According to the Wikipedia, an idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase; but some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom’s figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. In other words, idioms are weird sayings that make sense to native language speakers, but really make no sense to others. Idioms occur frequently in all languages; in English alone there are an estimated twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions.
Here are some of my favorite idioms:
1. Hit the hay. (Seems violent!)
2. It takes two to tango. (Yes, but you can tap dance alone.)
3. Piece of cake. (Delicious.)
4. Costs an arm and a leg. (Amputation is expensive.)
5. Let the cat out of the bag. (Actually, they really like it in there.)
6. Barking up the wrong tree. (Was it maple and should have been oak?)
7. Buttering them up. (Mmm … butter.)
8. Riding shotgun. (In America, it actually doesn’t matter where you are sitting.)
9. Rule of thumb. (see below)
10. Blow off steam. (Choooo! Choooo!)
In essence, idioms are expressions that are both cliched and strange, but the society had deemed to be acceptable. There is no use to look at them logically — a native speaker of English learns them in the crib. Immigrants like me, however, find them baffling and illogical. Yes, looking at the list, of course some of them make sense. But they are not a natural leap for my mind to make. I can only assume that number 9 has its origins in everyone having the exact same thumb, except my thumbs are so odd that it would never work for me. For me, it would be “rule of short, stubby thumb with a small crescent moon thumbnail.”
I left the Soviet Union at age 12. There aren’t a lot of idioms I actually remember, because children don’t usually use them. And, there are a few I do remember, and still use.
For example, Russians say, “On one tooth,” meaning it was such a tiny portion of food, only one tooth had the pleasure of eating it. Or, if sleep doesn’t come, people say, “Not in either eye,” meaning that neither eye is drooping with tired with sleepiness. Or, another one is, “Raspberry has run out.” Raspberry is, traditionally, the sweetest of fruits, so when something really good ends, it’s as if the sweetness of life has been taken away.
I would love to hear some of your favorite idioms — from English, Russian, or other languages. So tag me, or drop me a line.