What are idioms and should you use them in your writing? The Cambridge Dictionary definition of idioms is ‘a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own’. In other words, an idiom is a word or phrase which means something different from its literal meaning.
Idioms are untranslatable
Because you can’t work out the meaning of idioms from the meaning of their individual words, idioms are virtually untranslatable. For example, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ would mean something completely different if it was translated literally.
Should you use idioms in your writing?
Unlike clichés (overused phrases which I think should be avoided) there may be a place for the occasional idiom in your writing but they should be used sparingly. If you are writing for an audience whose first language is not English, it is better to avoid them altogether because they are less likely to be familiar with our English idioms. However, it is always preferable to use your own words rather than rely on overworked phrases dreamed up by some one else even if it was Shakespeare (see ‘be-all and end-all’ and ‘a wild goose chase’ below).
How to spot idioms
I am guessing that most people will recognise idioms but just in case, here are a few examples (inspiration taken from Kicking the Bucket at the Drop of a Hat by Caroline Taggart) together with their origin and meaning:
This idiom was originally a gambling term which referred to gamblers keeping their hands above the board (table) so as other people could see what they were doing and not get up to any tricks (specifically in card games). We now use it to mean honest, in the open, fair or unequivocal.
The be-all and end-all
This idiom was coined by William Shakespeare and first appeared in Macbeth (1606). The words are spoken by Macbeth when he is contemplating murdering King Duncan of Scotland. He hopes that “this blow might be the be-all and end-all” meaning that he would not have to do anything else to become King. We now use it to mean a person or thing considered to be perfect and beyond improvement.
This is of Viking/Norse origin. A berserker was a norse warrior of great strength and courage who fought with wild ferocity. There are two suggested origins of the word berserk. One theory is that it is derived from ‘bear sark’ or bear coat and that warriors took on the spirit of bears. The other theory is that it is derived form ‘bare sark’ meaning that warriors showed their bravery by going into battle with their jackets open (just a bare shirt). We now use it to mean to go crazy or to behave in a violent manner.
Wild goose chase
This idiom can again be attributed to William Shakespeare. The first recorded occurrence of this phrase is in Romeo and Juliet (c1595). One theory about the origin of this phrase is that in Shakespeare’s time a ‘wild goose chase’ was a chase in which a lead horse and rider would be pursued by other riders in a formation similar to the formation of wild geese. We now use it to mean doing or pursuing something that is doomed to failure or is pointless or unattainable.
In the limelight
In the 19th century and before the days of electricity, limelight (a very bright white light created by heating lime) was used in theatres and music halls. Prior to this, theatres were typically lit by gas lights which were dim and dangerous. However, with the introduction of limelight, actors found themselves the centre of attention by being ‘in the limelight’ – hence the meaning of the phrase today.