What are idioms?
Idioms Can Paint a Picture
People tend to know about as many “multiword expressions” as they do single words. We learn more and more idioms as we go through life.
Idioms are expressions in language with meanings that can’t be understood by interpreting the individual words. Instead, their meanings are figurative and often unique to the culture or language they belong to.
“Raining cats and dogs” doesn’t literally mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky; instead, it’s a figurative way to express heavy rainfall. Some idioms can be a bit more literal. “In the blink of an eye” has a clearer meaning (very quick or instantaneous).
Idioms like this rely on cultural or historical associations to convey a specific meaning that isn’t immediately apparent from the words themselves.
Browse our idiom library using our three dimensional semantic map.
Drag to look around, scroll to zoom and hold ctrl whilst dragging to move.
Idioms often mirror the prevailing sentiments and concerns of society.
During times of societal upheaval or technological advancement, new idioms are born or old ones are dusted off and given new life.
For instance, the idiom “to read between the lines.” In the age of digital communication and nuanced messaging, this phrase has gained renewed relevance, signifying the need to discern underlying meanings in text messages and emails.
Regional and generational factors affect idiom usage. Some idioms remain popular across generations, but others fade into obscurity or become distinctive markers of a particular era.
For example, the idiom “bee’s knees” once symbolized excellence during the Roaring Twenties but has since fallen out of favour.
Idioms from different languages
Some Idioms make absolutely no sense when translated. If you know someone who speaks a different language natively, ask them to translate some of their idioms. It can be quite entertaining.
My French friend told me about “Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter”, literally “to have other cats to whip”! A better translation to english would be “to have other fish to fry“. Which sounds less unpleasant.
There are idioms that are used across languages and cultures, such as “butterflies in your stomach“. This translates fine into Spanish: “mariposas en el estómago”. Which is a bit surprising. The same is true in French.
Colleagues share vocabulary, creating a sense of belonging and solidarity. I find phrases like “touch base,” “get the ball rolling,” or “put all our eggs in one basket” really annoying, but they can establish a sense of camaraderie and familiarity among teams.