Using English idioms – introduction
English idioms are entertaining but can be somewhat difficult to use. Rather than go through specific idioms and explain their meaning and/or origin, this article will look at the ways of using English idioms and the potential dangers of incorrect usage.
What are idioms?
In a nutshell (an idiom!), idioms are expressions, or groups of words, the meaning of which cannot be deduced from the individual words alone.
Often, the expressions will have a cultural or historical significance that is not immediately obvious.
If your sense of humour is similar to mine, you can find amusement by literally translating idioms from one language into another. It might sound a bit nerdy (because it is), but try it – here’s an example from German: “it pulls like pike soup” (es zieht wie Hechtsuppe).
Why do we use idioms?
Generally, it makes the speech or text more varied and interesting. If people didn’t use idioms at all, it would be quite dull and boring. For examples of creative idioms, have a look at this short post about hangover expressions.
Idioms can also provide a way of conveying information in a shortened form.
For instance, if someone uses the expression “in the doghouse”, those three words tell us everything we need to know. The man (this is only used for men, never for females or children) has upset his wife/girlfriend and she is annoyed with him and will stay that way until he apologises and makes amends. I hope you noticed that it has nothing to do with dogs or houses – that is what I meant earlier about not being able to deduce the meaning from the individual words.
There is another, slightly negative use of idioms, namely to show that you’re one of the insiders (someone who understands these things). Conversely, it can be used to hide meaning from and confuse people who don’t understand the expression.
Don’t think that just because you don’t understand a particular idiom that the speaker is deliberately trying to be anti-social – more often than not, they just used an expression without thinking about the audience.
What about your language?
For me, one of the interesting thing about idioms is how they are used in other languages.
- is there an almost identical expression?
- or is there a completely different one that means the same thing?
- or an idiom without any equivalent in another language?
What does that tell you about the two languages? Or countries?
This can provide insights into the culture and history of the country, which is fascinating in itself.
A word of warning
No matter how much fun they are, when using English idioms, you really do have to use them 100% correctly. If in doubt, don’t risk getting it wrong – especially in an exam.
A common expression used to describe cold weather is “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Not knock the balls off, or freeze the arms off, not an iron monkey, or even a brass gorilla. If you get one tiny element wrong, the whole thing is wrong and you could end up looking a little foolish.
Also, it needs to be appropriate to the situation. You wouldn’t use this example idiom if it’s slightly chilly on a summer evening – it has to be bloody cold!
You will come across idioms while learning a new language – they’re virtually impossible to avoid.
Don’t be afraid of them, or nervous about using them. Just make sure that you know the expression, what it means and when to use it.
Idioms can enrich your language and give interesting cultural insights.
Do you have a favourite idiom? Or have you had trouble with a particular one?
Please let us know in the comments section below.