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Idioms – as clear as mud?




A bird in the hand
Image courtesy of By Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons

Miranda Steel is a freelance ELT lexicographer and editor. She has worked as a Senior Editor for dictionaries for learners at OUP and has also worked for COBUILD. In this post, she looks at some of the weird and wonderful idioms in the English language.

Idioms are commonly used in spoken and written English. They add colour and interest to what we are saying. But how often do we actually find idioms in their original and full form?

Native English speakers are usually confident that their readers or listeners will recognize the idiom, so well-known phrases rarely need to be given in full. You may hear someone being warned not to count their chickens (don’t count your chickens before they are hatched) when they assume a future plan will be successful, or a friend may hint that her colleagues took advantage of the boss’s absence with when the cat’s away! (when the cat’s away, the mice will play).

Some idioms can be shortened in other ways such as long story short (to cut a long story short).

“Anyway, long story short, it turns out Drake isn’t really his father.”

Sometimes only a fragment of the original idiom remains. It is common to see restaurants offering early bird menus or prices (the early bird catches the worm). Someone may describe a terrible idea as a lead balloon (go down like a lead balloon). I recently heard someone talking about a baby and bathwater situation (don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater) when the whole of a plan was rejected because of a problem with only part of it.

Another common way of changing an idiom is to reverse its meaning. For example if you don’t want to deal with a problem straight away, you may put it on the back burner, but if something needs immediate attention, you can put it on the front burner. In your home village you might be a big fish in a small pond but if you move to a large city you could end up a small fish in a very big pond.

Many idioms are very versatile and can be changed in a variety of ways. A carrot and stick approach involves offering rewards and making threats to persuade someone to do something. However, you may come across examples like the following:

“Why use a stick when a carrot will work better?”

“Their approach is all stick and no carrot.”

“They are using every carrot and stick at their disposal.”

One of the most attractive aspects of idioms is their adaptability. It is often possible to substitute one of more of the words in them to adapt to a particular situation. When two people have opposite tastes, you can say one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But how about one man’s junk is another man’s treasure or one man’s madness is another man’s genius? The possibilities are endless.

Substitutions can also be used to alter the meaning of an idiom. For example, a plain-talking person will call a spade a spade, but someone who is more frank than necessary may call a spade a shovel. On the other hand, someone who is reluctant to speak plainly may call a spade a gardening implement.

So, why not have a go at adapting some idioms yourself? After all, when in Rome…

Challenge: For extra bonus points, can you tell us which English idiom the image above refers to?

For more idioms, check out the Oxford Idioms Dictionary for learners of English.


  1. Nice article–idiom shortening is a nice thing to point out! (Also, when I first saw the post with the picture, I thought it was an article about Twitter!) -Charlie

  2. Reblogged this on ESL 7090 Weekly News Helper and commented:
    It’s hard enough to understand full idioms–but sometimes they are shortened!

  3. When in Rome,do as romans do…. means that in a foreign country you should behave like you see the others do

  4. I can’t say that I see many idioms in your article – although you do refer to various proverbs, which are not the same thing. Also, to offer shortened versions such as those found in Miranda Hart comedy scripts makes me think that there is something terribly wrong in the heart of Oxford. Furthermore, ‘ to call a spade a shovel?’ – I’m missing something aren’t I? This is very clever upper-crust humour – that actually isn’t funny.

    Please check your own dictionary’s definitions for idiom and proverb.

    The worst article I’ve ever read. Sorry. Didn’t work for me.

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