Informal English Expressions – Idioms

Idioms are phrases and expressions which are commonly used in everyday conversation by native speakers of English. They are a type of informal English in which the words together have a meaning that is different from the definitions of the individual words in the expression.

This can make idioms difficult for non-native speakers to understand. Idioms are used in a figurative, not a literal sense.  People use them to express something more vividly and often more briefly. They serve as images or mental pictures.

For example, in the sentence ‘At our weekly board meetings, the director could talk until the cows come home, the expression means ‘for a very long time’. Cows are usually slow-moving animals.

Idioms make the language more colourful.   In the sentence, ‘When worldwide demand for its software decreased, the company had to do some belt-tightening, the image is of someone trying to lose weight, or in this case, reduce expenses.

One reason language learners find idioms difficult to understand is they are not sure what image the idiom is based on.  Idioms, however, are not ‘arbitrary’.  It is possible to guess their meaning from the words they consist of.

Many idioms are derived from physical experiences.  The expressions ‘hot under the collar’; ‘let off steam’, and ‘slow burn’ refer to anger ; the image is of heat, and rising  body temperature.  Likewise, the expressions ‘lend a hand’, ‘try your hand at something’, and ‘hands-on training’ all use the image of the hand to perform an action.  From everyday experience, we know that most activities involve the use of our hands.

A helpful way of understanding idioms is to group them according to the ‘areas of experience’ from which they are derived.  If you recognize the origin of an idiom, you should be able to work out its meaning. Some origins are:

Sailing – take something on board, clear sailing, steer clear of someone, show someone the ropes, be on an even keel

Horse Racing – neck and neck, win hands down, go off the rails

Hunting – don’t beat around the bush, it’s in the bag, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush

Gambling – hedge one’s bets, up the ante, stick one’s neck out, throw in the towel

Entertainment – behind the scenes, be center stage, a balancing act

Intelligence – sharp as a tack, on the ball, with eyes wide open, hit the nail on the head

Up to 20% of English idioms consist of words that rhyme or that use the same sound at the start of each word.

So, we say ‘go with the flow’, not ‘go with the stream’, ‘it takes two to tango’, not ‘it takes two to waltz’ and ‘through thick and thin’, ‘below the belt’, ’bite the bullet, ‘cash cow’ , ‘crystal clear’, ‘cut corners’ and ‘eager beaver’.

Idioms enrich our speech . They are a good use of imagery when describing attitudes, behaviours and trying to draw someone’s attention to a point you feel is important.

 They are fixed expressions ; if we change the grammar or vocabulary, we lose the meaning.

Finally, idiomatic expressions are used when speaking informally, not in formal conversations.