Idioms are words or phrases that aren’t meant to be taken literally. Webster's New World adds "[It] has a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together." For example, if you say someone has “cold feet,” it doesn’t mean their toes are actually cold. Rather, it means they’re nervous about something.
The examples below demonstrate how you can’t easily understand the meaning of idioms without knowing what they mean within the culture. The next time someone says "It's raining cats and dogs!" you’ll know it has nothing to do with animals, but rather that it's raining quite hard.
|back to the drawing board||To start over in planning a project or idea.||I’m going back to the drawing board.|
|beat around the bush||to delay or avoid talking about something difficult or unpleasant||Don’t beat around the bush.|
|bent out of shape||to be upset||Why are you so bent out of shape?|
|bite the bullet||to accept a negative aspect of a situation in order to proceed||After some reflection, he decided to bite the bullet.|
|blessing in disguise||aseeming misfortune that turns out to be for the best||Getting fired turned out to be a blessing in disguise.|
|call it a night||go to bed||I’m going to call it a night.|
|chip on their shoulder||a habitually combative attitude, usually because of a grievance, sense of inferiority, or having something to prove||He’s got a chip on his shoulder.|
|cross that bridge when we get there||to not worry about a problem until it happens||We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.|
|cut corners||to do a less-than-thorough or incomplete job; to do something poorly or take shortcuts.||Don’t cut corners.|
|cut me some slack||to treat someone in a less critical way||Would you cut me some slack?|
|dime a dozen||something that is very common||These red poppies are a dime a dozen.|
|get out of hand||to get out of control||She let things get out of hand.|
|hang in there||to stick with something||Hang in there.|
|jump the gun||to act or begin too soon or without due caution||Don’t jump the gun.|
|let someone off the hook||relieved of a duty, burden, responsibility, or pressure||He decided to let her off the hook.|
|missed the boat||to fail to take advantage of an opportunity; to overlook or be too late to pursue an option or course of action||He missed the boat.|
|once in a blue moon||to do something very rarely||I go out for walks once in a blue moon.|
|pull yourself together||to calm down||Pull yourself together, man!|
|rubbed me the wrong way||to irritate or bother||She seriously rubbed me the wrong way.|
|speak of the devil||to comment on the fact that someone you were talking about just appeared||There he is, speak of the devil.|
|storm in a teacup||to make a fuss over an unimportant matter||Their fight was a storm in a teacup.|
|the straw that broke the camel's back||the last in a series of bad or annoying things which makes someone run out of patience||That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.|
|the best of both worlds||to receive benefits or advantages from two situations (and no disadvantages)||Well, she’s got the best of both worlds.|
|under the weather||to feel sick||I’m feeling under the weather.|
|wrap my mind/head around||to understand or accept something||I’m sorry but I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it.|
|you can say that again||to express agreement with something that was just said||Wow, you can say that again.|
Similar to various cultures who adopt their own set of idioms, smaller groups of people do the same. Actors, painters, performers, and writers tend to use their own idioms, almost bordering on slang, to encourage eachother and forge a unique sense of community. Here are some of the most popular idioms used in the arts world.
|bombed||to put on a bad performance|
|break a leg||good luck|
|break new ground||to create something impressive or important|
|get the hook||pull an actor offstage due to a bad performance|
|knock ‘em dead||do a great job|
|sing your heart out||give it all of your effort|
|sink your teeth into it||excited to fully start doing something|
|upstaged/stole the show||when one performer does better than another|
Remember, a group of people with shared interests will have their own idioms. As with anything else in life, they’ll be easier to understand if you listen to the context clues and ask questions when in doubt.
English speakers aren’t unique in their use of idioms. Where there’s language, there’s figurative language. That is, people are going to play on words and come up with quippy, new expressions anywhere. Let’s take a look at some of our global neighbors’ idioms:
- In Armenian, “stop ironing my board” means stop bothering me.
- In French, “when chickens have teeth” means something’s never going to happen.
- Also in French, “I have other cats to whip” means I have other things to do.
- In German, “to tie a bear to someone” means you’ve tricked them.
- Also in German, “an elephant made out of a fly” means to make a big deal out of nothing.
- In Italian, “not all doughnuts come with a hole” means you don’t always get what you want.
- Also in Italian, “to treat someone with a fish in their face” means to disrespect someone.
- In Japanese, “my cheeks are falling off” means the food is really delicious.
- Also in Japanese, “to have dumplings instead of flowers” means you’ve chosen something useful over something decorative.
- In Polish, “mustard after lunch” means it’s too late to do something.
- Also in Polish, to “get stuffed with hay” means someone’s asking you to go away.
- In Portuguese, “he who doesn’t have a dog, hunts with cats” means you make the most of what you’ve been given.
- Also in Portuguese, “take your little horse away from the rain” means something’s never going to happen.
- In Spanish, “a cat in gloves catches no mice” means nice guys always finish last.
- Also in Spanish, “a lot of noise and no walnuts” means someone’s all talk and no action.
It’s very important to have a firm understanding of each culture’s idioms. The terminology that one country uses can have a vastly different meaning in another country. For example, in Finnish, "with long teeth" means you’re doing something you don’t want to do. However, in French, to “have long teeth" means you’re very ambitious. Quite different, right?
You simply can’t be literal when examining an idiom. They tend to make learning a new language difficult, but they’re also used in languages all across the globe. Idioms aren’t only regional; they also vary according to people's interests and social groups.
The best way to understand the meaning of certain idioms is to chat with locals and ask them for clarification if any of their idioms confuse you. If all else fails, talk to your friend Google, and make sure what you heard is really what it means. You can also explore the difference between literally and figuratively to help you make sense of these words and phrases.
Do you have any favorite idioms? If not, maybe you'll find one among some idioms about love.