[ id-ee-uhm ]
/ ˈɪd i əm /
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See synonyms for: idiom / idioms on Thesaurus.com

an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one's head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.
a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people.
a construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language.
the peculiar character or genius of a language.
a distinct style or character, in music, art, etc.: the idiom of Bach.


Can You Correct These Idioms?

Have you ever heard the idiom it’s a doggie-dog world? Well that’s not the correct phrase. It’s actually dog-eat-dog world. Can you correct these other common idioms?

There's an ocean of difference between the way people speak English in the US vs. the UK. Are your language skills up to the task of telling the difference? Let's find out!
Question 1 of 7
True or false? British English and American English are only different when it comes to slang words.

Origin of idiom

First recorded in 1565–75; from Latin idiōma, from Greek idíōma “peculiarity, specific property,” equivalent to idiō- (variant stem of idioûsthai “to make one's own, appropriate,” verbal derivative of idiós;see idio-) + -ma noun suffix of result

synonym study for idiom

1. See phrase.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does idiom mean?

An idiom is a term whose meaning cannot be determined from the literal meanings of the words it is made of.

Many idioms are figurative—they’re intended to create an image, association, or other effect in the mind of the listener or reader that goes beyond the literal meaning or expected use of the words involved.

It is raining cats and dogs is a common English idiom. Literally, that sentence would mean animals are falling from the clouds. What the idiom actually means is that it is raining very heavily.

Here are some more examples of common English idioms:

Many phrasal verbs are idioms since they include a word (often a preposition) whose literal meaning doesn’t apply. Some examples are take off (like an airplane), give out (meaning to distribute), and open up (which means the same thing as open). Sometimes, two different phrasal verbs can mean the same thing even when their prepositions are usually opposites. For example, lock up and lock down can both mean to secure a place by locking the doors and similar actions.

Idioms are common in most languages. Over time, native speakers of a language learn many idioms that they use without thinking about them. Because their meanings can’t be figured out from their parts, idioms can be very difficult for nonnative speakers to understand.

The adjective form of idiom is idiomatic. For example, break a leg is an idiomatic expression that means “good luck.”

Why is idiom important?

The first records of the term idiom come from the 1560s. It ultimately comes from the Greek idíōma, meaning “peculiarity” or “specific property.” Idioms exist in even the most ancient languages.

Idioms are a type of figure of speech. Metaphors and similes are also figures of speech. We use figures of speech all the time, even if we don’t even realize it, and for good reason. They allow us to express ideas in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Idioms make language more colorful and interesting, but they can also make it harder to understand.

Did you know ... ?

The word idiom can also be used in a more general way to refer to a language, dialect, or style of speaking that’s specific to a particular group of people.

What are real-life examples of idioms?

Here are some examples of common English idioms and their meanings:

  • Bite the bullet: complete an undesirable task
  • Blessing in disguise: a good thing that seemed bad at first
  • To make a long story short: to summarize
  • Get bent out of shape: to become upset
  • Cross that bridge when we come to it: handle a problem when it arises
  • Your guess is as good as mine: I don’t know
  • Costs an arm and a leg: costs a lot of money

People use idioms every day and often enjoy learning new ones.


Quiz yourself!

True or False?

An idiom is an expression that literally says what it means.

How to use idiom in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for idiom

/ (ˈɪdɪəm) /

a group of words whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the constituent words, as for example (It was raining) cats and dogs
linguistic usage that is grammatical and natural to native speakers of a language
the characteristic vocabulary or usage of a specific human group or subject
the characteristic artistic style of an individual, school, period, etc

Derived forms of idiom

idiomatic (ˌɪdɪəˈmætɪk) or idiomatical, adjectiveidiomatically, adverbidiomaticalness, noun

Word Origin for idiom

C16: from Latin idiōma peculiarity of language, from Greek; see idio-
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for idiom


A traditional way of saying something. Often an idiom, such as “under the weather,” does not seem to make sense if taken literally. Someone unfamiliar with English idioms would probably not understand that to be “under the weather” is to be sick. (See examples under “Idioms.”)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.