- Philip M Russell
Speaking better English - Idioms
Updated: May 25, 2021
What makes English different to many languages is in how thoughts and feelings are expressed. In English the use of idioms is widespread and more so than other languages.
An idiom is a phrase which means something, that may not be apparent by the words. These phrases have appeared over time and have been adopted to mean something else. Although idioms are used in most languages, there are more of them in English. The use of idioms often shows the difference between someone who has used the language all their life and those that have just learnt it.
An example of an idiom might be for example, if someone is asked about preparing to do a charity parachute jump.
Person One. "How is the preparation going?"
Person Two "I am getting cold feet."
The second person doesn't mean that their feet are getting cold preparing for the jump, but that they are getting nervous about the prospect of doing the parachute jump. The cold feet idea leaves someone who doesn't know about the idiom with no idea what just happened to the conversation they started. The phrase I am getting cold feet is understood by many to mean I am getting nervous.
Let’s have a look at five common idioms and what they mean.
"You can say that again" - I agree with you - I don't expect the students to repeat the phrase they just said, but I am whole heartedly agreeing with what they just said
“I put my foot in my mouth again” - you said something you wish you didn't say – Nothing to do with mouths and feet but about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time
"We will cross that bridge when we come to it" - We will solve this problem later on - I have said this to some of my students and I initially wondered why they looked at me about what I said, then I realised that some idioms need some explanation.
"It looks if we will have to go back to the drawing board" - We need to start over - I might have just taught some students something, but they didn't get it at all, so I will have to try to teach this thing again but in a different way
“I go out for dinner once in a blue moon” – I very rarely go out to dinner – A blue moon has nothing to do with the moon although the phrase does come from the fact that very rarely there are two full moons in one calendar month, this doesn’t happen very often so the phrase once in a blue moon is likened to this does happen very often.
As you can see from this some idioms are easy to understand and others are a lot more difficult to follow their meaning. Idioms can be metaphors, but metaphors cannot be idioms. Often idioms convey some type of emotion or feeling. A metaphor is a word or phrase typically used to describe one thing as another “They weren’t working as doctors but firefighters” – the doctors treating the Covid pandemic were trying to stop the disease anyway they could and as fast as they could, as a firefighter would towards a fire, whereas the idiom could be “my ears were burning” – you realise that someone was talking about you, not that your ears were on fire.
So, an idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be established from the combination of its individual words, usually found by the repeated use from other contexts, whereas a metaphor, which can be more commonly called a figure of speech, and this is a nonliteral way of understanding a phrase. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things without the use of special signal words such as like or as which is a simile.