"What is an Idiom?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is an Idiom? Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Sindya Bhanoo, Oregon State Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Prize-Winning Novelist

21 March 2023

Idioms are phrases which cannot be understood simply by looking at the meaning of the individual words in the phrase. We use idiomatic expressions all the time. If your friend is “beating around the bush,” they are avoiding speaking with you about something directly.  “That’s the way the ball bounces” suggests that some things are just out of our control. When someone says “It’s raining cats and dogs,” they mean it’s raining heavily. Cats and dogs are not actually falling from the sky. That last idiom may have originated during the 17th century in England, when cats and dogs were known to live in thatched roofs. During heavy rains, they may have slipped and fallen into the streets.

The mystery novelist Agatha Christie loved to use idioms. Christie’s beloved detective, Hercule Poirot is often found to be “in a brown study,” or fully absorbed in his own thoughts. In the short story “Jewelry Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan,” Poirot and his reliable assistant Hastings encounter a woman with some missing pearls. Hastings recounts Poirot’s behavior: “He was staring thoughtfully out of the window, and seemed to have fallen into a brown study.”

In Christie’s book And Then There Were None, a judge named Justice Wargrove reflects on an old case of his, when he sentenced a man named Edward Seton to death. (He’s going to bed as he does this.)

"Carefully, Mr. Justice Wargrove removed his false teeth and dropped them into a glass of water. The shrunken lips fell in. It was a cruel mouth now, cruel and predatory. Hooding his eyes, the judge smiled to himself. He’d cooked Seton’s goose alright."

“Cooked the goose” is an idiom that means “to ruin.” Thanks to Justice Wargrove, Seton was in big trouble.

Did you catch the other bits of interesting language in that section? The phrase “Hooding his eyes” is metaphorical. So is “shrunken lips.” To learn more about metaphors, you can watch my colleague Tim Jensen’s video. If you really want to get into it, some idioms are also metaphors.

The word idiom comes from the Greek word idios, which means for “one’s own” or “private.”  That’s apt because idioms are kind of like private jokes between the people who know them. Since idioms are also culturally specific, they aren’t solely connected to language. In the UK, when someone says they are “chuffed to bits,” they mean that they are very pleased. If you speak American English, you may not be familiar with that idiom. 

The linguist Anatoly Liberman, who has studied and written about the origin of idioms extensively, found that some idioms are highly localized, never used outside of a small community. Idioms come and go, and many have died out. He says that although idioms are phrases we learn them the way we learn words. It is the entire phrase that has a meaning. Often, the order of the words in the phrase cannot be changed around. You could say that idioms are a kind of literary and cultural shorthand. 

Can you wrap your head around that? means “Did that make sense to you?” Because idioms cannot be literally translated, their meanings cannot be predicted. Foreign language speakers have a particularly hard time wrapping their heads around idioms.

The TED program asked some of its translators for idioms that might confound English speakers.  In Latvian, “To blow little ducks,” means “to talk nonsense or to lie.”  In French, “The carrots are cooked!” means the situation can’t be changed. It’s similar to the English idiom “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.”

Without an explanation, these would be all Greek to me. Hey, that’s another idiom: “It’s all Greek to me.” That one can be found in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though it was likely in use before that.

 If you have a favorite idiom, in any language, I’d love to hear it. You can share it in the comments in the video. Well, I think that’s a wrap.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Bhanoo, Sindya. "What is Alliteration?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 21 Mar. 2023, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-idiom-definition-examples. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms