What 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, not literal; the words cannot be taken literally but can be understood as 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.
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. These words cannot be taken 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. I have often been wholly confounded with Spanish idioms. 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 platitude is a proverb that has been said so often that it is no longer interesting or thoughtful.
What does jargon mean?
Jargon can be defined as special 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. Acronyms need to be spelled in full. For example, do not assume that someone in a country like China understands the meaning of CBD, even if the meaning is generally understood in the United States. When I first saw the acronym CBD, I thought it meant ‘Central Business District.’ Do not assume the reader knows as much about the topic as you.
Test your understanding of idioms
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.
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.
Idioms and proverbs are used so often that people 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 being used.
- In conversation with a foreigner, an English speaker might not know that they are misunderstood; they have left their audience ‘up the creek without a paddle’ (without the proper understanding).
- 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. English Second Language curriculum should be designed with a large section covering idioms and proverbs. Idioms are necessary if the students are being prepared to live in an English speaking society.
I recommend Michael Swan’s book Practical English Usage as a reference for English language idioms and proverbs.
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