Table of Contents
- What is an idiom?
- Difference between idioms and phrases
- Rules of idioms and phrases
- Characteristics of idioms
- Famous idioms in English literature
- What are some kid-friendly idioms?
- Using idioms for the IELTS exam
- Key takeaways
People whose primary language is English, irrespective of their country, must have encountered certain phrases, like ‘piece of cake’ or ‘break a leg’ or ‘practice makes perfect’. Do you know what these mean?
In this article, we learn a little about idioms, the rules applied when using them, their general characteristics, and the meanings of some idioms with examples.
What is an idiom?
An idiom is a kind of expression that adopts a figurative meaning upon a combination of certain words separate from the literal definition of the words individually. It is generally peculiar to itself either in its grammatically unusual choice of words.
Some commonly used idioms and their meanings are –
Example 1: “As happy as a clam’’
- When a clam is generally opened up, one can say that it appears to be smiling.
- People believe the phrase originated in the early 19th century in the north-eastern states of the United States of America.
- A clam was believed to be happy if it was capable of expressing emotions or feelings during the time of high tide when it was safeguarded from predators such as blue crabs, gulls, and waterfowl.
- The earliest instance of this phrase is in The Harpe’s Head-A Legend of Kentucky, 1833; “It never occurred to him to be discontented… He was as happy as a clam.”
Example 2: ‘’Pass the buck’’
- Passing the buck refers to passing on the responsibilities to someone else.
- During the 1800s in the US, playing the game of poker was slowly becoming popular.
- The game was usually played by cowboys and bar patrons who were dishonest and did not play the game fairly.
- A rule was put into practice to curb such corrupt practices that each new game would have a different person who would deal out the cards.
- Often they would be given a knife to indicate that it was their turn to deal.
- The knife’s handle was made of a buck’s horn, and in time, this knife began to be referred to as a buck.
Difference between idioms and phrases
|Idioms indicate a reaction to a certain action or object, human behavior, traditions and habits.||Phrases in one sentence are a counterpart or equivalent of idioms.|
|Idiom gains importance from common usage||Phrase is a tiny group of words that impart a meaning when used together.|
|“Beat around the bush”|
This idiom means to talk about everything else but the topic in question, basically to ignore speaking on a particular matter.
|“Sounded like Latin and Greek to me”|
This phrase means you are unable to fully comprehend the information, similar to hearing someone speak Latin and Greek (phrase can hold true only if you are truly not fluent in these two languages).
Rules of idioms and phrases
Whenever there is mention of anything related to language, there is always an aspect of grammar and rules associated with it so that the sentence does not become grammatically incorrect. Idioms and phrases are used interchangeably sometimes; thus, their rules are quite similar as well.
So, holistically, some rules that apply to both are as follows:
- There should be some cultural value ascribed to them.
- They can be metaphorical because if the idiom’s literal meaning is examined, it will come across as being unusual or fake. Example: Break a leg.
- When phrases or idioms are used in a piece of writing, whether it’s poetry or prose, it can make the piece interesting and remove traces of monotones. However, the key to nailing it is to use it sparingly and in the correct places.
Characteristics of idioms
- Without knowing the true meaning of the idiom, a layman would not be able to figure out its intention.
- Can be used in speaking, writing and reading
- Used mostly in poetry
- Made use of to express a thought
Famous idioms in English literature
Here is a list of 3 famous idioms used in everyday lingo that originated from literary works in
the English language –
1. Mad as a hatter (Alice in Wonderland)
The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ first appeared in the novel Alice in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. This phrase was meant to describe the character Mad Hatter who was slightly eccentric, but with a good heart, and over the centuries, the idiom has been used to refer to anyone who was crazy.
If we delve into the history of the phrase, Mad Hatter’s disease is another name for mercury poisoning. During the 17th and 18th centuries, mercury nitrate was used to make hats. Too much exposure to this component would cause trembling in a person and they would develop anti-social behavior and mood swings. These symptoms were noticed in both people who wore hats and made hats.
2. Love is blind (The Canterbury Tales)
The first instance of this phrase can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the story, The Merchant’s Tale. William Shakespeare also made a reference to the phrase in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ which came about centuries later.
The concept of blind love was widely prevalent in Greek and Roman art and mythology. Cupid, the God of love in Greek mythology, is often represented wearing blindfolds. This symbolizes the fact that true love is not dependent on outward appearances. It doesn’t matter how a person looks on the outside, but what matters is how one is on the inside, meaning their character and heart.
3. Pot calling the kettle black (Don Quixote)
Though the origin of the word doesn’t exactly come from English literature directly, over the years the translated version of the Spanish novel Don Quixote has been an intrinsic part of English literature as a critical literary study.
To trace the origin of the phrase, in the early 1600s, pots and kettles were fashioned out of cast iron which would get blackened when put on the fire for long hours to cook. The phrase is used to suggest that one shouldn’t criticize someone else for something that he/she is also guilty of. In a nutshell, it refers to a person who is a hypocrite.
What are some kid-friendly idioms?
There are hundreds of idioms in the English language used in different contexts. However, here is a list of 10 idioms for kids that have simple meanings.
1. A hot potato
Meaning something is difficult to handle.
2. Killing two birds with one stone
Nailing two things at once with a single/combined effort.
3. Piece of cake
Something that is extremely easy to accomplish.
4. When pigs fly
An instance of something impossible taking shape in reality.
5. Building castles in the air
To dwell on ideas and dreams that are not of this world or impractical.
A flippant or mocking statement made in an insincere manner.
7. Night owl
Refers to someone who stays up at night like an owl.
8. All ears
Paying special and undivided attention to something out of total excitement.
9. Tall story
A really long and rather difficult to believe the story.
10. Class clown
A student who habitually makes others laugh.
Using idioms for the IELTS exam
If you are planning to give the IELTS exam, then sufficient knowledge about idioms and using them naturally in your sentences when speaking will help you to get a great score, especially on the IELTS speaking test.
This is because native English speakers use idioms, phrases and other figurative expressions like proverbs when speaking organically. If you too use idioms, then you will come across as someone who is adept in the English language.
Some common idioms for the IELTS exams are as follows-
1. Practice makes perfect
To improve upon something by consistently practicing.
2. Better late than never
It is better to do something you always wanted to (but probably couldn’t) even in your life later than die with regret for not having done it at all.
3. Blind as a bat
Bats are not really blind but have limited vision so being blind as a bat means having poor eyesight and needing glasses.
4. Break a leg
Wishing someone success and good luck.
5. Read between the lines
To grasp the hidden meaning behind something or figure out its true intent.
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- An idiom is a figurative expression that assumes meaning upon a combination of certain words. However, if you look at these words individually, they would have a peculiar meaning by themselves.
- Idioms always have some cultural or historical value ascribed to them.
- Though interchangeable, idioms and phrases vary from each other in their usage. The former is used in everyday language, whereas phrases are a small group of words that have meaning when used in combination.
- When using idioms for the IELTS exam, you must be careful not to force idioms into your dialogue but to use them at the appropriate time in the right context.
- For this, you need to know what the intent behind the idiom is.
- The ideal way to learn would be to hear native speakers using idioms or watch movies in the English language.
Q1. What is the difference between idiom and proverb?
Ans: An idiom is a phrase having a non-literal and completely unique meaning on its own and cannot be understood in the layman’s language without knowing the context. On the other hand, a proverb is a piece of advice or suggestion given to another person having moralistic undertones.
Q2. What are some common idioms for daily usage?
Ans: Some commonly used idioms by fluent/native English speakers in their everyday life are as follows –
- Let the cat out of the bag
- A piece of cake
- Judge a book by its cover
- Under the weather
- By the skin of your teeth
- I could eat a horse
- Once in a blue moon
- Have butterflies in your stomach
- See eye to eye
- A tough cookie
Q3. What are some funny idioms in English?
Ans: There are many idioms in the English language, and then there are some that sound downright funny when you say them. These are –
- Cold turkey
- The elephant in the room
- Get someone’s goat
- Have your ducks in a row
- Eager beaver
- Running around like a headless chicken
- The tail wagging the dog
- Monkey business
- Sacred cow
- Cock and bull story
- Go bananas
- Have a bone to pick with someone
- Pie in the sky