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An idiom (/ɪdɪəm/), also known as an idiomatic expression (/ɪdɪəmætɪk ekspreʃən/), is a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from a literal understanding of the words involved and which cannot always be translated word for word into another language. As they involve whole phrases, not even the context is enough. They should not be confused with proverbs, which the author of this page has.

Instead, the whole phrase has a fossilised figurative meaning, a "figure of speech", that is understood only by those who have previously learned its meaning. Consequently they can be quite difficult, not to say impossible, for non-native speakers.

For instance, many sporting terms, from baseball or cricket, can be completely opaque for students; even native speakers may be confused unless they have a good working knowledge of the sport in question.

British newspapers are fond of using such expressions to make puns in their headlines - a habit sure to confuse the unwary.

i. Idioms can be very formal or very informal:

  • It’s raining cats and dogs!
  • To whom it may concern;
  • She was over the moon at the news!;
  • We’ll have to throw in the towel;
  • He just wanted to be a sleeping partner;
  • One for the pot;
  • Let’s have a quick one / have one for the road;
  • His name rings a bell!

They can be mythological/Biblical, literary, military, nautical, or sporting, etc., in origin and many come directly or indirectly from Ancient Greek or Latin:

  • We have to find his Achilles heel;
  • It’s in the lap of the gods;
  • The die is cast = jacta alea est;

ii. Idiomatic proverbs or proverbial idioms provide a special challenge to learners.

iii. clichés and omissible phrases are expressions which some people may consider “irritating” because they are used too often:

  • Better late than never!;
  • Easier said than done!;
  • All things considered,...;
  • As a matter of fact,...;

For teachers who are interested in creating themed lists of idioms in class, a list of idioms associated with a particular subject can be created by using The free dictionary.

See also[edit]