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Template:Refimprove Idiom (Latin: idioma, "special property", f. Greek: ἰδίωμα – idiōma, "special feature, special phrasing", f. Greek: ἴδιος – idios, "one’s own") is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made.[1] There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in the English language.[2] A common example of an idiom is the phrase "used to," which means "formerly," as in "she used to be an acrobat." If the words "used" and "to" are interpreted separately and literally, the result is nonsense; but when "used to be" is understood to mean "formerly was," the sentence makes sense.

In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality; yet the matter remains debated. John Saeed defines an "idiom" as words collocated that became affixed to each other until metamorphosing into a fossilised term.[3] This collocation—words commonly used in a group—redefines each component word in the word-group and becomes an idiomatic expression. The words develop a specialized meaning as an entity, as an idiom. Moreover, an idiom is an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply. The idiom "beating around the bush" means to hint or discuss obliquely; nobody is literally beating any person or thing, and the bush is a metaphor. When a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before.[4] Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated into another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.


In the English expression to kick the bucket, a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's true meaning: to die. Although this idiomatic phrase can, in fact, actually refer to kicking a bucket, native speakers of English rarely use it so. Cases like this are "opaque idioms".

Literal translation (word-by-word) of opaque idioms will not convey the same meaning in other languages – an analogous expression in Polish is kopnąć w kalendarz ("to kick the calendar"), with "calendar" detached from its usual meaning, just like "bucket" in the English phrase. In Bulgarian the closest analogous phrase is da ritnesh kambanata ("да ритнеш камбаната", "to kick the bell"); in Dutch, het loodje leggen ("to lay the piece of lead"); in Finnish, potkaista tyhjää ("to kick nothing", or more literally "to kick the absence of something"); in French, manger des pissenlits par la racine ("to eat dandelions by the root"); in Spanish, estirar la pata (to stretch the foot); in German, den Löffel abgeben ("to give the spoon away") or ins Gras beißen ("to bite into the grass"); in Latvian, nolikt karoti ("to put the spoon down"); in Portuguese, bater as botas ("to beat the boots"); in Danish, at stille træskoene ("to take off the clogs"); in Swedish, trilla av pinnen ("to fall off the stick"); and in Greek, τινάζω τα πέταλα ("to shake the horse-shoes"). In Brazil, the expression "to kick the bucket" (chutar o balde) has a completely different meaning (to give up on something complicated, as a bucket kicked makes too much noise, demonstrating impatience).

Some idioms, in contrast, are "transparent idioms" [5]: much of their meaning does get through if they are taken (or translated) literally. For example, "lay one's cards on the table" meaning to reveal previously unknown intentions, or to reveal a secret. Transparency is a matter of degree; "spill the beans" and "leave no stone unturned" are not entirely literally interpretable, but only involve a slight metaphorical broadening.

Another category of idioms is a word having several meanings, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes discerned from the context of its usage. This is seen in the (mostly un-inflected) English language in polysemes, the common use of the same word for an activity, for those engaged in it, for the product used, for the place or time of an activity, and sometimes for a verb.

Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but are assimilated, so losing their figurative senses.

Relation with cultureEdit

An idiom is generally a colloquial metaphor(Citation needed)—a term requiring some foundational knowledge, information, or experience, to use only within a culture, where conversational parties must possess common cultural references. Therefore, idioms are not considered part of the language, but part of the culture. As culture typically is localized, idioms often are useless beyond their local context; nevertheless, some idioms can be more universal than others, can be easily translated, and the metaphoric meaning can be deduced.

As defined by The New International Webster’s College Dictionary, an idiom is an expression not readily analyzable from its grammatical construction or from the meaning of its component parts. It is the part of the distinctive form or construction of a particular language that has a specific form or style present only in that language.Template:Cite quote Random House Webster’s College Dictionary seems to agree with this definition, even expanding it further, stating that an idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.Template:Cite quote Unlike many other aspects of language, an idiom does not readily change as time passes. Some idioms gain and lose favor in popular culture, but they rarely have any actual shift in their construction. People also have a natural tendency to over exaggerate what they mean sometimes, also giving birth to new idioms by accident.

Many idiomatic expressions are based upon conceptual metaphors such as "time as a substance", "time as a path", "love as war", and "up is more"; the metaphor is essential, not the idioms. For example, "spend time", "battle of the sexes", and "back in the day" are idiomatic and based upon essential metaphors. These "deep metaphors" and their relationship to human cognition are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980).

In forms such as "profits are up", the metaphor is carried by "up" itself. The phrase "profits are up" is not an idiom; anything measurable can supplant "profits": "crime is up", "satisfaction is up", "complaints are up" et cetera. Essential idioms generally involve prepositions, e.g. "out of" and "turn into".

Likewise, many Chinese characters Template:Which? are idiomatic constructs, since their meanings often not traceable to a literal (pictographic) meaning of their radicals. Because characters are composed from a small base of some 214 radicals, their assembled meanings follow different interpretation modes – from the pictographic to the metaphoric to those that have lost their original meanings.

Corrupted IdiomsEdit

Novice writers sometimes violate idioms by substituting big words for small words. Trying to impress readers with multisyllable words when short words suffice is a common flaw in writing. An example is the substitution of "has the a-bil-i-ty to" (seven syllables) for "can" in a sentence such as "He has the ability to stand on his head." (The sentence also violates the widely quoted Strunk and White rule, "Omit needless words." [6]) Other examples are "attempt" in place of "try," "demonstrate" in place of "show," "majority of" in place of "most," and "utilize" in place of "use." When the novice substitutes a big word for a small word in an idiom, nonsense results. Take the idiom "help to," as in "this pill will help to ease your pain." When the novice corrupts the idiom by substituting "assist" (two syllables) for "help," the sentence grates on our ears: "This pill will assist to ease your pain." When someone who habitually says "utilize" instead of "use" substitutes "utilized" in the idiom "used to," "We used go there in the summer" becomes "We utilized to go there in the summer," which is nonsense. Bernstein has this to say about corrupted idioms: "A writer tampers with idiom at his own peril, and the peril is great. When he writes, 'At that time Sceptre was all except [two syllables] invisible in the haze,' he has flouted the idiom all but." [7]

See alsoEdit


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  1. The Oxford Companion to the English Language(1992) pp.495–96.
  2. Jackendoff, R. (1997). The architecture of the language faculty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 60.
  4. Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  5. Gibbs, R. W. (1987), "Linguistic Factors in Children's Understanding of Idioms." Journal of Child Language, 14, 569–586.
  6. William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 23.
  7. Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 264.

External linksEdit



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