Glossary Home Figurative Language


An idiom is a short-expression that means something different than its literal translation.

It goes without saying, for those who speak the language that an idiom is used to replace, emphasize, or better explain a feeling, thing, or situation than other words might. For those who do not speak the language, the idiom is written in they can prove especially troublesome to interpret and learn how to use correctly. They change from country to country and culture to culture and have very specific meanings. 


General Examples of Idioms


Euphemism or Idiom? 

While they might seem the same on the outset, there is a difference. Euphemisms are used when the real words its replacing are too harsh or inappropriate for the situation. An idiom can be used anytime. Some idioms are euphemisms but not all of them. Not all idioms are used to avoid upsetting or offending somewhere, and that is where the difference lies. Phrases like “pushing up daisies” and “bit the dust” avoid using words like “die” or “death” but they are harsh and therefore not euphemisms. 


Purpose of Idioms 

Writers use idioms to convey ideas in new or symbolic ways that liven spoken or written language. When writers use idioms in dialogue they are usually there in order to signal someone’s age, cultural background, or belief system. As is the case with euphemisms, sometimes they work better than others. It is very easy to fall into the realm of the cliche if one uses a phrase that is has been “run into the ground”. 


Examples of Idioms in Literature 

Example #1 William Shakespeare 

Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare is the source of several of the most popular idioms in contemporary English. It was due to his creativity, willingness to play with language, and the general lasting quality of his works that these phrases have become as wide-spread as they have. 

Take for example the phrase “wear my heart on my sleeve”. This comes from Othello, specifically the section of the poem in which Iago describes how vulnerable he would become if he revealed his true hatred of Othello. Today, we would say that they “wear their heart on their sleeve” to someone who does not hide their true emotions. This is of course not a literal statement, but its meaning is as clear to English language speaker as if it were. 

Another example comes from Henry IV, Part I. In this play while complaining about poetry, the character Hotspur says that “that would set my teeth nothing an edge, nothing so much as mincing poetry”. This more complicated phrase has been boiled down to “set my teeth on edge,” a very apt and relatable way of saying that something pushes one’s patience, annoys one’s mind or brings general discomfort. 


Example #2 “Mad as a hatter” 

The source of this idiom is commonly mistaken as an invention Lewis Carrol in his nov Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but the phrase “mad as a hatter” has earlier origins. It comes from a real-life illness, mercury poisoning, that befell hat makers. It was used in the process of setting felt hats and overtime exposure changed one’s mind. 


Example #3 “Love is blind”

This phrase comes from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is a well-used and well-loved line in written and spoken language. So loved in fact that it is generally considered to be a cliche. In Chaucer the full line is “For love is blind all day, and may not see”. It is used today to describe the effects that love has to blind us from the truth about those we care for.


Example #4 “Extend an olive branch” 

This line goes all the way back to Greek mythology, specifically to the myth of Athena gifting a branch of an olive tree to the Athenians. It is also cited as having its origins in the Bible with the story of Noah. In the tale, a dove came to Noah with an olive branch in order to signify when the floods had passed. The phrase is used now as a way of suggesting that peace be made or an argument ended. Often it is accompanied by a larger gesture of goodwill. 

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