Meaning of Idioms

by Carol Duff MSN, BA, RN

One of the most important aspects of the English Language is the use of idioms. Not learning idioms is what will keep a person who is studying English and would like to converse with others who speak English in a fairly unsuccessful mode. Not understanding or using idioms is perhaps the largest reason why something will be lost in the translation. Idioms make up a fun part of the English language. We have a German friend who speaks English beautifully, but is always asking about the meanings of groups of word which are the idioms that we use.

What is an Idiom you might ask?   An idiom is a group of words that when used together have a figurative (representing forms that are recognizably derived from life) meaning because of its common usage. A figurative meaning is set apart from the actual definition of the words if the word is taken separately.  In the English language there are about 25,000 idiomatic expressions which we as English speakers tend to pick up as we move through learning English and hear them being used and understand their meanings in conversations.  Idioms do occur in other languages, but this article deals with idioms in the English language.

Some common idioms are a drop in the bucket, a breath of fresh air, a chip on your shoulder, a dime’s worth, a man of action, a little bird told me, a dime a dozen, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, a clean bill of health, a man of few words, a leopard cannot change his spots, a penny saved is a penny earned, a piece of cake, a picture paints a thousand words, a slap on the wrist, a man of few words, a taste of your own medicine, a woman of few words, a man of few words, an ace in the hole, add insult to injury, all the more, all is fair in love and war, all in the same boat, all ears, all Greek to me, an eye for an eye, apples to oranges, and a bed of roses.  These are just a very few from the idiom list that begins with the letter A. Each of these idiomatic phrases creates a vision and explains concepts in a few words.

Idioms add exactness and grace to our language.  Idioms also turn our simple words into a language which is interesting and even energetic and give our language illustration while it gives us insight into the use of words, language, and what the speaker is thinking. Idioms are fun for native English speakers but can be very hard to understand for those who strive to learn the English language.

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  1. (continued) [Don’t know what happened there, with the sudden cut-off and deletion of text]

    (Perhaps the most bizarre one is the Cockney use of a French term to indicate another French term, although mainstream French)….. ‘Angleterre : ‘Nul point’, literally signfying England ‘bombed out’ with zilch points, but inidicating metaphorically, ‘C’est la vie’!!!!!

  2. (continued)

    Imagine thinking up the term, ‘to total’ a car, to describe totally wrecking a car, at least in terms of its value. ‘The bottom line’, is another from the financial sector. ‘Thick as two short planks’ is British, ‘blue-collar’ slang

    The Aussies, Kiwis and Americans are both masters at coining colourful slang phrases. ‘He was standing there like a stunned plover’/ ‘like a shag on a rock’ (Aussie); ‘If he heard that he’d have a fit with his leg up’ (Aussie) ; ‘He’d have mine and Buckley’s chance’ (NZ) ‘Why she beat him like a red-headed step-child’ (US); ‘kicking butt and taking names’ (US).

    So many others, some absolutely brilliant. One or two English ones, crazily, side-splittingly hilarious, but too gross to post. Perhaps the most bizarre one is the cockney use of a French.

  3. Are you sure that’s the origin of the phrase ? The more vulgar American meaning ascribed to the word, ‘ass’, sounds much more plausible to me, particularly the way the phrase is constructed.

    But slang/idioms are a fascinating topic for us, since the denizens of the English-speaking countries seem endlessly imaginative. In fact, as G K Chesterton pointed out, slang is, in fact, largely metaphor and simile – the ‘meat and potatoes’ of poetry.

    Strangely, it seems to me that the most creative users and iikely authors of slang are at both ends of the spectrum of the worldly-wise. Slang, even extended metaphors and similes is both very ‘blue collar’ and, certainly in the US, a province of the financial sector.

  4. Origin of the phrase “kick ass” ? The definition of kick ass is something that is really impressive or powerful. From page 80 Vicars of Christ by Peter De Rosa [From 1294-1303 Boniface VIII and Philip the IV, king of France had such an issue ] “ Boniface was once more in his favourite retreat at Anagni. He was putting the final touches to a Bull excommunicating Philip and ousting him from his throne. Yes, he would sack him like a stable-boy. The glorious feeling this gave him was only marred by a peculiar story coming out of Florence. Some while before, he had donated to that city a full-grown male lion. The Florentines had kept it chained up in a cortile in the heart of the city. One day, an ass had found its way into the courtyard and – he could hardly believe it – kicked the king of beasts to death. The Florentines were saying it portended the last days of Boniface VIII.

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