Every language has idioms and everyone loves idioms.
Truth be told (i.e., to tell you the truth/actually), I’m not really sure that every language has idioms.
After all, there are more than 7,000 languages, and I have not checked to see if all of them have idioms.
But we do know that idioms are common in many languages, and they are used in informal and formal speech and writing.
What are Idioms?
Idioms, in any language, are difficult to use correctly or in the right situation.
The words in idioms are like the words in poetry.
Idioms are not meant to be interpreted literally (word for word).
Instead, idioms are figurative forms of speech.
The words used in an idiom are different from the word’s normal, original, or common meaning.
“I ate a pizza” can be taken literally.
The sentence means exactly what the sentence and the words in the sentence mean.
“I lost my smartphone and had a heart attack” cannot possibly mean that the person suffered a heart attack just because they lost their smartphone. So that sentence should not be interpreted literally.
Figurative speech uses words in a different way.
The words do not mean what they mean in the literal/original sense.
Instead, the words create a figure, an image or picture in one’s mind.
Poetry, which is sometimes difficult to understand, uses figurative speech, words and metaphors.
Metaphors are a form of figurative language, which refers to words or expressions that mean something different from their literal definition.
“The curtain of night fell across the countryside” is a metaphor.
Actually, there was no curtain, but the figurative phrase “curtain of night” paints a picture in our minds.
Who Uses Idioms?
Idioms are used informally and more formally, especially in business.
An idiom is an expression used by a particular group of people with a meaning that is only known through common use.
An idiom used in one village may have no meaning in a different village or different part of the country.
When do we use idioms?
We use idioms when we talk to people and in many different situations, such as:
- at work, e.g., “The applicant for the job is too green” “We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket”
- in stores, e.g., “This new computer cost an arm and a leg”
- in restaurants, e.g., “This restaurant’s food is out of this world”
- when we speak with our friends, e.g., “I will believe what you said but only after I hear it straight from the horse's mouth”
- when we speak to our family members, e.g., “Don’t tell our five-year-old sister about Santa Claus. In other words, don’t let the cat out of the bag”.
We also use idioms in the things we write, usually to make the writing more interesting or entertaining,
- e.g., “We would have enjoyed our vacation if we hadn’t felt under the weather the whole time”
- e.g., “The judge didn’t believe the criminal because he spoke out of both sides of his mouth”.
Do Different Languages Have the Same Idioms?
Well… yes and no.
The idioms may be different, but their meanings may be the same.
In English, the idiom “You can’t get blood from a stone” means that you can’t get financial help from someone who is cheap or selfish.
In Chinese, there is a similar idiom and it can be interpreted as, “You can’t pull a feather from an iron rooster”.
Both idioms refer to a stingy person.
It takes many years, even for a native speaker, to know when to use an idiom.
For example; kick the bucket does not literally mean kicking a bucket with your foot.
It means 'dropping dead/to die suddenly'.
But you must be careful when using this idiom.
It’s a comical, humourous idiom.
“I’m sorry your little goldfish kicked the bucket” would be OK, but it would not appropriate to use when speaking about someone a person cared deeply for.
Do you see how using this idiom incorrectly could cause problems for you?
Idioms in Business
There are many idioms used in the business world.
Here are a few examples:
― Think outside the box
[an original idea outside the boundaries of normal thinking or rules.]
― Not going to fly
[an idea or plan that will not be successful]
― On the same page
[having the same understanding of a situation]
Should a Second Language Student Use Idioms?
Again, the answer is maybe yes and maybe no.
My advice to all English learners is to read idioms, learn them, but be very careful about using them.
Using an idiom in the wrong situation could cause confusion for the listener or reader and could be embarrassing for the speaker or writer.
In fact, it may be best to avoid using idioms at least until you have reached a middle or upper advanced level.