What is an Idiom? Definition, Examples of English Idioms

Idiom definition: An idiom is a figure of speech established by usage that has a meaning not necessarily deductible from those of the individual words.

What is an Idiom?

Idioms are a type of figurative language, which means they are not always meant to be taken literally. Idioms express a particular sentiment, but they do not literally mean what the individual words themselves mean.

An idiom is a saying that is specific to a language. For example, an idiom in English does not translate to an idiom in Spanish.

Idiom Example

  • The grass is always greener on the other side.

what is idiomThis idiom does not literally mean that the “other side” will always have greener grass. There may not even be a literal “other side” to the subject at hand—or grass for that matter.

The meaning of this idiom is that people think the other person, or someone in a different situation, has it better, or easier, than they do.

Popular Idiom Examples

what is a idiom There are thousands of examples of idioms in English alone. Each language has at least an equal amount, so this list is by no means exhaustive.

That said, here are a few common English idioms.

Common English Idioms:

  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    • Origin: The saying has existed for centuries in various forms; main creditor: Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, 1878
    • Meaning: What looks beautiful to one person may not look beautiful to another.
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
    • Origin: Samuel Butler poem, 1663
    • Meaning: Do not count on something before it has come to be.
  • No crying over spilt milk.
    • Origin: unknown
    • Meaning: Do not be upset about something that cannot be changed. OR: Do not be upset about something that is really just a small matter.
  • Curiosity killed the cat.
    • Origin: proverb; Ben Jonson play, 1598
    • Meaning: Being too curious or inquisitive can be dangerous.
  • It’s raining cats and dogs.
    • Origin: unknown
    • Meaning: There is a heavy downpour.
  • Back to the drawing board.
    • Origin: possibly artist Peter Arno, 1941
    • Meaning: Time to start over. We need to start from the beginning.
  • The hay is in the barn.
    • Origin: unknown
    • Meaning: The action is complete. It is finished.
  • A penny for your thoughts.
    • Origin: perhaps English ruler Penda, c. 640
    • Meaning: What are you thinking?
  • Beat around the bush.
    • Origin: Medieval Period
    • Meaning: Someone is avoiding the topic.
  • You can’t judge a book by its cover.
    • Origin: mid-19th century
    • Meaning: Do not assume you know someone or something by how he or it appears.
  • That costs an arm and a leg.
    • Origin: unknown
    • Meaning: That is very expensive.

Idioms Are Not Always Grammatical

idioms examples Since idioms are born out of popular usage, they aren’t always logical, and they don’t always follow traditional grammar patterns.

This is because the phrase itself carries the meaning of the idiom, and not the individual words in the phrase, regardless of each word’s grammatical function.

For example,

  • This is a life-and-death situation.

Something that is life-and-death is extremely important, but that phrase itself is illogical. A situation can’t be ­life and death.

Similarly, a phrase like it’s not you, it’s me is technically ungrammatical.

Idioms Are Not Complete Thoughts

idiom definition for kids As with any phrase, an idiom itself doesn’t create a complete sentence. They require additional context to give them meaning.

For example,

  • beat around the bush

This idiom is not a complete sentence. It’s the idea itself that is the idiom. One might make it into a complete sentence by saying:

  • Don’t beat around the bush.

-OR-

  • He’s beating around the bush.

Summary: What are Idioms?

Define idiom: the definition of idiom is a phrase that has a meaning greater than its constituent parts might suggest.

In summary, an idiom is:

  • a figure of speech
  • a phrase that should not be taken literally
  • used to express a particular sentiment
  • specific to a particular language, group, or region