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Definition of Idioms
An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning that is different from its literal meaning. These are often used in everyday language and can be difficult for non-native speakers to understand.
Examples of Common Idioms with Meanings
Here are some common examples:
“Throw caution to the wind” (meaning: to act recklessly or without concern for the consequences)
“Add fuel to the fire” (meaning: to make a situation worse)
“A penny for your thoughts” (meaning: to ask someone what they’re thinking about)
“A leopard can’t change its spots” (meaning: people cannot change their basic nature)
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” (meaning: eating healthy can prevent illness)
“A taste of your own medicine” (meaning: to experience the same thing that you have done to others)
“A dime a dozen” (meaning: very common or easily found)
“The elephant in the room” (meaning: an obvious problem or issue that is being ignored)
“A drop in the bucket” (meaning: a small or insignificant amount in comparison to the whole)
“A storm in a teacup” (meaning: a minor problem or situation that is being exaggerated)
“A hot potato” (meaning: a difficult or controversial topic)
“A wild goose chase” (meaning: a futile search or pursuit)
“A red herring” (meaning: something intended to distract attention from the real issue)
“A rough diamond” (meaning: someone with potential despite their rough exterior)
“A snake in the grass” (meaning: a deceitful or treacherous person)
“Bite off more than you can chew” – to take on more responsibility or a task than one can handle.
“Cost an arm and a leg” – something that is very expensive.
“Raining cats and dogs” – raining heavily
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” – something you have is worth more than something you may get.
“Barking up the wrong tree” – accusing or pursuing the wrong person or thing
“Bend over backwards” – to make a great effort.
Meanings and Origins of Common Idiom
Here are the meanings and origins:
“Break a leg”: This is a way of wishing someone good luck, typically before a performance. It is thought to have originated in the theater, as a way of wishing actors good luck without actually saying the words “good luck,” which is considered bad luck.
“Bite the bullet”: This means to face a difficult or unpleasant task with courage and determination.
It is thought to have originated from the practice of having soldiers bite on bullets during surgery to help them endure the pain.
“The ball is in your court”: This means that it is now someone else’s turn to take action or make a decision.
It is thought to have originated from the game of tennis, where the ball must be hit back to the opponent before a point can be scored.
“The whole nine yards”: This means everything or all of it. The origin of this phrase is uncertain, but one theory is that it comes from World War II, when fighter planes had belts of ammunition that were 27 yards long, and if a pilot used all of his ammunition, he would have used the “whole nine yards.”
“Barking up the wrong tree”: This means pursuing a mistaken or misguided course of action. It is thought to have originated from hunting dogs, which would bark at the base of a tree while the prey was actually in a different tree.
How to use Common Idioms in Context
To use it in context, you should first understand the meaning of the idiom and then use it in a sentence that makes sense within the context of the conversation or text.
It’s also important to be aware of the tone and audience you’re speaking or writing to since idioms can vary in formality and cultural context.
For example, you might say “I’m feeling under the weather” to a friend to express that you’re feeling ill, but you wouldn’t use that phrase in a formal business setting.
Here are a few more examples of idiomatic expressions and their meanings:
“To be at the end of one’s rope”: to be at the point of giving up or losing control.
“To be a rain on someone’s parade”: to spoil someone’s plans or happiness.
Types of Idioms with Examples
Let us read about the types of idiom to get more exposure.
A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things using the words “like” or “as.” Similes are often used in idiomatic expressions to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning. Some examples of simile idioms include:
“He’s as strong as an ox.” This means that the person is very strong.
“She’s as slow as a snail.” This means that the person moves very slowly.
“It’s raining cats and dogs” This means is raining heavily
“as blind as a bat” meaning someone who is visually impaired.
“as cold as ice” meaning someone emotionless.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things by stating that one thing is another thing, without using the words “like” or “as.”
Metaphors are often used in idiomatic expressions to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning. Some examples include:
“He’s a bear.” This means someone is unfriendly or grumpy.
“Life is a journey”. This implies that life is full of ups and downs, changes and experiences.
These are common in everyday speech and are used to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning. They help us to understand abstract concepts or complex ideas in a more relatable and memorable way.
Using metaphors in idioms can make a language more colourful and can bring more interest in the conversation.
An allusion is a figure of speech that refers to a person, place, thing or event from history, literature, mythology or religion.
Allusions are often used in idiomatic expressions to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning.
“He’s a Romeo” This alludes to Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, and it means someone is a ladies’ man.
“She’s a Cinderella” This alludes to the fairytale, Cinderella and it means someone who went through a significant transformation and became successful.
“He’s a Don Quixote” This alludes to the novel Don Quixote written by Cervantes and it means someone who is extremely idealistic and unrealistic.
“She’s a Helen of Troy” This alludes to the mythological figure Helen of Troy and it means someone who is extremely beautiful and desirable.
“He’s a Prometheus” This alludes to the Greek mythological figure and it means someone who is a bringer of fire, someone who is a revolutionary.
“He’s a Scrooge” This alludes to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and it means someone who is very miserly and unfriendly.
These are used to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning and they add depth and cultural context to the conversation.
Allusions can make a language more interesting and evocative, as they often rely on the listener’s knowledge and understanding of historical, literary or mythological references.
A hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses exaggeration to make a point or to create emphasis.
Hyperboles are often used in idiomatic expressions to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning. Some examples:
“I’m so tired, I could sleep for a year.” This means the person is very tired, but not literally for a year.
“I’ve been waiting forever.” This means the person has been waiting for a very long time, but not actually forever.
These idioms are used to exaggerate in order to emphasis a point, express a feeling or an opinion.
They are not meant to be taken literally and they are used to convey an idea more forcefully or colorfully.
Hyperbole idioms are a figure of speech that are commonly used in everyday language to convey emphasis or intensity.
Personification is a figure of speech in which non-human things are given human-like characteristics or qualities.
Personification is often used in idiomatic expressions to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning. Some examples of personification idioms include:
“The wind howled” This means the wind made a loud, mournful sound, as if it were a living creature.
“The storm raged on” This means the storm was fierce and destructive, as if it were a living, powerful force.
“The clock ticks away” this means the clock makes a ticking sound, as if it were alive.
“The computer crashed” This means the computer stopped working, as if it had a mind of its own or was capable of making choices.
These idioms are used to convey a more vivid or figurative meaning, they are a way to describe an inanimate thing as if it were a living, thinking creature, which can make the language more colorful and memorable.
Personification idioms are a common way to add a touch of emotion or imagery in the language.
Idioms, by definition, are phrases or expressions that have a figurative meaning that is different from its literal meaning. So in that sense, idioms are not meant to be taken literally.
However, there are cases where idioms use literal words and convey a meaning similar to the dictionary definition of those words. These idioms are less common, but they do exist.
Examples of idioms that are closer to their literal meaning:
“Put all your eggs in one basket” This means to place all of one’s resources into a single venture.
“The ball is in your court” This means it’s now the other person’s turn to take action
“The cat is out of the bag” This means a secret has been revealed.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” This means it is better to have a small advantage that is currently in hand, rather than the chance of a larger one that is not yet secure.
“The ball is in your court” This means it’s now the other person’s turn to take action.
“He is a chip off the old block” This means he is similar to his father.
These idioms are still idioms as they are a set phrase but they are closer to their literal meaning, they convey a meaning similar to the dictionary definition of the words.
They are also less prone to misunderstandings, as they are less metaphorical or figurative in nature, making them easier to understand.
Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in a way that is opposite to their literal meaning, often to express humor or sarcasm. Some common idioms that use irony include:
“Blessing in disguise” – a good thing that initially seemed bad.
“Cry over spilled milk” – to be upset about something that can’t be changed.
“Faint praise” – insincere or ambiguous praise
“Killing with kindness” – to overwhelm someone with too much kindness.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” – a visual image can convey a lot of information.
“A blessing in disguise” – something that at first appears to be bad or negative, but ultimately turns out to be good or positive.
An idiom dictionary is a reference book or online resource that lists and explains idioms, which are phrases or expressions that have a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning of the words that creates them up.
Idioms are common in many languages and are often used in everyday conversation. Examples of idioms in English include “to kick the bucket,” which means to die, and “to beat around the bush,” which means to avoid getting to the point.
Idiom dictionaries can be helpful for understanding the meaning of idioms that you come across in writing or speech.
Importance of Idioms in Language and Communication
They are an important part of language and communication because they add color and flavor to language and can convey meaning more efficiently and effectively than literal language alone.
Idioms can also convey cultural or regional information and can be used to establish a sense of shared understanding or community between speakers.
Additionally, idioms can be used to convey emotions and attitudes, such as sarcasm or irony, that may be difficult to express through literal language.
Overall, idioms are an essential aspect of language and communication, helping to make language more expressive and effective.
The role of idioms in Literature
Idioms are commonly used in literature as they add depth and complexity to the written word. They can convey a more vivid and nuanced meaning than literal language and can help to create a sense of realism and authenticity in characters’ speech and thoughts.
In literature, idioms can be used to:
Create a sense of character: Idioms can help to reveal a character’s personality, background, or social status.
For example, a character who frequently uses idioms may be seen as more colloquial or down-to-earth, whereas a character who avoids idioms may be seen as more formal or educated.
Establish a sense of place or time: Idioms can help to create a sense of place or time, as certain idioms are more common in certain regions or eras.
Add humor and irony: Idioms can be used to create humor, irony, and sarcasm in literature
Examples of idioms used in literature include:
“To be in hot water” in from “The Great Gatsby” and crafted by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“To be a wet blanket” in “To Kill a Mockingbird” stated by Harper Lee.
“To have a chip on one’s shoulder” in “The Catcher in the Rye” crafted by J.D. Salinger.
Idioms can also be used in poetry and other literary forms to add layers of meaning and imagery to the work.
You can also learn complete English Grammar here.
How idioms can enhance the meaning and theme of a literary work?
Idioms can be used in literature to enhance the meaning and theme of a work in several ways:
- Adding complexity: Idioms can add depth and complexity to a literary work by creating layers of meaning that go beyond the literal. They can also be used to create a sense of realism by mimicking the way people speak in real life.
- Establishing tone: Idioms can be used to establish the tone of a literary work. For example, the use of idioms that convey a sense of nostalgia or longing can create a melancholic tone, while idioms that convey a sense of humor can create a lighthearted tone.
- Characterization: Idioms can be used to reveal information about a character’s background, personality, and emotions. For example, if a character uses a lot of idioms, it can suggest that they are well-educated or come from a certain culture.
- Reinforcing theme: Idioms can be used to reinforce the themes of a literary work. For example, if a character is going through a difficult time, idioms that convey a sense of perseverance can be used to reinforce the theme of overcoming adversity.
- Creating a sense of familiarity: Idioms can be used to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the characters. By using idioms that are common in everyday speech, the author can make the characters more relatable to the reader.
In summary, idioms can be an effective tool for writers to convey meaning and theme in a literary work, and to create a sense of realism and familiarity with the characters.
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Idiomatic sentences are longer phrases and sentences that are not understandable by looking at the individual words.
For example, “He’s as strong as an ox” means he is very strong. Idiomatic proverbs are short and wise sayings that are passed down through generations.
For example, “Actions speak louder than words” means what you do is more important than what you say.
Idioms are often culture-specific and may not have an exact translation in other languages. It’s important to note that idioms should be used carefully in formal or professional settings, as they can be difficult for non-native speakers to understand or can be misinterpreted
Idioms about Life
Here are a few idioms about life:
- “Life is a rollercoaster”: This idiom means that life can be full of ups and downs, and that you never know what’s going to happen next.
- “Life is a journey”: This idiom means that life is a long and winding path that you travel through, with different experiences and challenges along the way.
- “Life is too short”: This idiom means that life is fleeting and that you should make the most of it.
- “Life is a bowl of cherries”: This idiom means that life is good and that everything is going well.
- “Life is a game”: This idiom means that life is unpredictable and that you never know what will happen next.
- “Life is what you make it”: This idiom means that you are in control of your own life and that you can make it whatever you want it to be.
- “Life is a stage”: This idiom means that life is like a play, with different acts and scenes, and that everyone plays different roles.
These are just a few examples, but idioms about life can take many forms and convey a wide range of meanings and emotions.
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Examples of Idioms in different Cultures
Idioms are an important part of culture and can reveal a lot about the values, beliefs, and customs of a particular society. Different cultures have their own unique idioms that reflect their history, traditions, and way of life.
- Cultural references: Idioms often make reference to cultural figures, events, or customs that are specific to a particular culture. For example, idioms in American culture might make reference to historical figures such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, while idioms in Chinese culture might make reference to historical figures such as Confucius or Laozi.
- Expressing cultural values: Idioms can be used to express cultural values such as respect, loyalty, and honor. For example, idioms in Japanese culture often express a sense of respect and humility, while idioms in American culture often express a sense of individualism and self-reliance.
- Conveying cultural beliefs: Idioms can be used to convey cultural beliefs about the world and human nature. For example, idioms in African culture often express a belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of community, while idioms in Western culture often express a belief in the importance of individual achievement.
- Reflecting cultural customs: Idioms can be used to reflect cultural customs and practices. For example, idioms in Indian culture often reflect the importance of family and the extended family, and idioms in the Middle Eastern culture often reflect the importance of hospitality and generosity.
In summary, idioms can be an important window into a culture’s history, values, beliefs, and customs, and can help to convey a sense of authenticity and cultural richness in literature and other forms of cultural expression.
Some Questions for Practice with Answers
Here are five idioms with their meanings and explanations:
“Bite the bullet”
Meaning: To face something difficult or unpleasant
- Explanation: This idiom comes from the practice of soldiers biting on a bullet during surgery to help them deal with the pain.
“Break a leg”
Meaning: Good luck
- Explanation: The origins of this idiom are uncertain, but it is often said to actors before a performance.
“Rain cats and dogs”
Meaning: To rain heavily
- Explanation: This idiom is thought to come from old English literature and does not make sense literally.
“Cost an arm and a leg”
Meaning: To be very expensive
- Explanation: This idiom is used to describe something that is so expensive that it would be like losing a limb in order to pay for it.
“Throw in the towel”
Meaning: To give up or quit
- Explanation: This idiom comes from boxing and refers to when a boxer’s corner throws a towel into the ring as a sign that they are conceding the fight.
- To face something difficult or unpleasant
- Good luck
- To rain heavily
- To be very expensive
- To give up or quit