English Language

Bookcase with plaque saying Welcome to the English Department.Idioms and Idiomatic Speech

Idiom: an expression of language made up of a group of words which have a different meaning as a group than the direct translation of each word.

Characteristics of an Idiom

They are not literal in their meaning.  A single idiom can be defined in many ways, and carry many implications about the subject, speaker and listener.

They are “fixed expressions” whose grammar or structure usually can’t be changed without destroying their meaning.

            Forty winks does not mean ten less than fifty winks.

            He kicked the bucket does not mean the bucket was kicked by him.

BUT, the tense of a verb can often be changed without altering the meaning.

            He gets up at last!          ---          He finally got up.

            Don’t’ blow your stack!     ---   She blew her stack.

Appropriate usage varies according to the formality or informality of a situation and the speaker’s relationship to the listener.

            Generally, the more formal the situation, the less appropriate the use of idiom.

Idioms are very culturally specific.  Sayings and proverbs especially represent ideas that are deeply embedded in how a society sees itself.

            The early bird gets the worm. – American idiom

            The first bird out of the bush gets shot. – Chinese idiom (roughly)

Types of Idioms

  1. Idioms that act like a particular part of speech within a sentence.

                          I think I’ll turn in. (verb = go to bed)

                         She’s broke. (adjective = penniless)

                         It disappeared into thin air. (adverb = completely)

  1. Entire phrases, “turns of phrase” or phraseological idioms:

                         On the right track (the correct direction in solving a problem)

                         Make a clean sweep (doing something without mistakes or win everything in a game or series of games)

                         Fly off the handle (to become angry)            

                        All in the same boat (all experiencing the same difficulties)

  1. Sayings and proverbs: These self-contained idioms are fixed by long use which sometimes dates the vocabulary. They embody the “historical wisdom” of a society and sometimes become clichés.

                       Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

                       Practice makes perfect

                       Don’t air your dirty linen in public

                       Blood is thicker than water.


It’s about time you showed up. You finally arrived.
Take (have) a seat. Please be seated.
We’re working against the clock. We haven’t much time.
All systems are a go. Everything is ready.
I’m all thumbs. I’m clumsy.
It costs an arm and a leg. It’s very expensive.
He was taken aback! He was very startled (or surprised)!
His back is to the wall. He’s trapped by the circumstances.
Stop beating around the bush. Stop avoiding the issue.
Sal’s behind the eight-ball. Sal’s in trouble.
Have you met my better half? Have you met my spouse?
Carl’s just biding his time. Carl’s just waiting for a chance.
It makes your blood run cold. It’s horrifying.
She’s boning up on her German. She’s reviewing her German lessons.
Mom’s got a green thumb. Mom’s a successful gardener.
The girls are having a ball. The girls are enjoying themselves.
I think he has a screw loose. I think he’s a little crazy.
I have to hit the books tonight. I have to study tonight.
Her feathers were ruffled (or nose bent out of shape). She was irritated (or aggravated or annoyed or offended).
His toes were stepped on. He was offended.
They were tickled pink. They were very pleased (or happy).
Keep your head above water. Stay out of trouble.
My heart goes out to her. I feel sorry for her.
I have a little hole-in-the-wall. I have a small, inexpensive apartment.
He is always in a fog. He is always confused.
Joe’s in hot water. Joe’s in trouble.
It’s still up in the air. It’s still undecided.
The bottom line is NO! The final answer is NO!
Dress down (or casual) day. A day (usually Friday) when the employees are dressed more casually.


He’s a cheechako. He’s a newcomer to Alaska.
She’s a sourdough. She’s lived in Alaska for a long time.
I’m going Outside next week. I’m leaving Alaska next week.
He’s from the lower 48. He’s from the contiguous or continental U.S.
Break up is coming. The season of spring is arriving; the snow is beginning to melt; the ice on the rivers will be melting and breaking up soon.

English Can Be a Strange Language

Below are some examples of how the English language can sometimes have the same use of a word which may have a different pronunciation or may have a different meaning: 

  • We polish (wax) the Polish (nationality) furniture.
  • He would lead if he would get the lead out.
  • A farm can produce produce (vegetables).
  • The dump was so full it had to refuse (turn away) refuse (garbage).
  • The soldier decided to desert (leave) in the desert (geographic physical description) and wanted to eat dessert.
  • The present (time) is a good time to present (give) the present (gift).
  • The dove (bird) dove (angle of flight) into the bushes.
  • I did not object (protest) to the object (thing).
  • The insurance for the invalid (an ill person) was invalid (worthless).
  • The bandage was wound around the wound (injury).
  • There was a row (disagreement) among the oarsmen about how to row.
  • They were too close (near) to the door to close it.
  • The buck does funny things when the does (female deer) are present.
  • They sent a sewer (seamstress) down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
  • To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow (female pig) to sow (plant).
  • After a number (numerical quantity) of Novocaine injections my jaw got number (no feeling).