What Is An Idiom? Funny Examples

by Liz Bureman | 28 comments

Over the weekend, Joe sent me a link to a blog that talks about how students are apparently saying “all of the sudden” instead of  “all of a sudden”. Is that a thing? It was actually the first time I'd heard of the words in idioms being switched around. In case there was any confusion, “all of the sudden” is incorrect, “all of a sudden” is correct, and whoever created the idiom made it a completely arbitrary decision.

Kick the Bucket Idiom

Fantastic idiom cards by Brooklyn based designer Jeannette Levy

An idiom is a phrase that has a figurative meaning that is completely different than its literal meaning. Common ones in the English languages include “break a leg” to mean “good luck” for stage actors, “it's raining cats and dogs” to describe a torrential downpour, and “kick the bucket” to mean “pass away”.

Wikipedia says there are about 25,000 idioms in the English language. No wonder it's apparently one of the hardest languages to learn.

Other languages have their own idioms as well. In Spanish, their version of “kick the bucket” translates to “to stretch one's leg”, and the Latvian equivalent translates to “to put the spoon down”. In general, idioms don't translate well literally from one language to another, which is why the English set of idioms is so hard to learn: the equivalent phrase translates to something totally different.

An Idiom + Wisdom = A Proverb

Proverbs often are in the form of idioms. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is a challenge to translate literally and still preserve the meaning, although some idioms aren't completely far off from translated meanings. “Waste not, want not” is a good example of an idiom that has a mostly preserved meaning across translations.

Idioms can be used in your prose to establish a character's personality. A character who makes ample use of proverbs might be considered the wise sage of the story. A word of caution though: some idioms border on the side of cliche, so be conservative with excessive idiom usage unless you're looking to go that route.

What do you think the strangest idiom is? Here's a list of common idioms to help.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write about the start of the holiday season, going nuts with idioms. You can use subtle idioms, overt idioms, or whatever kind of idioms feel right for you. Post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

28 Comments

  1. Christine

    I liked this exercise! Here’s my offering:

    You can’t see the forest for the trees, they say – and today you’d be hard put to to make out either with all these angel feathers falling from heaven. But rather than sitting here twiddling my thumbs I’ll make a start at our Christmas cards. Hubby always says it’ll be a hot day in January when I get my Christmas mail out on time; well, this year it’ll be a white-out in November.

    Hey, I could even plan my Christmas shopping list. If I get on the ball I could still beat Black Friday and rescue our local stores from the red a few days sooner. On the other hand, do I want to miss those hot bargains? Sometimes you can really luck out; stores offer some great drawing cards to lure us in. But I guess they must be making a killing in spite of selling some stuff dirt cheap.

    I’ve already planned to pull the wool over hubby’s eyes next week: I’ll tell him I want to hang out at the mall for an hour or so, and when he goes off to do his own thing I’ll slip down the street (literally, in this case) and pick up his gift at the men’s wear store. Maybe kill two birds with one stone and get brother Bill a little something too. Hubby’s such a cynic about my organizational skills but this year I’ll show him. I’ll break all the records; by the middle of December I’ll have all my ducks in a row.

    Reply
    • Susan Anderson

      Forest for the trees is classic. I forgot about, ‘being on the ball’. That’s a good one too. Pull the wool too….clever. I thought we had to come up with our own. I’m just not that smart.

    • Christine

      Seems to me a person can’t come up with their own idioms; they have to be an established part of our language, or generally understood by the masses. I invented “pink fire” and it never got off the ground. Sniff.
      Although TV sitcoms are likely providing us with a constant stream of new ones because millions of people heard the same wise crack on the same show.

    • catmorrell

      This was fun and gave me more idioms to think about.

  2. Gruff Davies

    Actually “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is one of the easier idioms to translate as its meaning is fairly literal. It has counterparts in many languages of varying similarity. French: Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras (one that you have is better than two you will have) Spanish: ¡mejor pájaro en mano que cien volando! (better a bird in the hand than a hundred flying)

    Reply
    • Christine

      Some idioms just don’t translate well. When we lived in Montreal I was looking for a Father’s Day card for my husband. I saw this cute one: “I don’t always have time for doing fun things (drawing of husband and wife strolling side by side), I don’t have time to cook your favourite foods (drawing of husband staring in dismay at this Octopus body plopped on a dinner plate with its eight legs dangling), and a couple more things.

      Then the last page “Et tu ne m’en veux plus.” (And you don’t want me anymore.) Eek! What kind of sentiment is this?

      Later, a friend kindly explained that the idiomatic expression “you don’t want me for it anymore” really translates as “you don’t hold it against me.” Quite a difference!

    • Greg Zeck

      Good one. Those idioms are the last things we learn as new language learners. Why don’t the teachers teach ’em?

  3. Susan Anderson

    Our grocery store ran out of bonus turkeys, so I had to drive around my elbow to get to my thumb to find my free gobble gobble. For my trouble, the store manager offered a free pumpkin pie, which became gravy on the mashed potatoes and icing on the death by chocolate cake.

    Reply
    • Christine

      Clue me in. How does “drive around my elbow to get to my thumb” translate? I’ve never heard that one.

    • Cyn

      Just means you had to go out of your way or that the route was kinda convoluted.

    • Susan Anderson

      Thanks Cyn. Another one I remembered that Betty would use was, “If I had another brain, it would be lonely.”

    • Susan Anderson

      Well Christine, it isn’t original. My husband had a secretary who was notorious for coming up with funny quips and sayings. Getting around my elbow to get to my thumb simply meant that many situations offered easy solutions, but no, she ended up taking the long route or learning a lesson the hard way.

  4. Cyn

    My Mexican high schoolers, back when I was still teaching, would say, “No me tomes el pelo,” which translates to: “Don’t pull my hair.” But it also means the same thing that “Don’t pull my leg” does here. I could translate it based on my Spanish classes from ‘way back, but I was puzzled by it, ’til someone explained it to me.

    Reply
    • Susan Anderson

      Pulling my leg makes as much sense as pulling my hair. Ha, Ha.
      So funny what we do with language. I guess that’s why a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence.

    • catmorrell

      Perfect example of changes in language. Makes you wonder about the connection and who first started using these sayings.

    • Greg Zeck

      Maybe the change was, at first, a mistake. And was taken as clever by those who heard it — and, so, caught on? Just as what we now call “dead metaphors” (fresh as a breeze, smart as a whip) were, originally, well, original!

  5. The Cody

    There was an old Looney Tunes cartoon that dealt with idioms…. Unfortunately, no one I know has ever seen or heard of it. It went something like this:

    Someone from another world (maybe it was death?) approaches a guy, who tells him about his life. As it’s conversational, the guy naturally uses idioms, but the cartoon is done from death’s POV, who takes everything literally. It’s very cute and has stuck with me to this day, even though I was like 8 when I saw it.

    OK not really sure about the point of this comment, LOL. Just figured I’d share. But if any of you remember that cartoon, let me know so I’m not crazy! 🙂

    Reply
    • The Cody

      OMG!!!!! Yes that’s it!!! And it’s just as fun as I remember.

      Wow you just made my week 🙂 Thanks so much!

    • catmorrell

      It’s the cats meow. You are welcome.

    • Joe Bunting

      That’s awesome.

  6. Rachel Miller

    I was once translating for an American friend in a Russian church. He said, “Do you say…..in Russian?” So I said, “Do you say…..in Russian?” (in Russian of course.) Everyone nodded. He looked at me and said, “Do they say it?” I replied, “Yes, they do.” He said, “Well, what do they say?” My response, “What you said.” But he asked them again, “Do you say….in Russian?” So once again I said, “Do you say….in Russian?” This went on and on for at least ten minutes until finally his wife, who was sitting on the front row, said, “Honey, they say the same thing we do!” He was expecting the Russian idiom to be different, when in actuality it was the same. So round and round we went! 🙂 Another friend was translating for a preacher who go up and said, “Today we’re going to talk about two ships: fellowship and worship.” He should’ve just quit right there! 🙂

    Reply
  7. Greg Zeck

    Teaching college English, back in the day, I would run across idioms run amuck, if not by insertion of an errant article then by mishearing of the correct idiom. Students would write, for example, “It’s a doggy-dog world”! And I would note on their papers, “It certainly is. Woof!”

    Reply
    • catmorrell

      Too funny and I think I like the new idiom better.

    • Greg Zeck

      Then feel free to use it. It sounds original, no?

  8. Barbara Budan

    All of the sudden, I heard a great crash.

    All of the sudden I realize I’ve been stating this idiom incorrectly my entire English speaking life.

    A bit like using basketsfull or basketfulls?

    Reply
  9. Winnie

    Is there a dictionary of muddled idioms? If not, someone please start compiling one!

    Reply
  10. crd

    English isn’t a hard language at all! I’m even tutoring myself to learn German because they have the same roots.

    The use of idioms sure are difficult for foreigners to grasp, but the premise is the same for any other language.

    When it comes to idiom, I believe experience is the only way. You can’t open a page on the web with a list of them and just ‘learn’, you have to hear them in context, go by trial and error.

    Funny thing is, we have one similar about the birds: “Better one bird in your hands than two flying.” It also got a different meaning due to a rock band in the 90’s when they changed ‘bird’ for ‘breasts’, but still…

    I never went to any special school to learn the language (I’m from Brazil), and I feel confident to say that I dominate English as far as conversation goes. I’m not a specialist, I can’t even teach English (I don’t have the grasp on gramatical rules and stuff), but I’m sure could pass as an American under anyone’s scrutiny.

    I even think in English most of the time when thinking dialogues to my characters! Since it is a kind of Medieval setting, English sounds best suited in my opinion.

    I’m sorry if this comment isn’t pertinent. I read ‘The Write Practice’ every single day and got a good amount of ideas from here, but rarely comment.

    (I cut/paste this answer a couple of times before having the courage to go ahead.)

    Reply

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