English Language

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.


American Idioms

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).
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