What Is an Idiom? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Idiom Definition


An idiom (ID-ee-uhm) is an expression with a figurative or metaphorical meaning that differs from its literal meaning. Put another way, idioms don’t mean exactly what they say. The phrase turn over a new leaf has nothing to do with flipping leaves; it means starting over, adopting a new attitude or behavior.

Idioms tend to be specific to a region, culture, or language. Understanding idioms from another country often requires familiarity with that culture. You can translate a French idiom to English, but literal translation can’t convey the figurative expression. La moutarde lui monte au nez is a common French idiom that means “mustard goes up his nose”—which doesn’t mean much to an American. An equivalent English idiom would be blow a fuse, which means to lose your temper.

The word idiom stems from the Latin idioma, meaning “a peculiarity in language,” and the Greek idiōma, meaning “peculiar phraseology.”


Examples of Idioms


Idioms are as a subset of colloquialism, which is an informal or conversational style of language that characterizes verbal speech. They are fixed phrases made of up two or more words. Idioms have very exact phrasing to achieve the intended effect; changed or modified idioms lose their inherent meaning.

There are thousands of idioms in the English language. These are some of the most common, used in context.

  • “Researchers had to jump through hoops to earn the grant.”
  • “Corner coffee shops are a dime a dozen.”
  • “The old man was fit as a fiddle.”
  • “The test was a piece of cake.”
  • “People with lactose intolerance might eat dairy once in a blue moon.”
  • “He eyed the stack of files, worried he’d bitten off more than he could chew.”
  • “The two girls got along like a house on fire.”
  • “‘Break a leg!’” she said before the group took the stage.”

A single concept can often be expressed with several idioms. Consider the phrases below, which are all idioms for death, and their different connotations:

  • Kick the bucket
  • Bite the dust
  • Pull the plug
  • Bought the farm
  • The ultimate sacrifice
  • Food for worms
  • Beyond the veil
  • Pushing up daisies
  • Passed away


Why Writers Use Idioms


Idioms are a powerful type of figurative language. As such, there are many reasons why writers include them in their prose or dialogue. For example:

  • Express an idea or concept: Idioms can make something complex or abstract easily accessible with a few choice words. For instance, if someone can’t be fooled by a dishonest character’s manipulations, they might say, “I’ve got your number” or “I see right through you.”
  • Establish character and setting: Idioms are often specific to their culture, meaning writers can use them to quickly establish an authentic setting. These figures of speech can establish characterization in much the same way. For example, if a character says down yonder, they’re probably from the South.
  • Convey a point of view: Because there are often several idioms to describe a single common idea, each with its own connotation, writers can use them to convey a specific attitude. Saying someone kicked the bucket is a slightly irreverent and even humorous way of saying the person has died. On the other hand, saying that person passed away is more delicate and respectful.
  • Engage readers more fully: Idioms’ metaphorical or figurative meanings require readers to shift from literal to abstract thought. This keeps their attention focused on the text as they attempt to decipher what is being said. Idioms can evoke specific visual imagery, and they’re often humorous—both attributes that help readers envision a scene and relate to a narrative.


Idioms and Other Literary Devices


Idioms vs. Colloquialisms

Colloquial language is conversational language, an informal style of speech used in casual contexts. This linguistic style is generally relaxed and less bound by the strictures of formal speech or writing. While all idioms are colloquialisms, the reverse is not true. Idioms are figurative phrases comprised of two or more words. Colloquialisms, however, can be figurative or literal, one word or many. Writers often use colloquial language to approximate natural, realistic dialogue and develop setting and characterization. Y’all, hoagies, and conniption are examples of common American colloquialisms.

Idioms vs. Euphemisms

Euphemisms are idiomatic expressions used to discuss offensive, blunt, or delicate subject matter in a polite or respectful manner. People use euphemisms to amuse, avoid embarrassment or negativity, and downplay severity. Where writers often use idioms to enrich imagery, express an idea, or approximate everyday speech, they use euphemisms to acceptably speak about taboos and difficult topics.

A corporation might use the euphemism downsizing when referring to employee layoffs or budget cuts. Adults often say the birds and the bees to avoid saying sex in front of impressionable children. In fact, passed away, kicked the bucket, the ultimate sacrifice, and all the aforementioned death-related idioms common euphemisms meant to ease the blunt reality of death and dying.


Examples in Literature


1. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer frames his Tales as a storytelling contest between a group of travelers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. This selection comes from “The Merchant’s Tale,” when protagonist January finally chooses his bride:

He at the last appointed him on one,
And let all others from his hearte gon,
And chose her of his own authority;
For love is blind all day, and may not see.

Writers from Plato to Shakespeare have used love is blind to describe the tendency to ignore a loved one’s imperfections. “The Merchant’s Tale” is a tale of duplicity, as January’s infatuation with his bride keeps him from acknowledging her infidelity. Though Shakespeare’s (regular) use of the idiom is perhaps more famous, this example marks its first appearance in the English language (The Canterbury Tales was published in 1476, more than 80 years before Shakespeare’s birth).

2. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

This Harlem Renaissance classic begins with protagonist Janie Crawford recounting her life story to her friend Pheoby:

Pheoby, we been kissin’-friends for twenty years, so Ah depend on your for a good thought. And Ah’m talking to you from dat standpoint.

Kissin’-friends is an idiomatic expression for “best friends.” Here, it implies that Janie and Pheoby share a deep and intimate friendship, one built on mutual trust and respect.

3. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

This novel chronicles Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Before any of that, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his long-dead business partner, Jacob Marley. The narrator explains Scrooge’s disbelief:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

The narrator’s use of dead as a doornail accomplishes two things. It evokes the image of a metal nail—gray and lifeless—to confirm that Jacob Marley is truly dead, and it establishes Scrooge’s personality as rigid, cold, and cynical. Scrooge denies Marley’s presence despite it literally being right before his eyes because it challenges his conception of death and reality.

4. Shakespeare, Multiple Works

Shakespeare coined many a word and turn of phrase—including the following famous expressions.

Romeo and Juliet

MERCUTIO: Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.

A wild goose chase is a pointless, fruitless activity. In Shakespeare’s day, this idiom does not literally reference geese. Instead, it is inspired by a sport in which a line of horseback riders tried to follow a leader—looking very much like geese in flight.

The Taming of the Shrew

PETRUCHIO: This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, and thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.

Killing someone with kindness means being as nice as possible to someone, despite their rude or insulting behavior. The metaphorical killer hopes to elicit a certain response or make the antagonistic figure feel awkward or uncomfortable.


IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Jealousy is often personified as the green-eyed monster, calling to mind the image of a mean and ferocious beast that often attacks out of insecurity or fear.

Julius Caesar

CASCA: Nay, an I tell you that, Ill ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

If something’s all Greek to you, that means you can’t understand it. This idiom is commonly used to describe new or foreign ideas.

Henry V

PISTOL: The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant.

Someone with a heart of gold has a very kind and good-natured disposition.


Further Resources on Idioms


The Thesaurus of English Idioms contains 21,500 entries and includes explanations, cross-references, example sentences, and more. It’s perfect for writers, students, teachers, and language enthusiasts.

Kaplan lists 10 famous idioms coined by William Shakespeare. The article also includes a quiz to test your understanding.

This TEDBlog post translates and defines 40 idioms from around the world.


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