An idiom is a phrase that can’t be understood just by looking at the individual meanings of the words in the phrase. Idioms are an example of figurative language, and while they add a lot of color to conversation or writing, they can often be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with the language.
In fact, idioms are one of the hardest things for non-native speakers to learn. In English alone, there are estimated to be over 20,000 different idioms. Some idioms were derived from an original use that they are now separated from, such as “spill the beans,” while others are a bit clearer. You can have one idiom in English and have an idiom in another language with a similar meaning, but they have completely different base words.
Still confused? Here are 6 common idioms you might recognize and their meanings.
“On the fence” refers to being literally stuck between two different choices or ideas. Your mind isn’t made up, and you’re still able to be swayed one way or the other. This is a good example of an idiom where the literal meaning is similar to, but not the same as, the idiomatic significance.
This one definitely confuses non-native speakers. “Raining cats and dogs” means that it is raining very hard. Actual cats and dogs are not coming out of the sky though, so grab an umbrella and you'll be fine.
Both of these phrases refer to someone who is dead or has died. Of the two, you can see that “pushing daisies” makes a clearer reference to death, as someone who is buried would be in the ground and providing soil for flowers.
The origin of “kick the bucket” is fuzzier, however some folks believe it comes from people who would attempt to hang themselves while standing on a bucket and kick the bucket so that that the noose would tighten and they would die. With either of these phrases, be respectful about the time and place you’re using these casual idioms.
To “have cold feet” doesn’t mean that your feet are physically cold, but it implies that someone is nervous about a commitment, or having second thoughts. Usually it’s used to talk about someone who is hesitant about getting married.
This phrase means to put strong pressure on someone to take an action or take responsibility for something. Generally the phrase is seen as positive, which is ironic as feet held to a literal fire would be very unpleasant. The idiom’s origin comes from interrogation techniques.
Idioms can be a lot of fun to discover, even when there’s not much information about their etymology, or origin. Plus, they add a lot of depth and color to your conversation.