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What is an Idiom?

Idioms are different from other expressions. An idiom is a phrase, sure, but as John Ayto puts it, this phrase "behaves more like a word." Unlike other expressions, the meaning of an idiom is not always easy to tell based on the words used. They are groups of words which mean something different than they appear to mean.

Although they are everyday figures of speech and we use them without thinking, they are almost always figurative. Despite this, we give no thought to them, we know what they mean just as we know what most words mean.

So much of what we say relies on grammatical rules. When speaking, we make choices based on a large number of rules, resulting in an astounding number of different word combinations. Idioms change this. They are pre-constructed (or at least partially pre-constructed) and set, and resist being analyzed by examining their parts.

Some idioms are more limited than other types of expressions in how they can be used. Words cannot be substituted, and tenses cannot be changed, for example, without changing the meaning. An example often given is kick the bucket. You cannot say the bucket was kicked and have it mean the same thing. These are called frozen idioms.

This is not to say that they are always, or even ever, completely unanalysable. Many idioms are at least partially compositional, and certain words can be changed with the idiom still being understood. For example, to "open a can of worms" means to do something that makes things more complicated than they were before, thus giving you more problems than you would have had if you had left things as they were. We can understand the "can of worms" as corresponding to "all the other problems." And "opening" as corresponding to the action that brought about all these other problems. We might even say "open the proverbial can of worms," thus underscoring the metaphor and calling attention to the fact that can of worms means the same things as many problems. So, idioms are not so straightforward and meaningless as many sources lead us to believe.

Idioms are sometimes confused with aphorisms, which are short sayings which convey a general truth, sometimes called proverbs. Just as often, idioms can behave like aphorisms and vice versa. They can also be slang.

Why Have a Site About Idioms?

One reason to have a site about English and American idioms is so that those learning English as a second language can find out what they mean! Idioms are confusing when learning a new language. You can't take them literally, but if you haven't grown up with them, you may not know at all what they mean. This does not mean it is necessary or even preferable to try to memorize the idioms and core metaphors of a language, as you may not come upon most of them very often at all and to make a special case of them in learning a language could well lead you to overproduce them in everyday conversations.

Another reason to have a site about idioms is that they are fascinating in their own right. What if I told you other sites about idioms cut corners? Would you think these sites had no corners? Of course not. You would surmise that I mean these sites were not very informative. What if I told you idioms were a hot button topic? Clearly, I am not talking about a button you can push on this site, let alone a hot one.

I'm not going to give up my day job to write a site on idioms, though.

You do not know if I have a day job, or what it may be, but most readers probably knew what I meant by "not giving up my day job," just as you knew what I meant by cutting corners and hot button. Although some idioms are quite straightforward, for the most part, if you do not understand them automatically, understanding the meaning of each individual word would not always help you arrive at the true meaning.

We take all these expressions for granted, hardly noticing them or sparing a moment to reflect on the fact that the are, by themselves, almost incomprehensible. The more you start paying attention, the more you will notice how much we use them. The next time you watch TV, start listening for idioms. You'll be amazed. They are countless. How do people from other countries ever understand a word we say?

Idioms reflect our shared culture and provide a fascinating glimpse into linguistics. Instead of looking at language as individual words, used according to rules, we realize that language is often constructed by word chunks that we hear as if they are basic units. The fact that idioms exist while ignoring grammar, yet act as basic units of language, may show us that there is much more to language than your stodgy English teacher taught you.

Surely, these cannot be random phrases? They must have a history. So, another reason to have a site about idioms is to try to tease out this history.

How the Site is Organized

The pages on this site are listed in alphabetical order, to the extent possible, using the first letter of the first word of the idiom which is not an article (a, an, the). For example, if you were looking for "penny for your thoughts," you could use the alphabetical index above to go to P where you would find all the idioms on the site which start with P.

The idioms are also cross-referenced by words as well as by theme, when possible. The easiest way to find a particular idiom is to search the site using the search box.

© 2017 by IdiomsOnline.