What is an idiom?
An idiom is a phrase that is a figure of speech.
It means that the words or phrases, which are usually very common, do not take a literal or real meaning. The meaning is implied.
Idiomatic expressions are a part of everyday language for English speakers. But there can be a slight difference between some American idioms and British English idioms.
Generally, though, the individual words that combine to create an idiom are understood by native speakers. So the symbolic meaning is easy to understand.
For writers who are using US, UK, Canadian or Australian English, there is usually no problem in using idioms that are specific to your English language usage.
But, as with similes and metaphors, a little goes a long way in good writing.
If you are writing fiction, you should limit your idiomatic usage. Perhaps keep it to only the dialogue of one or two of your main characters.
In your narrative, however, you should keep idioms to a minimum. They are seasoning, and not one of the main ingredients.
Another word of caution. Because idioms are such fixed expressions, you should always check to make sure that you are using the correct and exact wording.
Here are some classic idiom examples, followed by perhaps some lesser-known rhyming idioms.
Some common idiom examples
Break a leg! A theatrical expression which is used to wish someone good luck.
Don’t beat around the bush. Get to the point of what you want to say. Don’t approach something indirectly.
Every cloud has a silver lining. Similar to a blessing in disguise. Whenever something bad seems to happen, there is normally a positive to be had.
He drives me up the wall. No car involved here. It means that someone annoys or exasperates you.
He kicked the bucket. A euphemistic, or slang term meaning to die.
I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. No bridge to see. But it means to worry or take action about something when the time comes and not before.
It’s no use crying over spilt milk. There is no point having regret for something that has happened and cannot be changed.
It’s raining cats and dogs. The idiom originated in the 17th century. It means to be raining very heavily.
It was a piece of cake. When something is completed or accomplished with ease. It was very easy.
It was a blessing in disguise. When something unlucky or bad happens, but later, the end result is positive or fortuitous.
Bite one’s tongue. Not saying something you want to say.
Heard it on the grapevine. To hear rumours or gossip about someone or something.
Once in a blue moon. To happen very rarely. (A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month.)
Cost an arm and a leg. Very expensive.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t make up your mind from outward appearances.
Feeling under the weather. Not feeling very well, or perhaps suffering from a mild hangover.
I am sure you can think of a lot more of these everyday idioms. For example, speak of the devil, let the cat out of the bag and actions speak louder than words.
But be careful in using them. Because they are everyday expressions, they are extremely common, and because of that, they are often overused.
Next time you want to write, given the cold shoulder, or curiosity killed the cat, think about it. Perhaps you could look for a better expression or a more unique word collocation.
Rhyming idiom examples
Here is a fun list of idioms that all use a rhyme.
A des res. A very attractive house or a desirable residence.
Argy-bargy. A process involving arguments.
Bee’s knees. Something to admire or is by far the absolute best.
Bigwigs. Very important or powerful people.
Brain drain. When highly educated people leave to work for a better salary in another country.
Cheerful earful. Some very good news.
Double trouble. A situation involving two problems at the same time.
Dream team. Perfect partners, but often used in reference to a team in sport or business.
Even steven. To draw or tie fairly.
Fat cat. A very wealthy business person who may also be greedy.
Fuddy-duddy. Someone who is very old fashioned, conservative and a conformist.
Harum-scarum. When things happen in a disorganised manner.
Helter-skelter. All over the place at great speed, often in disorder or in a panic.
Heyday. A time past when someone was at their most successful period. Sometimes, for only a short time.
Higgledy-piggledy. All over the place in different and directions. Untidy with no sense of any order.
Hobnob. To socialise, particularly with the rich and famous.
Hocus-pocus. A nonsense or a sham, perhaps to deceive.
Hoity-toity. Being supercilious or behaving or looking as though one is superior to everyone else.
Hotshot. An exceptionally able person at a profession or activity.
Hubbub. A lot of loud noise and activity.
Humdrum. An activity or person who is boring.
Hurlyburly. The busy daily life, particularly in a city.
Kowtow. To accept authority without question, or to bow to someone’s wishes without question.
Mumbo jumbo. Talk that means nothing or is rubbish.
Okie Dokie. All right or okay.
Pell-mell. Confused, rushed, disorderly or in confusion.
Powwows. Conversations or discussions particularly in meetings.
Ragbag or Hotchpotch. A muddled or miscellaneous collection.
Teenie weenie. Extremely small.
Tittle-tattle. To gossip or tell tales.
Wham Bam. Extremely quickly.
Wheeler-dealer. Someone who does business in an underhand or dishonest fashion.
How to use idioms?
Sparingly is the correct answer. Standard and perhaps hackneyed idioms should be used if and only when absolutely necessary. Don’t rain idioms.
However, rhyming idioms have a small yet distinct advantage.
Many rhyming idioms can be used as adjectives, which makes them a little more versatile.
For example, a hotshot businessman, a humdrum job or a hotchpotch bunch of garden flowers.
In either case, be careful. The overuse of idioms is a common fault in writing. It is far better to look for word combinations that are unique and inventive.
Think here about how Tom Waits created his own extremely unique figurative expressions. There was amnesia in her kiss. Or, her lips were cut like razor blades.
It is not a matter of inventing new idioms. It is about bringing inventiveness to your writing.
I suppose this article should be interpreted as a warning about using trite idioms. And that would be close to correct.
If you use idioms, get them right.
But it is far better to be an inventive writer. Try to find your own words to create your figurative and implied meanings.
Have fun with your writing, and oh, break a leg!
I started my working life as a lithographer and then spent over 30 years in the printing and publishing business.
Originally from Australia, I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago. My days are spent teaching English, writing and wrestling with technology while enjoying my glorious view of the Alps.
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