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Because I’m in the habit of blithely flinging the word idiom about as if everyone should know what I mean by it, this comment from a reader brought me up short:

I guess I don’t know what an idiom is.

The word idiom derives from a Greek word meaning “appropriate to oneself.” In the context of language, an idiom is a usage peculiar to a particular language.

When I use the word idiom, I usually mean one of two things:

1. A construction or usage peculiar to English
For example, in English, we state our age with the verb to be: “I am twenty-one years old.” Speakers of French and Spanish, on the other hand, use their verbs for to have (avoir and tener): “J’ai vingt-et-un ans.” “Tengo vientiuno”—literally, “I have twenty-one years.” These distinctive ways of stating age in different languages are idioms.

2. An expression that means something other than what is expressed by the individual words in it
For example, consider the words kick and bucket. The meaning of to kick is “to thrust out the foot or feet with force.” The meaning of bucket is “a vessel for catching, holding, or carrying liquids or solids.” Kick and bucket may be used with their denoted meanings:

The girl overturned the bucket when she kicked it.
The frustrated farmer kicked the bucket down the hill.

But the idiom “to kick the bucket,” conveys a meaning that has nothing obvious to do with kicking or buckets:

I don’t want to kick the bucket until I’ve seen Rome.

The idiom “to kick the bucket” means “to die.”

The adjective for idiom is idiomatic. When I say that a particular usage as idiomatic, I mean that it “sounds right” in English. For example, here are two examples of unidiomatic English from sales letters:

UNIDIOMATIC ENGLISH: I have a huge interest in making business with you.
IDIOMATIC ENGLISH: I’m very interested in doing business with you.

UNIDIOMATIC ENGLISH: On getting an opportunity, I can add value to your content writing solution.
IDIOMATIC ENGLISH: Given the opportunity, I can add value to your site content.

The word idiom is also used with these meanings:

3. The kind of language and grammar used by a particular people at a particular time or place.

So, too, in the expressive language of Wall Street do we find illumination of all that has taken place. For in its idiom is crystallized the wisdom of a hundred years.

4. The style of writing, music, art, etc. that is typical of a particular time or place.

Copland’s music was infused with the folk and jazz idioms of America.

Related post:
Idiomatic English

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6 thoughts on “Idiom”

  1. As I learned at an early stage in my career, the use of idioms is the most difficult part of teaching ESL students, especially the expressions followed by a preposition. For example: to “start up” and to “give it up” have nothing to do with upward motion. The only way to explain is that they’re idiomatic.

  2. I heard this story years ago. Not sure whether it’s true:
    A new to English Asian man was working in a factory. When a fanbelt snapped and started spinning dangerously, he was told to ‘hang on’ (wait) but instead he tried to ‘hang on’ literally and lost both of his hands.

    While watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit one night, a linguistics expert was explaining to the officers how she knew a letter had been written by a British English speaker because the letter ‘s’ had been added to the word ‘toward’. She then explained that Americans don’t add the ‘s’ because they use the subjunctive mood more often than the British do. I remember thinking that their linguistics expert seemed like a bit of a dud. LOL.

  3. @Lee Brooks: As to your second comment: It’s stupid TV writing trying to come up with a clever notion– and not being able to (which is neatly demonstrative.) While the S ending on things like towards, backwards, aways, are more common in British than in American English they are certainly not unique to it and by no means diagnostic. And what it would have to do with the subjunctive mood is mysterious. A better example would have been someone writing round as in “The house is round the corner” instead of “around” which is something Brits usually say/write and Americans rarely do. In the past obvious markers for a non-American would have been using Ss instead of Z in words like *realize*; superfluous Us in words like *color*, misplaced Cs in words like *defense*, and lesdyxic REs in words like *center*. But now(a)days spelling is just so bad, it’s hard to tell anything like that with confidence.

  4. Hi, Roberta. I agree, it sounds like an urban legend.

    Hi, Venqax. We Australians have our own version of standard English, but it’s basically British English with a bit of our Aussie lingo thrown in. I like the serial comma, but it’s out of favour here. And as for the use of a colon after a salutation – never! I find the differences between American and British usage fascinating.

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