Idioms and Proverbs – Culturally Specific Sayings in Everyday Conversation

flying pigWhat are idioms?

Idioms are culturally specific sayings; they convey some wise idea or principle. Idioms are an easy way to express a feeling or sum up a situation. Idioms are figurative, and the words have no literal meaning; they are a metaphor for some aspect of culture. There are over 25,000 idioms in the English language, with a large number of them being used daily either in conversation, news, movies, music, or television.

“An expression like ‘turn up’ (meaning to ‘arrive’), break-even (meaning ‘to make neither a profit nor a loss’) or ‘a can of worms’ (meaning ‘ complicated problem’) can be challenging to understand because its interpretation cannot be understood from the separate words in the expression. (If you know ‘break’ and ‘even,’ this does not help you at all to understand ‘break-even. Expressions like these are called ‘idioms.’  Idioms are usually special to one language and cannot be translated word for word though related languages may share some idioms). “(Practical English Usage by Michael Swan – module 257)


Examples of idioms:

  • A hot potato – meaning a disputed topic that is under discussion. The words alone have no meaning except in the context of the conversation.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs – meaning heavy rain.  Do not take these words literally; cats and dogs do not fall from the sky.
  • Cool as a cucumber – meaning to stay calm in a stressful situation.  Idioms are often alliterations.
  • Kick the bucket – meaning to die.  An off-shoot of this idiom is a bucket-list, which is a list of things to do before death.
  • Piece of cake  – meaning an easy task.

What are proverbs?

Proverbs are long idioms.  While idioms might have a few words and may not contain a complete sentence, proverbs are one or several complete sentences.

Examples of proverbs:

  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – meaning a small success is better than no success at all.
  • A chain is only as strong as its weakest link – meaning that a team member who is not performing will lower the performance of the whole team.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned – meaning that it is wise to save money.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder – meaning, encouragement for those away from family.
  • Actions speak louder than words – meaning, to follow through in action with what is said.

Idioms and proverbs are confusing to English second language students.

I am a student of the Spanish language. Spanish idioms are confusing.  What is meant by “Me estas tomar el pelo? “; this literally translates to “To take the hair.”  When I consult a dictionary of Spanish idioms, I find the meaning is: “Your pulling my leg,” which is the equivalent English idiom, meaning “You’re trying to fool me.”
My misadventures with Spanish idioms have given me an appreciation for the difficulties that foreigners have with English language idioms.

Food for thought

If most languages have an idiom like “It’s all Greek to me.”  Then what idiom do the Greeks use when they can’t understand something?  They say, “It’s all Chinese to me.”

What is the difference between a proverb and a saying or Aphorism?

A proverb contains a lesson or meaning that is consistent.  A saying is something that is often said in spoken language.  Sayings and proverbs are very similar; in practice, the words are interchangeable.  The definition of Aphorism: ‘a pithy observation which contains a general truth.’

What is the difference between a proverb and a platitude?

A proverb repeated so often that it is no longer interesting or thoughtful is a platitude.

What does jargon mean?

Jargon can be defined as particular words or expressions that have a specific professional meaning, and should not be confused with idioms or proverbs.  Jargon has literal, not figurative meaning. Examples of jargons are:

  • due diligence – meaning putting effort into research before making a business decision
  • left-wing: political jargon for liberal, progressive viewpoint
  • TD: military jargon for temporary duty
  • PD: educational jargon for professional development

What is slang?

Slang is a very informal language, often restricted to a context or group of people.  Idioms have a symbolic meaning and should not be confused with slang.

Examples of slang:

  • Y’all – meaning You all.
  • DIY – meaning Do It Yourself
  • Quid – meaning a Great British Pound
  • Bits and Bobs – meaning a collection of small things

The use of jargon, idioms, proverbs, and slang in blogs

The purpose of a blog is to communicate a message: the message should be clear, concise, and easy to understand for most people.

When writing a blog, I recommend considering the audience. If the intended audience is ‘the general public, then the content should be understood by people with limited comprehension of the English language.

Avoid using idioms, slang, and proverbs as they are confusing for those whom English is a second language. Slang is unprofessional and will lose your audience and credibility. An example of slang is ‘Y’all’ Meaning ‘You all.’

Jargon, especially technical jargon, should be explained. Spell out acronyms in full. For example, do not assume that someone in another country understands the meaning of CBD, even if the meaning is well known in the United States. When I first saw the acronym CBD, I thought it meant ‘Central Business District.’ Do not assume that other people know as much about the topic as you.

Test your understanding of idioms

Welcome to your Idioms quiz

Makes my hair stand on end
Make yourself at home
Get cold feet
Do me a favour
Do your homework
Giving the cold shoulder
You have crossed the line
Beat around the bush


Many language curriculums do not adequately cover idioms.  Curriculum designers should include idioms and recognize the need for non-native speakers to learn about idioms.

The best way to learn idiom is complete emersion in an English speaking environment.  The use of idioms is so pervasive that when asked, a local might use an idiom to explain an idiom.

The origin of idioms

They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & sold to the tannery. If you had to do this to survive you were “piss poor.”

But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot; they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” & were the lowest of the low.

The next time you are washing your hands & complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s.

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. Since they were starting to smell, however, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women, and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it . . . hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bathwater!

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, resulting in the idiom, “It’s raining cats and dogs.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed, therefore, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, leading folks to coin the phrase “dirt poor.”

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way, subsequently creating a “thresh hold.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while, and thus the rhyme, “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

The bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top,  the “upper crust.”

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up, creating the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins was found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive, so they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.


If you’re an English teacher in Japan, you probably expect to have hardworking, diligent Japanese students paying rapt attention to your lessons. However, even with all of your hard work, you will find it challenging to explain idioms in the English language.

Idioms and proverbs are confusing to foreigners for reasons such as,

  • They are culturally specific sayings
  • Convey a wise idea or principle in an abstract phrase.
  • They are an easy way to convey a feeling or sum up a situation, without proper explanation.
  • They are figurative, not literal; foreigners may try to understand the idiom literally.

People say idioms and proverbs so often that they forget that they are using them consequently. English learners will have difficulty with the following:

  • They will be left for dead  (unable to understand)  in a conversation unless they know the reference.
  • An English speaker might not know that what they are saying is incomprehensible by foreigners.
  • They might find English too confusing and often a bunch of gibberish (incomprehensible).

English learners will need to spend a lot of time learning idioms and proverbs.  The design of the ESL (English Second Language) curriculum should have a large section covering idioms and proverbs. Idioms are necessary if the students are being prepared to live in an English speaking society.

Michael Swan’s book Practical English Usage is a recommended reference for the English language, including idioms and proverbs.

Resources for teaching Idioms

idiom flashcards

Famous Words and Proverbs Fun Deck Flash Cards with Secret Decoder Educational Learning Resource.

  • 64 humorously illustrated cards (3″ x 5″),  each card presents a proverb (e.g., If the shoe fits, wear it.) and three choices for the meaning
  • Includes storage tin, game/activity ideas, answer key, and Secret Decoder
  • Educational – Helps children learn commonly used proverbs
  • Over 30 Super Duper Publications Apps available on the Amazon Appstore for Android
  • You might also enjoy our “Idioms” Fun Deck Cards, also featured on Amazon

Idiom Addict

Idiom AddictIdiom Addict by The Good Game Company is a fun and witty party game that can be used in the classroom or at home.

4.5 out of 5 stars six ratings on Amazon
List Price: $29.99

For four or more players.  Average playtime 30 minutes or less



Here’s a tip: Want to make sure your writing always looks great? Grammarly can save you from misspellings, grammatical and punctuation mistakes, and other writing issues on all your favorite websites.

Aaron Skudder


  1. Hallo there Aaron, 

    I have been learning English for a good deal of time now and I can say I am still learning although lots of terms are hard for me to understand. I am not a native English speaker and I desire to know English completely. Thanks for clearing up the difference between idioms and proverbs because it was one of my biggest problems. Now I have seen how different they are and I will keep practicing and using the words many times so that I can understand them well. Thanks again.

    • What is your first language?  Do you have examples of idioms in your native language?  It is interesting to compare idioms in different cultures.

  2. Thank you for explaining idioms and proverbs. I did not know that much about These figures of speech until now. I mean I had heard of things like this but I did not know what they were called. I have been speaking English most of my life, so I could imagine how this is subject would be complicated for non-native English speakers.
    Thanks for also explaining slang and platitudes. I knew about slang but I did not know about platitudes. Your quizzes are very helpful in learning these tricky figures of speech.

    • How did you score in the quiz?  Have I made the quiz too easy?  Or do you think foreigners would struggle with the questions?

  3. I must confess, although I know quite alot about English language, I’ve gained some more knowledge from reading this post. Most people really don’t understand what idioms are and have sometimes caused controversy is so many situations. As I’ve learned here I’ll inform my kids about this post also si they can benefit from it. 

  4. Thanks for this educative article, English idioms and proverbs expressions are an important part of everyday English. They come up all the time in both written and spoken English. Because idioms don’t always make sense literally I guess one will need to familiarize  with the meaning and usage of each idiom. Although that may seem like a lot of work, but learning idioms is fun, especially when you compare English idioms to the idioms in your own language.

    • Is English your first language?  I am curious about idioms in other languages, do you have any to share?

  5. This post is very informative.  I knew the definition of aphorism, but its official definition is hard to grasp.  Yours was easier to understand.  

    When reading, I enjoy seeing an idiom used by a writer skillfully because as a non-native English speaker, I’m interested in how the literal meaning of an idiom contrasts with its actual definition.

    Here’s an example of an idiom from my native language, it literally means “a hole in my pocket,” but it actually means, “I don’t have money.” lol

    Great article, Aaron!

    • English is confusing.  There are many ways of saying something, different words that mean similar things and identical words that can be different things based on context.

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