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Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech

An idiom (Latin: idioma , “special property”, f. Greek: ἰδίωμα - idiōma

, “special feature, special phrasing”, f. Greek: ἴδιος - idios

, “one’s own”) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate to the literal or definition of the words of which it is made.[1] There are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic-like expressions in American English.[2]

In linguistics, idioms are usually presumed to be figures of speech contradicting the principle of compositionality; yet the matter remains debated. John Saeed defines an “idiom” as words collocated that became affixed to each other until metamorphosing into a fossilized term.[3] This collocation — words commonly used in a group — redefines each component word in the word-group and become an idiomatic expression. The words develop a specialized meaning as an entity, as an idiom. Moreover, an idiom is an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply. When a speaker uses an idiom, the listener might mistake its actual meaning, if he or she has not heard this figure of speech before.[4] Idioms usually do not translate well; in some cases, when an idiom is translated into another language, either its meaning is changed or it is meaningless.


In the English expression to kick the bucket, a listener knowing only the meanings of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's true meaning: to die. (to pass away would be regarded as euphemistic). For example, you could use this phrase in the sentence: "I'm afraid my grandmother has 'kicked the bucket'." Although many may not know it, this simple phrase refers to your grandmother dying, or rather, she has just died. Although this idiomatic phrase can, in fact, actually refer to kicking a bucket, native speakers of English rarely use it so. It cannot be translated to other languages – the same expression in Polish is kopnąć w kalendarz (“to kick the calendar”), with “calendar” detached from its usual meaning, just like “bucket” in the English phrase. In Dutch the phrase is het loodje leggen (“to lay the piece of lead”). In Finnish the phrase is heittää lusikka nurkkaan (“to throw the spoon to the corner”).

Another idiomatic use is a word having several meanings, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes discerned from the context of its usage. This is seen in the (mostly un-inflected) English language in polysemes, the common use of the same word for an activity, for those engaged in it, for the product used, for the place, or time of an activity, and sometimes for a verb.

Idioms tend to confuse those unfamiliar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions as vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but are assimilated, so losing their figurative senses.

Idioms and culture[]

An idiom is generally a colloquial metaphor — a term requiring some foundational knowledge, information, or experience, to use only within a culture, where conversational parties must possess common cultural references. Therefore, idioms are not considered part of the language, but part of the culture. As culture typically is localized, idioms often are useless beyond their local context; nevertheless, some idioms can be more universal than others, can be easily translated, and the metaphoric meaning can be deduced.

As defined by The New International Webster’s Collage Dictionary, an idiom is an expression not readily analyzable from its grammatical construction or from the meaning of its component parts. It is the part of the distinctive form or construction of a particular language that has a specific form or style present only in that language.Template:Uncited quote Random House Webster’s Collage Dictionary seems to agree with this definition, even expanding it further, stating that an idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.Template:Uncited quote Thus as an expression peculiar to a language, the expression of an idiom in and of itself is peculiar.

Unlike many other aspects of language, an idiom does not readily change as time passes. Some idioms gain and lose favor in popular culture, but they rarely have any actual shift in their construction. People also have a natural tendency to over exaggerate what they mean sometimes, also giving birth to new idioms by accident.

Many idiomatic expressions are based upon conceptual metaphors such as "time as a substance", "time as a path", "love as war", and "up is more"; the metaphor is essential, not the idioms. For example, "spend time", "battle of the sexes", and "back in the day" are idiomatic and based upon essential metaphors. These "deep metaphors" and their relationship to human cognition are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (1980).

In forms such as "profits are up", the metaphor is carried by "up" itself. The phrase "profits are up" is not an idiom; anything measurable can supplant "profits": "crime is up", "satisfaction is up", "complaints are up" et cetera. Essential idioms generally involve prepositions, e.g. "out of" and "turn into".

Likewise, many Chinese characters are idiomatic constructs, as their meanings often not traceable to a literal (pictographic) meaning of their radicals. Because characters are composed from a small base of some 214 radicals, their assembled meanings follow different interpretation modes – from the pictographic to the metaphoric to those that have lost their original meanings.

See also[]



  1. The Oxford Companion to the English Language(1992) pp.495–96.
  2. Jackendoff, R. (1997). The architecture of the language faculty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  3. Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 60.
  4. Saeed, John I. (2003), Semantics. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

External links[]


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