What are idioms and how do we use them?

Alexandra Hicks
Every dialect has its own unique idioms, or phrases, which often can’t be translated into any other language. It’s one of the many ways we personalise communication amongst ourselves.

Every dialect has its own unique idioms—phrases which often can’t be translated into any other language. It’s one of the many ways we personalise communication amongst ourselves. An idiom, technically categorised as “formulaic language”, is a special phrase or expression that has a figurative meaning that is different from its literal meaning. All languages have idioms, and there is an estimated 25,000 total just in English. Typically, they can’t be translated directly, but many other languages will have their own idiom to express a similar thought. For instance, when it’s pouring rain in the United States, one might say it’s “raining cats and dogs”, whereas a Spanish speaker would probably say “está lloviendo a cántaros”.


What are idioms?
As previously mentioned, an idiom is a grammatically unusual sentence. It’s a phrase that deviates from the literal meaning of each individual part of the sentence. When a statement has a literal meaning, each word is taken in its most standard or basic sense. This is not the case with most idiomatic phrases. Most have a figurative meaning, although sometimes one can have a literal meaning with unusual wording, such as “long time, no see”.

Yuqo quotes“Idioms and figurative phrases are integral to the way we communicate with one another.”



What are some of the most common idioms?
Every single country on this Earth has at least one idiomatic phrase. Below are a few common examples of English idioms, and a few from some other popular languages across the globe.


  • A blessing in disguise: Something that seems bad, but turns out good.
  • Break a leg: A way to wish an actor or performer good luck.
  • Under the weather: Refers to feeling mildly sick, like suffering from a common cold.
  • To buy a pig in the poke: Also known as “to buy a cat in the sack” in various European languages, this phrase translates to a shady or suspicious transaction in which the buyer is unaware of the true value of their purchase.



  • Over koetjes en kalfjes praten: Literally, “to talk about little cows and little calves”; figuratively, this expression basically means small talk.
  • Nu komt de aap uit de mouw: Roughly translates to the American idiom “showing your true colours”, referring to when one’s true character comes to the surface.
  • Weten waar Abraham de mosterd haalt: In English, it would be “to know where Abraham gets the mustard from”, which means someone is well-informed on a particular topic.



  • Um den heißen Brei herumreden: This is equivalent to the American idiom “to beat around the bush”, or to be indirect about something. It translates to “to talk around hot porridge”.
  • Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen: Very closely translates to “you can bet your life on that”. They’re actually saying, “you can take poison on that”.
  • Eine Extrawurst verlangen: This phrase is used when Germans feel that someone is asking for special treatment. It translates to “asking for extra sausage”.



  • Ne rien savoir faire de ses dix doigts: This translates to “not knowing how to do anything with one’s ten fingers”. In other words, the person is useless and doesn’t know how to do anything.
  • Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe: This phrase refers to that awkward moment when you arrive somewhere at the most inappropriate time. When translated literally, it reads “to arrive like the hair in a soup”.
  • Appeler un chat un chat: This phrase is almost an exact match for “calling a spade a spade”, just replace “spade” with the word “cat”.



  • Hai voluto la bicicletta? E adesso pedala: This phrase is the same as “you wanted the cake, now you have to eat it”, meaning someone needs to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Tirare il pacco: “To throw the package”, meaning you “flaked” on someone or didn’t show up to a meeting or date.
  • Fare le corna a qualcuno: This very common Italian phrase, which translates to “having the horns put on you”, means you’re being cheated on by your significant other.



  • Tomar el pelo: The English equivalent for this phrase is “to pull someone’s leg” or play a joke on someone by telling them something untrue.
  • Ser pan comido: This phrase is used when something is very easy or “a piece of cake”. The literal translation is “to be bread eaten”.
  • Estar como una cabra: This phrase is used when someone is doing something odd or out of the ordinary. It translates to “to be like a goat”.



  • A-i lipsi o doagă: The exact English translation is “to be missing a stave”. The closest English idiom is “to lose one’s marbles”.
  • Ca măgarul în ceaţă: The literal translation is “like a donkey in the mist”, and it refers to someone who always disappears right when you need them.
  • A tăia frunză la câini: Literal English translation is “to cut leaves for the dogs”, meaning to be lazy or to waste time.



Origins of idiomatic phrases
Many idioms originally had literal, relevant meanings that just don’t apply anymore in this day and age. Take the phrase “spill the beans”, which now means to reveal a secret. This idiom is said to have derived from an ancient method of voting where each voter put a bean in a cup (instead of a ballot into a box). If the cups happened to spill before the final votes were tallied, everyone would be able to see who the winner is. Some experts reject this theory, however.
The earliest recorded modern use of the phrase was in reference to a 1902 horse race, wherein the one who “spilled the beans” was the winning horse that everyone expected to lose (the underdog, another idiom). Five years later, the phrase was adopted by baseball players. Spilling the beans referred to someone who messed up during the game, allowing the other team to catch up and win. The meaning of this term was unrelated to divulging a secret until 1919.
Other idioms, such as “break a leg”, are intentionally figurative. By most standards, breaking a leg would be considered bad luck. In the performing world, it’s believed that wishing someone bad luck is supposed to cause the opposite to occur.


Why do we use idioms?
Idioms and figurative phrases are integral to the way we communicate with one another. In a sense, they’re a form of grammatical trivia, similar to using sarcasm; but it’s much deeper than that. Some experts suggest that our language reflects how complex our minds truly are, indicating that we’re not meant to function on just a logical and literal basis.
The way we speak is artistic in a way and can help bond people of the same culture when there are certain phrases only they understand. It can also help bond individuals of different cultures when they realise they have their own unique phrase for the same expression. In this way, language becomes more than just a way to exchange information; it ties us together in a human and personal way.