Idioms are expressions whose meanings are figurative and different from the literal meanings of the words within them. For example, the idiom “It costs an arm and a leg” means that something is very expensive. The literal meaning (that something has to be paid for with body parts) isn’t typically considered. English language learners may have a difficult time understanding idioms, since their figurative meaning is often unclear.
Idioms are widely used in literature. They can make writing more colorful and interesting. Take, for example, this passage from the novella Tristan by Thomas Mann: “If you flatter yourself that you’ve put any fancy notions into my wife’s head, then you’re barking up the wrong tree, my fine friend! My wife has too much common sense!” Here the idiom barking up the wrong tree is a lively way to say mistaken, and adds energy to the dialogue.
William Shakespeare is credited with the creation of many common English idioms. In the play Macbeth, he wrote: “If th’ assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease, success: that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here.” Today, the be-all and end-all is widely used to mean the central and all-important part.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare uses the now well-known idiom to kill with kindness. He wrote: “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, / And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.” To kill with kindness means to overdo one’s efforts to be kind.
Why Use Idioms?
While idioms are more common in spoken language, they frequently show up in books and writing. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, Gatsby says that Daisy’s “voice is full of money.” He doesn’t mean that she has money inside her mouth. Instead, he means it’s obvious to anyone who hears her speak that she’s rich. The use of this idiom adds a playful element to the conversation. It’s much more interesting and uncommon to hear that someone’s voice is made of money than to hear that someone is wealthy. By using a figure of speech, the dialogue in the book can also sound more like everyday conversation.
Another use for idioms is to sum up a complicated situation in a few words. Many idioms, like “up a creek without a paddle,” can imply the consequences of a situation without explaining unimportant details. “Up a creek without a paddle” means that someone is in deep trouble and that it’ll be difficult for them to solve their problem.