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What is an idiom?

Updated on June 18, 2013

What is an idiom?

A Pig in a Poke?

What is a pig in a poke?
What is a pig in a poke? | Source

Idioms and figures of speech

An idiom is an expression that is commonly understood in a figurative, rather than a literal way. Idioms have been passed on for a long time through common usage, often to the extent that the original meaning of the idiom is seldom remembered. For example, a well-known expression is to “let the cat out of the bag” which means to reveal a well-kept secret. The origins of this expression are uncertain and may come from the days when rogue traders would sell a cat rather than a piglet by putting it in a bag and when you opened the bag, you discovered the trick. This is also the origin of the pig in a poke which means someone who has bought shoddy goods without realising it (the poke is the bag that the supposed pig was sold in). It is very common for other languages to have a similar theme in their version of an idiom. Click here for different nationalities' variations of this idiom.

Another expression is a “whipping boy”, which comes form the days when pupils were routinely caned at school for incorrect behaviour or poor learning. Because it was considered wrong to hit the Prince, someone, often a close friend, would be chosen as the whipping boy, to take the punishments on behalf of the Prince. Being chosen to be the Prince’s whipping boy was quite an honour, as it often led to a peerage later in life.

Some idioms have an identifiable source, having been introduced into the language by a well-known author; Shakespeare, in particular, added many idioms to the English language, others have simply been handed down as part of folklore and the original source cannot be traced.

Learning the understanding of the idiom is a problem for young learners of a language or people learning second languages as the literal meaning is often obscure. It is also a problem for computer software that does automatic translation as it needs extensive programming to interpret idiomatic language. The expression “out of sight, out of mind” (what you cannot see, you do no not need to worry about) has been translated by automatic computerised translators at its literal level as “invisible idiot”.

There are two types of idiom: “opaque idioms” and “transparent idioms”. Opaque idioms need to be learned as the meaning is not obvious. An example of an opaque idiom might be “to kick the bucket” meaning “to die” when it is not obvious what the meaning is. Transparent idioms are figurative, but more obvious, so “a bright spark” for someone clever is much more obvious.

When learning language, children tend to interpret idioms literally until the age of nine, sometimes leading to misunderstandings between adults. A young child was being chastised by the teacher for his poor work and told to “pull his socks up”. Obediently, he did just that and was then chastised for being impertinent!

For adults, using the literal meanings of idioms can be used for comic effect. For example, “I’ve been working on a poem about the drudgery of work and the tedious long hours between waking up fresh in the morning and going to bed late at night, exhausted. I just couldn’t think of the right word to describe it, so in the end, I decided to call it a day”.

For foreign language learners, the best way to learn idioms is to buy a dictionary of idioms and try to learn as many as possible. Some you may recognise as there will sometimes be a similar variation in many languages, as idioms often relate to common human experience.


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    • theidioms profile image

      Lilly Rowling 4 years ago from Birmingham, United Kingdom

      I just love this hub, and the videos are just great... very well explanations of Idioms. thanks.

      Lilly Rowling, UK,

    • favouriteperfume profile image

      favouriteperfume 5 years ago from Malvern, UK

      Thanks Snakeslane, I've had fun teaching English idioms and proverbs to overseas students - they often have even funnier versions of the same idea in their own languages. I like the Italian version, "you've got your new bike, now you have to ride it", instead of "you've made your bed, now you have to lie in it".

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 5 years ago from Canada

      This is a fun and informative Hub favoriteperfume. Thank you for sharing. Regards, snakeslane