Organised by metaphor, topic and key word
by Jon Wright
Edited by Jimmie Hill and Morgan Lewis
Illustrated by Bill Stott
1: What is an idiom?
An idiom is an expression with the following features:
1. It is fixed and is recognised by native speakers. You cannot make up your own!
2. It uses language in a non-literal – metaphorical – way.
The following are examples:
1. Tin up to my eyes in work at the moment.
2. At the meeting I felt a bit out of my depth.
3. I was over the moon when I heard she’d had twins!
4. It broke my mother’s heart to see her home burn to the ground.
If you are up to your eyes, you are very busy. If you are out of your depth, you might
be in the sea, but you are more likely to be in a situation which you do not understand
for some reason. If you are over the moon, you are extremely happy about something.
If something breaks your heart, you are very sad about it.
In these examples it is clear that the idiom is a whole expression. This is the traditional
view of idioms. But there is a lot more language which is idiomatic. For example, there
are lots of individual words with idiomatic uses. On page 3 we saw that catch has many
more uses than the literal one of catching a fish. Here are more examples:
1. The river flooded several villages.
2. Piles of rubbish lay everywhere.
3. I love roast potatoes.
4. I’ve got an uncle at sea.
The crowd flooded on to the pitch.
He’s got piles of money.
Euthanasia. Now, that’s a very hot potato!
I’m all at sea.
We are familiar with the idea of heavy rain causing a river to overflow and flood the
surrounding area; crowds are often described as water and the same verb flood is used.
The literal meaning of pile is a heap of something; piles of money, however, simply
means lots of money. A hot potato is not for eating; it means a controversial issue.
An uncle at sea works on a boat; if you are at sea,
it means you are in a situation which you do not
understand and where you cannot cope.
Idioms Organiser takes a broad view of idiom. In
this book you will practise common idioms such
as the black sheep of the family, but you will also
practise the huge area of idiomatic usage where
words are used with non-literal – metaphorical meanings.
2: What is a metaphor?
Metaphors exist in all languages. You use them in your own language. A metaphor uses
one idea to stand for another idea. Above, we saw the simple idea: A crowd is water.
When you have that idea in your mind, the crowd can flow, flood, or trickle. Here are
some of the common metaphors practised in this book:
1. Time is money.
We save time. We can spare 5 minutes. We can run out of time.
2. Business is war.
Advertising is a minefield in which you have targets and keep your sights on
what your competitors are doing.
3. Life is a journey.
You can be on the road to recovery. You might be at a crossroads in your life
because you are in a dead-end job.
3: Why are idioms and metaphors so important?
Firstly, they are important because they are very common. It is impossible to speak,
read, or listen to English without meeting idiomatic language. This is not something
you can leave until you reach an advanced level. All native speaker English is
idiomatic. Every newspaper is full of metaphorical language. You cannot avoid it or
leave it till later.
The second reason is that very often the metaphorical use of a word is more common
today than its literal use. For example, we know that farmers plough their fields, but
you can plough through a long novel or report;
you can plough on with your work; you can
plough money into a business; profits can be
ploughed back into a company; a lorry can
plough into a row of parked cars. Using plough
in its literal farming meaning is now much
rarer than all its other non-literal uses.
But it is important for you to know the
literal meaning. Often the literal meaning
creates a picture in your mind and this
picture makes the other meanings easier
The third reason that this kind of language is important is because it is fun to learn
and to use. Because there is so much to learn, anything which helps you to remember
things is important and if the language you are learning is more colourful and
interesting, there is more chance that you will remember it. You will also sound more
natural if your English contains more idioms.
4: Can you translate idioms?
The simplest answer to this question is NO. This is an area where languages can be very different. Sometimes you can translate an idiom from one language to another, but most often this is not possible. For example, there is an English idiom to let sleeping dogs lie. The German and Italian equivalents also speak of sleeping dogs, but not the French or Spanish.
It is important that you are very careful if you have to translate idioms. Never translate an idiom word for word. You must translate the whole expression. Sometimes you will be able to translate the English idiom into an idiom in your own language. However, there may be no idiom and you may just have to explain the meaning.
One of the reasons idiomatic language is difficult to translate is because it is the area of language closest to culture. The metaphors of one culture will be different from those of another.
5: Are idioms spoken or written English?
Both! Some people think that idiomatic language is more informal and, therefore, common only in spoken English. This is not true. Idiomatic language is as fundamental to English as tenses or prepositions. If you listen to people speaking, or if you read a novel or a newspaper, you will meet idiomatic English in all these situations.