Introduction

Idioms

Idioms exist in every language. They are words or phrases that aren’t meant to be taken literally. For example, if you say someone has “cold feet,” it doesn’t mean their toes are actually cold. Rather, it means they’re nervous about something.

Idioms can’t be deduced merely by studying the words in the phrase. If taken literally, you would think that someone with cold feet has… cold feet. But, after living with a certain group of people for a period of time, you’ll start to pick up their expressions. Let’s explore some idiom examples in American everyday language, international language, and the language of the arts.

Common Idioms
The examples below demonstrate how you can’t really deduce the meaning of these expressions without knowing what they mean. The next time someone says they’re feeling “under the weather,” you’ll know it has nothing to do with weather patterns, but rather that they’re feeling quite ill.

Getting fired turned out to be a blessing in disguise. – Getting fired (normally a negative event) turned out to be a good thing.

These red poppies are a dime a dozen. – These red poppies are very common.

Don’t beat around the bush. – Just say what you really mean.

After some reflection, he decided to bite the bullet. – After some reflection, he decided to do the undesirable thing he was avoiding.

I’m going to call it a night. – I’m going to bed.

He’s got a chip on his shoulder. – He’s holding onto a grudge or grievance that’s making him very angry or callous.

Would you cut me some slack? – Don’t be so hard on me.

Don’t cut any corners. – Don’t take any shortcuts and produce shoddy work.

She let things get out of hand. – She lets things get out of control.

I’m going back to the drawing board. – I’m going to start over.

Hang in there. – Stick with it.

Don’t jump the gun. – Don’t do something before the allotted time.

He decided to let her off the hook. – He decided to release her from her responsibility.

He missed the boat. – He missed out on an opportunity.

I go out for walks once in a blue moon. – I go out for walks very rarely.

Pull yourself together, man! – Calm down.

She seriously rubbed me the wrong way. – I did not like her at all.

There he is, speak of the devil. – There he is; we were just talking about him.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. – My patience has finally run out.

Well, she’s got the best of both worlds. – She’s receiving benefits from both of her current situations or opportunities.

Why are you so bent out of shape? – Why are you so upset?

I’m feeling under the weather. – I’m feeling sick.

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. – We’ll solve that problem when the time comes.

I’m sorry but I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it. – I’m sorry but I just can’t seem to understand.

Wow, you can say that again. – I totally agree.

Idioms Around the Globe
Americans aren’t unique in their use of idioms. Where there’s language, there’s figurative language. That is, people are going to play on words and come up with quippy, new expressions. Let’s take a look at some of our global neighbors’ idioms:

In Armenian, “stop ironing my board” means stop bothering me.

In French, “when chickens have teeth” means something’s never going to happen.

Also in French, “I have other cats to whip” means I have other things to do.

In German, “to tie a bear to someone” means you’ve tricked them.

Also in German, “an elephant made out of a fly” means to make a big deal out of nothing.

In Italian, “not all doughnuts come with a hole” means you don’t always get what you want.

Also in Italian, “to treat someone with a fish in their face” means to disrespect someone.

In Japanese, “my cheeks are falling off” means the food is really delicious.

Also in Japanese, “to have dumplings instead of flowers” means you’ve chosen something useful over something decorative.

In Polish, “mustard after lunch” means it’s too late to do something.

Also in Polish, to “get stuffed with hay” means someone’s asking you to go away.

In Portuguese, “he who doesn’t have a dog, hunts with cats” means you make the most of what you’ve been given.

Also in Portuguese, “take your little horse away from the rain” means something’s never going to happen.

In Spanish, “a cat in gloves catches no mice” means nice guys always finish last.

Also in Spanish, “a lot of noise and no walnuts” means someone’s all talk and no action.

It’s very important to have a firm understanding of each culture’s idioms. The terminology that one country uses can have a vastly different meaning in another country. For example, in Finnish, “with long teeth” means you’re doing something you don’t want to do. However, in French, to “have long teeth” means you’re very ambitious. Quite different, right?

Idioms In the Arts
Similar to various cultures who adopt their own set of idioms, smaller groups of people do the same. Actors, painters, performers, and writers tend to use their own idioms, almost bordering on slang, to encourage each other and forge a unique sense of community. Here are some of the most popular idioms used in the art world:

“Break a leg” means good luck.

When you encourage someone to “break a leg,” you might also want to encourage them to “knock ’em dead” or do a great job.

When you encourage a friend to “sing their heart out” before a performance, you’re encouraging them to give it their all (and have some fun).

“Get the hook” means it’s time to pull an actor off the stage because he’s performing horribly.

If you need to “get the hook,” the actor most likely “bombed,” meaning he was so terrible.

If an actor “bombed,” then they’re likely to be “upstaged” by another actor who performed better.

If you’re excited to “sink your teeth” into a new book, it means you’re really excited to start reading it.

If an artist “breaks new ground,” it means his work is important and innovative.

Remember, a group of people with shared interests will have their own idioms. As with anything else in life, they’ll be easier to understand if you listen to the context clues and ask questions when in doubt.

Language and Idioms
You simply can’t be literal when examining an idiom. They tend to make learning a new language difficult, but they’re also used in languages all across the globe. Idioms aren’t only regional; they also vary according to people’s interests and social groups.

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