Definition of Idiom
An idiom is a saying or expression that is widely used among speakers of a certain language and whose figurative meaning is different from its literal meaning. Idioms are found in nearly all languages and cultures, which can make them difficult to understand for non-native speakers as they are unique to their language of origin. This is because the meaning of an idiom doesn’t rely on the literal definition of its words, but rather the figurative context of how the words are used.
Idioms often summarize or reflect cultural experiences that are commonly held, even if the experience is antiquated. In other words, the origin of many idioms is a common occurrence from the past which resulted in a phrase that has continued to be used, though the literal meaning is out of date.
For example, a common idiom found in the English language is “off the hook.” When someone uses the expression that they are off the hook, this means that they are released from some sort of obligation or commitment. This idiom originated in the late 18th century as an allusion to a fish that escapes or is released from a fish hook. The meaning of the expression “off the hook” is not obvious in terms of the literal definitions of its individual words. However, when used in proper context, the figurative meaning of this idiom is clear: When Sally canceled the date, Joey realized that he was off the hook. Joey realized that he was released from his commitment to a date with Sally when she canceled.
Common Examples of Idiom in Everyday Speech
Idioms are an important part of all languages and have a significant presence in communication. Though these phrases as a whole mean something different than the literal meanings of the words they contain, most language experts agree that idioms reflect that human communication is not meant to function on a strictly literal basis.
Here are some common examples of idioms used in everyday speech and their meaning:
- beat the clock (finish something quickly, before a set time)
- ducks in a row (to get organized)
- by the book (do something correctly, follow the rules)
- hit the jackpot (to win or have immediate success)
- draw a blank (unable to remember something)
- chew the fat (tell stories or engage in friendly small talk)
- bat a thousand (to be successful in many ways at once)
- piece of cake (something done easily)
- Night owl (someone who stays up late)
- hit the bricks (to leave)
- give the cold shoulder (to ignore someone)
- fingers crossed (hope for good luck)
- bet the farm (risk everything)
- last straw (final incident before a result occurs)
- a day late and a dollar short (missed opportunity due to lack of timing and effort)
Purpose of Idiom in Writing
As a literary device, idioms are useful to writers as a means of incorporating figurative language in a literary work. Idioms can reveal aspects of a character’s personality as well as add flair to the writing of a narrative. Here are the primary purposes of idioms in writing:
- Maintain reader interest: When writers incorporate idioms into their narratives, the reader must think abstractly rather than literally to understand the meaning of the phrase or expression. This can help maintain the reader’s interest as they must conceptualize the figurative language in order to comprehend the meaning of the idiom. This literary device can also provide visual imagery and context so the reader is more engaged with the writing.
- Convey complex ideas with simple expression: Idioms are often used to convey abstract ideas in a concise way that is easy to understand. This is especially effective if readers are familiar with the meaning of the idiom used as an expression.
- Incorporate humor: As expressions, idioms are often humorous in their descriptive qualities or clever phrasing. In addition, the use of this literary device may be unexpected for readers, which can help a writer effectively incorporate humor in a literary work.
- Establish tone: There are often several idioms associated with expressing ideas that are commonly shared or universal such as death, love, money, etc. Depending on which idiom a writer chooses, the tone of the literary work may change. If a writer chooses an idiom that is more formally worded, this would establish a different tone than if an idiom that is crassly worded is chosen, even though the meaning of these idioms may be nearly identical.
- Indicate a specific geographical region: Idioms are not just endemic to particular languages; they can also be unique to different geographical regions. As a literary device, idioms can be an effective strategy for writers to indicate the setting of a work as well as provide authenticity to characters and dialogue.
Though idioms are useful as a literary device, when used improperly they can be counter-productive and/or distracting in a work of literature. Many idioms are so overused that they become cliché, which can cause a reader to disengage from the material. In addition, if a writer relies too much on idioms for characterization, the reader may become bored or confused. Idiom is most effective if used as a literary device to overcome repetition or dry, literal description. In this way, an idiom can provide clarity and interesting phrasing.
Examples of Idiom in Literature
Idioms reflect the complexity and ingenuity of human expression and communication. Writers often choose to use figurative language and expressions, such as idioms, as literary devices to create images for readers rather than relying on literal words and phrases. This artistic use of language enhances the enjoyment and meaning of a literary work. Here are some examples of idiom used as a literary device in well-known works of literature:
Example 1: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Well, I see I was up a stump – and up it good. Providence had stood by me this fur all right, but I was hard and tight aground now. I see it warn’t a bit of use to try to go ahead – I’d got to throw up my hand. So I says to myself, here’s another place where I got to resk the truth. I opened my mouth to begin; but she grabbed me and hustled me in behind the bed…
In his well-known novel, Mark Twain writes the story almost entirely in the vernacular of the title and supporting characters. This gives the novel a sense of authenticity, humor, and enhances the experience for the reader. However, for those unfamiliar with Huckleberry Finn’s dialect and expressions of the American South, some readers may have difficulty fully understanding certain phrases without heavily relying on the context.
For example, in this passage, Huckleberry Finn narrates that he is “up a stump.” This is an idiom reflecting that Huck is not literally up a stump, but rather he has found himself in a dilemma and challenging situation. Mark Twain’s use of this idiom is effective in that the figurative language conjures an image of physical predicament to underscore Huck’s circumstantial predicament.
Example 2: Everyday Use (Alice Walker)
We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn’t eat collards and pork was unclean. Wangero, though, went on through the chitlins and corn bread, the greens and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs.
“Oh, Mama!” she cried. Then turned to Hakim-a-barber. “I never knew how lovely these benches are. You can feel the rump prints,” she said, running her hands underneath her and along the bench. Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over Grandma Dee’s butter dish. “That’s it!” she said. “I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have.” She jumped up from the table and went over in the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it clabber by now. She looked at the churn and looked at it.
In Walker’s short story, the narrative is a variation of the “prodigal son” parable in which the narrator’s oldest daughter returns to “claim” family heirlooms which she realizes have value. Walker uses the idiom “talked a blue streak” as a literary device to characterize the daughter (Wangero) as a person who believes she knows the history and importance of the family possessions, but in actuality misinterprets their significance. The idiom “talk a blue streak” refers to someone who speaks rapidly, continuously, and at great length. Readers understand that this figurative language suits Wangero’s character well because her primary flaw is that she doesn’t allow herself to listen and learn from others–especially her mother and sister.
Example 3: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
“Sure,” I says. “That’s just the beginning of the treatment. You come back at ten oclock tonight and I’ll give you the rest of it and perform the operation.”
“Operation?” she says.
“It won’t hurt you. You’ve had the same operation before. Ever hear about the hair of the dog?”
She looks at me. “Will it work?” she says.
“Sure it’ll work. If you come back and get it.”
So she drunk whatever it was without batting a eye, and went out. I went up front.
In this scene of his novel, Faulkner utilizes two idioms as literary devices to indicate the dire complexity of a situation to the reader with simple wording. Dewey Dell visits a pharmacy when her family arrives in town, believing that she can buy something to terminate her pregnancy. However, she doesn’t understand the true meaning of the idiom used by the pharmacy employee, MacGowan. When he asks her if she’s heard about “the hair of the dog,” he means having sex–which is the original “operation” that resulted in her pregnancy.
Dewey Dell is so fixated and desperate to end her pregnancy that MacGowan’s true intentions escape her. This is reinforced by the second idiom in the passage: “without batting a eye.” Dewey Dell drinks the “treatment” MacGowan gives her without any hesitation. With the use of simply-worded idioms, Faulkner conveys to the reader Dewey Dell’s suffering as well as MacGowan’s unscrupulous nature and horrific plans.