered to be true whereas the idiom ‘bite off more than you can chew’, is used to reflect a situation.  Proverbs are sentences whereas idioms are phrases and finally proverbs often contain moral advice whereas idioms do not.

Idioms are also interesting because we like to know where they originally came from

Here are a few examples:

Bite the bullet means to decide to do something difficult or unpleasant.  

It is likely that this idiom originated on the battlefield before painkillers or anesthesia were available and soldiers would bite on a bullet to stop themselves from screaming out if they had to undergo surgery following an injury sustained in battle.

Example: I really didn’t want to attend the conference as I knew it would be boring.  But it’s good for my career so I just bit the bullet and went.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water means don’t get rid of something valuable or good along with the bad.

This idiom probably originated in Germany in the 16th century, when all the family shared the water for their bath.  The oldest man took his bath first, then the rest of the men, then the women, the children and finally the baby.  As the baby was the last one in the, most likely, very dirty water, s/he could have been thrown out!

Example: I know you don’t like the material on that old chair but the wood is in good condition, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, just get it recovered.

Let the cat out of the bag means to tell someone a secret by accident.

This idiom mostly likely originated in the days of agricultural fairs when farmers would buy a prize piglet.  The seller would put the animal in a sack but, on arriving home the farmer may have found he’d been deceived as the seller had put a cat in the sack instead of the piglet.  The meaning of this idiom has changed over the years but you can understand the popularity of such sayings as they are fun and descriptive.  

Example: I told him not to tell anyone about the party but he let the cat out of the bag and now everyone knows.

Idiomatic expression - Fingers crossed
Idiomatic expression - Fingers crossed

I would recommend starting by learning the most common idioms in the English language and when you get familiar with them, you can move on to more complicated and less common ones. Below I have listed some of the most common idioms in the English language, easy to learn with their meanings.

  • Actions speak louder than words’.  Meaning: People's intentions can be judged better by what they do than what they say.
  • At the drop of a hat’. Meaning: without any hesitation, instantly.
  • Back to the drawing board’. Meaning: when an attempt fails and it's time to start all over.
  • Ball is in your court’. Meaning: It is up to you to make the next decision or step.
  • Barking up the wrong tree’. Meaning: Looking in the wrong place. Accusing the wrong person.
  • Be glad to see the back of’’. Meaning: Be happy when a person leaves.
  • Beat around the bush’. Meaning: Avoiding the main topic or not speaking directly about the issue.
  • Best of both worlds’. Meaning: All the advantages.
  • Best thing since sliced bread’. Meaning: A good invention or innovation. A good idea or plan.
  • Bite off more than you can chew’. Meaning: To take on a task that is too big.

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