Updated: Jun 19, 2021
An Introduction to English Idioms
Learning idiomatic English - that is popular sayings which directly translated often seem to make little sense in the context they are used - is not easy. There are thousands of them! But idioms are often funny - and fun! Here is an introduction to the crazy world of English idioms.
Several years ago, while working in my first job as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Turkey, the headteacher, Mr Abdullah, used to delight in collaring me whenever it rained heavily so that he could use his one phrase of English. You've guessed it!
"It's raining cats and dogs!".
He showed his delight at this crazy expression by guffawing loudly and repeating it to whichever teachers or pupils were within earshot. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it wasn't one I used or one I heard many people use these days.
Of course, it means that it’s raining very heavily. Its origins are obscure.
Using idioms and colloquial phrases is so much part of the English language. We use them naturally, without thinking. In fact, I used one in the paragraph above! Mr Abdullah used to collar me. To collar someone can mean either:
e.g. I was collared by Mr Abdullah as I was coming out of the classroom this morning.
Obviously, the way I used it was as in example 1 above – Mr Abdullah wanted to stop me so that he could make his joke. I wasn’t escaping anywhere – although maybe I should have done!
So what is an idiom? An idiom is a commonly used expression whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of its words.
The longer I have worked abroad, the more I have come to hesitate before using an idiom or colloquial phrase with non-native English-speaking friends and colleagues, even those whose English is pretty fluent. All too often, the expression goes right over their heads (there's another everyday expression which just came naturally– over their heads!).
If something goes over someone's head it means they don't understand it - they miss the meaning. A similar idiom is to be in over your head which means you are attempting or involved in something too complicated for you.
Of course you could have your head in the clouds.
Which would mean that you are being absentminded or impractical, perhaps daydreaming or not aware of what is going on.
Still, maybe having your head in the clouds is better than ....
... burying or having your head in the sand!
Which suggests that you are unwilling to recognise or acknowledge a problem.
Far better that you're ....
.... which simply means that you're very happy about something. Good for you!
Which is very similar to being where this man is ...
He's over the moon about something. Which means he's very happy, he's thrilled, delighted. Maybe he just got promotion at work!
I compiled a collection of common English Idioms and Colloquialisms many years ago when I worked in Italy and was invited to do a seminar at a private language school for Italian State Teachers. The brief was to do a fun but useful session - and that is what it proved to be! I have since used the collection with teenage and adult students and non-native English teachers as a basis for creating role-play. The performances have frequently been hilarious!
But, although they might have been funny, they have demonstrated to me just how difficult it is to actually teach idioms. That may seem a strange thing to say as I am here writing a blog post about idioms. What I mean is that they are easy enough to explain, but because they are so random and there are no rules or formula, setting aside sessions for teaching them are generally unproductive. Rather they need to be learned when you come across them being used in context.
The reasons for including blog posts about idioms is that, hopefully, having seen them explained, if you come across them while reading, listening or in conversation, they might serve to jog your memory of what they mean. Be careful about using them, until you are confident that you can use them in the write place and context.
It will take time to learn them and to not only understand them, but to use them properly and in the right context. If you think that you can buy a book of idioms, simply memorise them and know when and how to use them proficiently within. a few weeks or months, I'll say to you ...
Sure, and pigs might fly!
"Peter said he'd be here by nine".
"Oh yeah? And pigs might fly. He's always late.'
In my own short book, It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: (available from the shop on my website and on Amazon) I show a small collection of English idioms and Colloquialisms, the idioms and phrases are grouped by situations/contexts in which you might meet them, covering general conversation, expressing feelings and understanding, problems, solutions, relationships and time expressions. I have also indicated whether they are strictly idioms or phrasal verbs (or both). They should prove useful to non-native speakers in making sense of our rich and often funny English language.
But do remember, learning idioms is not ...
When we say something is a 'piece of cake' it means that it is very easy to do. Learning idioms is difficult and definitely not a piece of cake!
I hope you enjoyed this first look at English idioms. Don't be put off by them being difficult to get used to - they are also fun!
More to follow later.
Bye for now,