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Language awareness
Understanding idioms

by Frank Boers

Are idioms arbitrary?
Why idioms mean what they mean
Idioms and culture
Using idioms effectively
Idioms and sound patterns
Word order in idioms
Further reading


Idioms are fixed expressions that are typically used in a figurative sense. For example, in the sentence Exams are part of a carrot and stick method, there are obviously no real carrots and sticks involved. The image is that of a donkey being encouraged to move forward by dangling a carrot in front of it or by hitting it with a stick. We can use this idiom to describe any event that involves more abstract rewards (the carrot) and threats (the stick). All languages are full of idioms, and native speakers use them spontaneously without even thinking about their figurative nature. Language learners generally find idioms hard to understand, and this is not surprising. For example, learners are often not sure what image the idiom is based on. If a native speaker proposes to show you the ropes and you are not familiar with this expression, you might not immediately understand that she is proposing to teach you how to do a certain job. It would help if you knew that the expression was originally used in the context of sailing, where an experienced sailor had to show a novice how to handle the ropes on a boat.


Are idioms arbitrary?

Linguists used to believe that idioms were completely arbitrary: that is, you could not guess their meaning from the words they consist of. Consequently, teachers used to tell their students that the only way to master idioms was to learn them by heart. Fortunately, we now know that many idioms can be explained after all, and so they can be learned in systematic ways. Research tells us that when idioms are presented as non-arbitrary features of language, students find them much easier to understand and remember. In the following sections we will demonstrate the non-arbitrary nature of idioms.


Why idioms mean what they mean

Many idioms are derived from our general physical experiences (we will be looking at this area in more detail in an article about Metaphor later in the Language Awareness series). For example, the expressions hot under the collar, breathe fire, and let off steam all refer to being angry, and they do this through the image of anger as something hot inside us. This makes sense to us, because when people get angry they often get red in the face as a result of rising body temperature. Similarly, the figurative expressions lend someone a hand, try your hand at something, and have your hands tied all use the image of the hand to refer to performing an action. This also makes sense, because we know from everyday experience that most activities involve the use of our hands.

Other idioms are derived from more specific areas of experience (or domains), such as sport, war, or cooking. Some of these domains may no longer be common in present-day life, but if we learn the original context in which the idiom was used and if we understand the image it is based on, we will find it is easier to understand. A helpful way of remembering idioms is to group them according to the domain that they are derived from, as follows:

Idioms derived from sailing:
clear the decks to first finish a job completely
a leading light a good example to follow
be on an even keel to make calm, steady progress

Idioms derived from war:
stick to your guns to refuse to change your opinion
fight a losing battle to be unlikely to succeed
be in the front line to have an important role

Idioms derived from entertainment (the theatre, the circus etc):
behind the scenes in secret
waiting in the wings ready to act when needed
a balancing act a difficult compromise

Which of the three domains shown above would you associate the following idioms with?
   • take something on board
   • close ranks
   • steer clear of someone
   • be centre stage
   • a last-ditch effort
   • the curtain comes down

If you recognize the origin of an idiom, you will often be able to work out its meaning on your own. For instance, the idiom put something on the back burner originates from the domain of cooking, and take a back seat comes from the domain of driving. Once you recognize these connections, it will be easier to understand sentences like these:

•  We put the project on the back burner.
•  The students were working well together, so I decided to take a back seat.


Idioms and culture

In general, idioms that are derived from our physical experiences, such as those that associate anger with heat, show strong similarities across different cultures, and they tend to be fairly easy to understand. This is not surprising, because basic physical experiences (like being hot or cold, sick or well) are shared universally. This does not mean that these idioms can simply be translated word-for-word from one language to another: their precise form and wording will often differ across languages. Nevertheless, the general images are often the same.

On the other hand, idioms that are derived from more specific domains are likely to differ across cultures, even cultures that are closely related. That is because not all domains from which idioms are derived have been equally important in all cultures. For example, English is particularly rich in expressions that are derived from the domain of sailing, and this is hardly surprising when we consider England’s long history as a seafaring nation. Another area where cultures differ is in the popularity of certain games and sports. English has a lot of idioms that are derived from the following domains:

Horse racing:
neck and neck it is hard to say who will win
win hands down to win easily
go off the rails to go wrong, out of control

raise the ante to increase the risk
hedge your bets to not take any risks
pay over the odds to pay too much

Card games:
come up trumps to perform unexpectedly well
follow suit to do the same as others
not miss a trick to not fail a single time

Running contests:
jump the gun to do something too soon
have the inside track to have an advantage
quick off the mark reaching quickly

don’t beat about the bush be direct, get to the point
it’s open season on someone it’s a period to criticize someone
it’s in the bag success is certain


Using idioms effectively

An idiom derived from a ‘playful’ domain like games or sports is more likely to be used in informal discourse than an idiom derived from a more serious domain, such as warfare. For example, score an own goal is likely to occur more often in informal discourse than break ranks.

An idiom typically evokes a scene that is part of a larger scenario. For example, a debate between two politicians can be described as if it were a boxing match, and – because English has many idioms derived from boxing – you can choose particular phrases to highlight a specific stage or aspect of the contest. So, before the actual debate starts, the two politicians may flex their muscles to frighten the opponent; during the debate one of them may carelessly lower his guard or bravely stick his neck out and perhaps take it on the chin; if the debate gets more intense the opponents will not pull their punches; if it seems that they really want to hurt each other, you can say that the gloves are off; and after a while one of them may be on the ropes (=close to defeat) and may finally admit defeat and throw in the towel.


Idioms and sound patterns

The above paragraphs help to explain the meaning and use of idioms, but they do not explain, for example, why we say it takes two to tango rather than 'it takes two to waltz', nor why we say go with the flow rather than 'go with the stream'. Part of the answer lies in sound patterns. For example, up to 20% of English idioms are made up of words that alliterate (=use the same sound at the start of each word) or of words that rhyme. This is a useful fact to know, because alliteration (in idioms such as through thick and thin, spick and span, below the belt, rule the roost, meet your match) and rhyme (in idioms such as an eager beaver, the name of the game, horses for courses, steer clear of) can help you to remember expressions like these. Sound patterns are also at work in many common non-idiomatic expressions, such as compounds (e.g. pickpocket, beer belly); collocations (e.g. tell the truth, wage war); similes (e.g. cool as a cucumber, fit as a fiddle); proverbs (e.g. curiosity killed the cat, where there’s a will there’s a way); and many other phrases (e.g. time will tell, from dawn till dusk).


Word order in idioms

As we have seen, the meanings and the lexical makeup of idioms can often be explained in systematic ways. But what about word order in idioms of the form ‘X and Y’? For example, why do we say give and take rather than ‘take and give’? Here are some of the reasons why English idioms may choose one order of words rather than another:

1 The word order may be the most ‘logical’, given the origin of the idiom. For example, in the expression swallow something hook, line, and sinker, the image is that of a fish that first swallows the bait on the hook of the fishing rod, and then swallows the line, and finally swallows even the sinker (=small heavy object that makes the line sink in the water). In short, the word order reflects the sequence of events in the literal scenario. So, recognition of the literal origin of the expression may help you to make sense of its word order. You may also want to try this with these idioms: crash and burn, cut and dried, and signed and sealed.

2 The word order may be the most ‘natural’, because a flow of information tends to move from general to specific aspects. For example, the word order alive and kicking makes more sense than 'kicking and alive', because kicking implies being alive. The first word creates a frame in which the second appears, as in bread and butter (you first need bread to put the butter on), chapter and verse (you first find the chapter and then the verse in that chapter), and cloak and dagger (you first only see the cloak and then – perhaps too late – the dagger).

3 The word order may sound best, because of its rhythm. English shows a preference for putting the longest word last (e.g. part and parcel, belt and braces, rack and ruin).

4 Finally, the word order may simply be the easiest to say. Compare which of the following pairs requires least movement of your tongue when you say them aloud: it’s raining cats and dogs or 'it’s raining dogs and cats'. You can also try this with blood, sweat, and tears; home and dry; rough and tumble; and, of course, give and take.



It should be clear that idioms are not as arbitrary as we used to think they were. We have shown here several aspects of idiomatic language – especially their source domains and the sound patterns they make – that can help us to tackle idioms in more systematic ways. And when we recognize the systems at work in a language, it becomes easier to understand, learn, and remember things.


Further reading

Suggestions for the teaching of idioms are made in the following articles:

'Means of mass memorization of multiword expressions, part one: the power of sounds’, Humanising Language Teaching 7, S. Lindstromberg and F. Boers (2005)

'Means of mass memorization of multiword expressions, part two: the power of images’, Humanising Language Teaching 8, F. Boers and S. Lindstromberg (2006)

A collection of research papers on the teaching of idioms can be found in the following book:

F. Boers and S. Lindstromberg (eds.) Cognitive Linguistic Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary and Phraseology, (forthcoming – April 2008, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter)


Next in the Language Awareness series – Discourse.