An idiom is a phrase or sentence which should be taken figuratively, rather than literally. Whilst the literal meaning of a sentence would not make sense in the context in which it was used, many listeners or readers are familiar with the most common idioms and therefore understand the intended meaning. Some idioms may seem to be very obscure, but it is often possible to discern the figurative meaning by considering the context in which the phrase is being used. However, when these idioms are taken out of context, it can be very hard for people to work out what they mean. Whilst it is very clear where some idiomatic phrases have originated from, other idioms are less easy to understand, but they are still used because they have become so commonplace that most native speakers can understand their meaning with ease. Idioms can be a couple of words long and used as part of another sentence, or they can be a whole sentence in themselves. In some cases, idioms which are a whole sentence long may also be considered to be proverbs.
Examples of Common English Language Idioms
“A bitter pill” – A piece of information which is disagreeable but must be accepted.
“At the drop of a hat” – Instantly and without any hesitation.
“Beat about the bush” – To discuss a topic at length without discussing the main points or difficult aspects.
“Bite off more than one can chew” – To take on more responsibility that one can handle successfully.
“By the skin of one’s teeth” – to only just achieve something or to narrowly avoid disaster.
“Cut the mustard” – to meet the required expectations.
“Have eye’s in the back of one’s head” – to be aware of events which are not happening in front of you.
“Pop one’s clogs” – Die.
“Piece of cake” – A task which is easy.
“Pull someone’s leg” – To tease someone mildly or to tell a joke.
“Put the cat among the pigeons” – To cause trouble or to create a disturbance.
“Raining cats and dogs” – Raining very heavily.
“Spill the beans” – to reveal a secret to someone.
“Take the biscuit” – for something to be particularly bad.
“Through thick and thin” – In good times and in bad times.
“Under the weather” – To feel sick or unwell.
“When pigs fly”- Used to express that something will never happen.
“Water under the bridge” – meaning that something which happened in the past is no longer significant.
Lost in translation
Understanding idioms can be one of the most difficult parts of the English Language for foreign language learners. Whilst many different languages use idiomatic phrases in speech and literature, there are thought to be about 25,000 different idioms in the English language. Although the learner may understand all of the individual words in the sentence, when they read the sentence out in full, it may not seem to make any sense at all! English speakers should not make the mistake of trying to directly translate their idioms into foreign languages either, because idioms are not the same in every language. For example, there are lots of different idioms which refer to death or dying, but most of these phrases do not translate directly from one language to another.
Kicking the Bucket
Here is a selection of foreign language alternatives which mean the same as “to kick the bucket” (to die) does in English:
Danish: To take off the clogs (“at stille trᴂskoene”)
French: To eat dandelions by the root (“manger des pissenlits par la racine”)
German: Look at the radishes from underneath (“sich die Radieschen von unten ansehen”)
Romanian: To turn the corner (“a da colṭul”)
Russian: To give the oak (дать дуба)
Swedish: Take the Sign Down (“ta ner skylten”)
Tlingit: To take one’s basket into the woods (“dákde kákw aawayaa”)
Urdu: The whole elephant was out, but his tail remained trapped (Haathi Nikal Gaya Dum Phans gai)
Some of these may seem easier to guess the meaning of than others. If you think about eating plants or looking at plants from underneath, it is easy to make the logical assumption that the subject of the sentence is underground and is therefore dead. However, other phrases are much harder to understand. Although the true origin of many of these phrases is less clear, linguists can often provide plausible explanations. It is thought that “kick the bucket” may come from the fact that people who were executed by hanging often stood on an upturned bucket whilst the noose was being prepared. Once the bucket was kicked away, the victim would be hanged to death.
Some More Examples of Foreign Idioms
Danish: To Polar bear = to pace up and down (“Ijsberen”)
Estonian: To make an elephant out of a gnat = to make a lot out of a minor issue (“Sääsest elevanti tegema”)
Finnish: To pace around hot porridge like a cat = To talk at length without coming to the real point (“kiertää kuin kissa kuumaa puuroa”)
French: To pedal in the sauerkraut = to go nowhere (“pédaler dans la choucroute”)
German: Dancing on the edge of a volcano = live dangerously (“Tanz auf dem Vulkan”)
Hindi: To excrete hot embers = to be very angry
Gaelic: Like a jackdaw among peacocks = to feel awkward because you are in a unfamiliar situation (“tá si mar a bheadh cág I measc péacóg”)
Italian: To have one’s eyes lined with ham = to be unable to see what’s in front of you (“avere gil occhi foderatidi prosciutto”)
Japanese: Even monkeys fall from trees = even experts can get it wrong (猿も木から落ちる)
Russian: To hang noodles on one’s ears = to tell lies or talk nonsense (Вешать лапшу на уши)
Spanish: Not to have hairs on your tongue = to tell it like it is (“no tenér pelos enla lengua”)
Tibetan: To put up a beer tent = to get married (“chang sa rgyag”)
Turkish: His nose is up in the air = He is conceited (“Burnu havada”)
Welsh: On the back of his white horse = full of mischief (“ar gefn ei geffyl gwyn”)