An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. For example, "it's raining cats and dogs" is a common idiom in English, but it's not meant to be taken literally: Household pets are not falling from the sky! It's a colorful way of saying that it’s raining really hard outside.
Because idioms are such interesting ways to get a point across, they're often seen in literature. In fact, many of the most common idioms we use today were originally coined by great writers as a unique metaphor; then people liked them enough to start using them in everyday conversation. See how many you recognize below.
Idioms From Shakespeare
Shakespeare was a master of using the English language in new ways, and many of the figures of speech we use today come from his plays. Here's a sampling of them:
- Break the ice - This phrase was first used in The Taming of the Shrew. Tranio encourages Petruchio to "break the ice" with Katherine to get to know her, suggesting that he may like her better — and get her to like him. Today this phrase is used to refer to relieving tension or getting to know someone better, usually by making small talk, or a kind gesture to start a new relationship.
- Wear my heart upon my sleeve - This saying was first used in Othello when Iago describes how he would be vulnerable if he revealed his dislike of Othello. In the play, the phrase continues to state that the “daws," or crows, would be able to peck at his heart if he revealed it. Today, people use this phrase to mean that they are showing their real feelings about something.
- Set my teeth on edge - In Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur complains about how much he hates poetry, saying, "And that would set my teeth nothing an edge, nothing so much as mincing poetry." Today the phrase is used to express distaste for something, particularly annoyance, and also discomfort, like the noise of nails dragging on a chalkboard.
- There's method in my madness - In Hamlet, Polonius observes Hamlet's antics and says, " Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." He suspects Hamlet isn't behaving as irrationally as he seems to be on the surface. The phrase has changed slightly, but the meaning is the same: Even though your action seems random, you have a purpose to them.
- Dead as a doornail - Though this phrase is perhaps better known as the opening description of Ebenezer Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, it was previously used by Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Part 2 Jack Cade says “I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” The phrase is still used emphatically, implying that something is so dead it's as if it were never alive in the first place.
- The world is my oyster - In "The Merry Wives Of Windsor," when Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol money Pistol draws his sword and says, "Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Today the phrase is full of optimism rather than violence and is used to say the world is full of possibilities and you can do anything.
Idioms From Other Works of Literature
Many other authors either coined their own idioms or used idioms in their works to great effect. Idioms often help make dialogue more realistic and make clear a character's personality, education or background. Here are more idioms used in famous works of literature:
- I can't do [X] to save my life - This phrase can be traced back to English novelist Anthony Trollope in The Kellys and the O'Kellys. The original version is "If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate." Here the speaker explains that he's so bad at small talk he couldn't do it even to save his life. It’s still used to indicate someone is no good at an activity, often in a self-deprecating way.
- Pot calling the kettle black - This phrase comes from the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Cervantes. It referred to the fact that pots and kettles of the time were made of cast iron and got blackened in the fire and is used to suggest that one shouldn't accuse or criticize another of something they're also guilty of.
- Love is blind - First seen in writing in Chaucer’s TheCanterbury Tales“ - For love is blind all day, and may not see” - this phrase means that true love is not superficial and also captures the idea that love can be unexpected or random.
- Live off the fat of the land - Though a version of this phrase exists in the Book of Genesis, it's perhaps most famously used in John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men. George tells Lenny they'll live off the fat of the land and have rabbits when they make enough money to stop traveling around for work. The phrase means getting the best of everything without having to work hard for it.
- Extend an olive branch - This phrase hearkens back to the Greek myth of Athena who gifted the olive tree to the Athenians and the Biblical story of Noah, when a dove came back bearing an olive branch to show the great flood waters had receded and the animals could safely leave the ark. Today the phrase means to offer peace or a truce after a disagreement.
- Mad as a hatter - This expression is said to refer to the use of mercury to set felt hats which was thought to drive hat makers crazy. Though the expression predates his work, Lewis Carroll created his Mad Hatter character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in reference to this English idiom.
Adding Sparkle and Wit
Great literature has always been filled with idioms to describe characters and settings in vivid, memorable terms. Whether the authors were the first to coin a phrase or were simply making the best use of the language they heard around them, idioms add sparkle and wit to the works in which they are employed. If writers are lucky, their sentiments will be memorable enough to continue being used for hundreds of years.
Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.comments powered by
Famous Examples of Idioms in Literature
By YourDictionaryAn idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. For example, "it's raining cats and dogs" is a common idiom in English, but it's not meant to be taken literally: Household pets are not falling from the sky! It's a colorful way of saying that it’s raining really hard outside.
Idioms exist in every language. An idiom is a word or phrase that is not taken literally, like “bought the farm” has nothing to do with purchasing real estate, but refers to dying. Idiom also refers to a dialect or jargon of a group of people, either in a certain region or a group with common interests, like in science, music, art, or business.
Some idioms are used by most people that speak English; others are used by a more select group.
Common idioms that refer to people include:
- A chip on your shoulder - means you are holding a grudge
- High as a kite - means you are drunk or on drugs
- Sick as a dog - means you are very ill
Idioms that refer to your actions would be:
- Rub someone the wrong way - meaning to annoy or bother
- Jump the gun - would mean to be doing something early
- Pay the piper - means you need to face the consequences of your actions
Some idioms use color words to convey other meanings. For example, there are several that use the word “blue:”
- “The blues” can refer to both a style of music and feeling sad.
- If something occurs rarely, it is said to happen “once in a blue moon”, because a blue moon is two full moons in one month, which doesn’t happen often.
- “Out of the blue” means something happens that was unexpected.
Learning a Language with Idioms
Because of idioms, learning a language can be complicated. After you can conjugate verbs, and know a lot of words, you may still have difficulty speaking the language with native users.
This is partly due to the use of idioms and would also depend of which region of a country you were in. Idiom usage is not just regional, but also varies according to people’s interests and social groups.
The best way to pick up on the meaning of certain idioms would be to converse with people and ask them for a clarification of the idiom if you are not clear about the idiom they used. There are also sites on the Internet which will help explain the meaning of idioms.
Idioms Around the Globe
There are certain things that happen in every culture and there are idioms to deal with them.
- In Norwegian and Czech, “walking around hot porridge” refers to beating around the bush, which is also an idiom meaning not getting to the point.
- If you are in Italy or Turkey and you say you are “as hungry as a wolf” then you are starving.
If it is raining in large amounts, most cultures have an interesting way of saying that:
- In English, it would be “raining cats and dogs”
- In Africa, they might say “it's raining old women with clubs”
- Many languages refer to heavy rain as coming in buckets or as rain coming out of a bucket.
- In Norway they say “it's raining female trolls”
- The Irish say “it's throwing cobblers knives”
Comparing idioms between countries can also be interesting:
- In Finnish, “with long teeth” means you are doing something that you really don’t want to do
- In French, “to have long teeth” means you are ambitious.
The key to understanding the local idioms is to listen carefully and to ask questions of local speakers.
Idioms In the Arts
There are many idioms in the field of music.
- If you “fine tune” something, you make small improvements to it.
- “Changing your tune” means changing your mind.
- If you are “whistling Dixie” or “whistling in the dark” you are overly positive about something.
- If you try and make a decision too early without knowing all the facts, people may tell you that “it’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings.”
Drama and dance have idioms, too, like:
- “Break a leg” means good luck.
- If you are a “ham” you overact.
- If you say, “it takes two to tango” you mean that more than one person is at fault or involved.
- If you “tap dance” your way out of a sticky situation, then that implies that you get out of it in a clever way.
- Being “in the spotlight” means you are the center of attention.
Remember, a group of people with shared interests such as the arts or business will have their own idioms. As with all idioms it will be easier to understand the idioms if you concentrate on what is being said and ask questions about the meanings of the idioms.
For even more idioms browse our idioms dictionary at http://idioms.yourdictionary.com/