An idiom is a short expression that is peculiar to a language, people, or place that conveys a figurative meaning without a literal interpretation of the words used in the phrase.

History of Idioms

“Idiom” comes from Late Latin Idioma, which means “a peculiarity in language.” In French, idiome means a “form of speech peculiar to a people or place,” and by the 1620s, idiom also meant a “phrase or expression peculiar to a language.” Idioms are “set phrases,” in that they only make sense if they are used exactly. For instance, instead of saying “it’s up in the air” to indicate uncertainty of a plan still needing to be settled, a person said, “it’s up in the bowl,” no one would know what the person is talking about. Writers will use idioms to intensify an image, express an idea, or approximate everyday speech.

Examples of idioms

  • Dime a dozen
  • Fit as a fiddle
  • Piece of cake
  • Passed away
  • Break a leg!
  • Once in a blue moon
  • Jump through hoops
  • Kick the bucket
  • Bite the dust
  • Lie low
  • Red tape

The majority of idioms are said to originate from literal meanings and with time became more figurative. For instance, “red tape” describes a series of excessive bureaucratic regulations. The expression comes from a time in England when the government used red ribbon to bind bureaucratic and legal documents together. The expression “red tape” is still in use despite the fact that England no longer does this red ribbon binding.

An important note is that an idiom is not to be confused with a euphemism. Euphemisms are idioms specifically used to discuss taboo or sensitive content that would be considered too offensive, or harsh to say otherwise.

Examples of Idioms in Literature

William Shakespeare used idioms as a literary device in multiple works, including “Othello, Act III, Scene III [O, beware, my lord, of jealousy],” where jealousy is personified as the “green-eyed monster.” George Santayana’s “Sonnet XLIV [For Thee the Sun Doth Daily Rise, and Set]” uses “heart of gold” to convey a woman’s virtuousness. Since Shakespeare, other poets have also used “lie low” to describe keeping quiet in their poems, such as Herman Melville with his poems “Shiloh: A Requiem” and “The Armies of the Wilderness,” and A.R. Ammons in “The City Limits,” and “The Swimmer” by John Crowe Ransom