August 13, 2007

#01-007: What Is an Idiom, Anyway?

2 + 2 = 674

Note: Everyone uses idioms, but it's hard to explain exactly what makes an expression "an idiom." Here's one answer.

Get Ready: Do you have a favorite idiom? Can you explain its meaning based on the words used in it? For example, in the idiom, "hit the hay," meaning "go to bed," what does "hit" mean? What is "the hay"?

A few years ago I was giving a public talk to English learners in China, and I asked them this question: "What is an idiom?"

Several of the usual answers were given. Then one older man named Bosco (who later become a good friend) stood up and said: "An idiom is a sentence spoken by... AN IDIOT!"

Everyone laughed, but they were surprised when I said, "Well, sir, you're wrong... and you're right!"

What do you think I meant?

Let's look at an example, one of the best-known English idioms: "It's raining cats and dogs."

This is an excellent illustration of what I call "The Idiom Equation," which states: 2 + 2 = 674.

"What?!" you may be thinking.

I mean an idiom is an expression in which the meaning of the individual words does not add up to the meaning of the expression. Put another way: You may know the meaning of "raining," "cats," and "dogs," but you still might not know what the expression means!

(By the way, no one is sure how this idiom came to be; but I vote for the simple idea that it is picturesque--that is, it creates a mental picture. "Raining bricks and boulders" or "raining cars and trucks" would do the same job; but ever since the great writer Jonathan Swift used the expression in 1738, it has been popular.)

So how was my old friend Bosco both wrong AND right?

Well, obviously, he was wrong because all kinds of people use idioms--not just idiots.

But he was right because both words come from the same Greek root, "idio-," which means "one's own," "personal," or "separate."

An idiom is a phrase with its own meaning, separate from the words that make it up. When we say "to kick the bucket" meaning "to die," you can see that the words do not add up to the meaning.

"Idiot" is now used as an insult, but it was originally a medical term used to describe an adult with a mental age below three years old. These people were considered to be "self-referent," unable to relate to the world around them. In other words, an idiot was separate from the world in the same way an idiom's meaning is separate from the words that make it up.

So Bosco wasn't far wrong after all!


Read more:

Practice: Here are 10 very common idioms. See if you can guess their meanings.

  1. I'll buy that.
  2. by the skin of one's teeth
  3. when pigs fly
  4. hit the books
  5. judge a book by its cover
  6. bite off more than one can chew
  7. a piece of cake
  8. costs an arm and a leg
  9. hit the nail on the head
  10. let the cat out of the bag

  1. study
  2. try to do more than you can
  3. is very expensive
  4. I believe what you said.
  5. be exactly right
  6. evaluate things by their appearance
  7. easy
  8. just barely
  9. tell something that was supposed to be a secret
  10. never

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for August 13, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. h; 3. j; 4. a; 5. f; 6. b; 7. g; 8. c; 9. e; 10. i