Street Scene in BrooklynCredit: Walker Evans, Yale University Art Gallery

What are idioms, and why do I care, you may be wondering. Well, American English can be oh so difficult for non-native speakers. Idiom phrases change meaning when translated in another language, and they tend to withstand logic. In short, the definition of idiom is a set phrase of two or more words meaning something unlike the exact meaning of the individual words. So, if you are a native speaker you should well be aware of the thousands of idioms and phrases commonly used that befuddle, amuse, and engage this rich cultural heritage of American English.

Idiom Examples
She had to bear the brunt of his anger, and it made her a basket case. They seemed to always be at loggerheads when it came to clear the air. He rarely lasted for a hearty conversation, it was like he had ants in his pants, always rushing off to cover his tracks. Eventually the damage control became a fate worse than death. She was upset enough to tell him to go get his head examined and leave her be forever!

Dan could drink like a fish, and this happy hour he decided to drown his sorrows. He began to nurse his drink until he was drunk as a Lord. He hit the bottle like an old pro. Once he was in his cups he knew that the outcome would not be pretty. Sure enough, he awoke the next morning and was itching for a little hair of the dog. He was grateful that the bartender had refused him one for the road, yet he wasn’t looking forward to going on the wagon.

Origins and history of idioms can be hard to come by. Some of them are quite astounding in their original meanings. Hair of the dog that bit you is actually from an ancient folk treatment for dogbite. The treatment was to put a burnt hair of the dog on the wound. So, in the example from the paragraph above it is treated as a remedy for what made Dan ill (hungover). The treatment and remedy are the same, and meant to shorten the pain. Drink like a fish has always bothered me because I’ve never been sure that fish really drink all that much. The meaning is alluded to the fact that fish are always open-mouthed to breathe in oxygen, and they only appear to be drinking non-stop. I’m sure this may be open to discourse, but for this article, I choose to use that meaning.

Merry had a heart of gold. She was loved by her family, and that unfortunately was the heart of the matter according to her therapist, Jeremy. All the troubles had started with her former mother-in-law who had a heart of stone. She wasn’t anyone’s cup of tea, especially her son’s (Merry’s ex-husband). She had the audacity to cry wolf when there was nothing a heart to heart conversation with Merry wouldn’t have solved. After all, her distaste for their marriage was crystal clear. Poor Jeremy was the one who wore his heart on his sleeve.

To wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve or pin one’s heart on one’s sleeve means to openly show feelings. The expression comes from a custom that lovers had. The female would tie a favor to her lover’s sleeve, and the lover would wear it for all to see. A knight wore ribbon or cloth tied on his arm that were the colors of the lady he supported. Of course, many of the idiom phrases come from Shakespeare, or at least were recorded with his work. This one is from Othello (1:1): “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at.”

Common Idioms - Unusual Origins

  • Mad as a hatter also mad as a March hare - In the early hat making days, chemicals were used in the creation of felt hats that caused nervous symptoms like tremors. The latter phrase alludes to the hares behavior during rutting season. March is not the only season for crazy hare rutting behavior however.
  • In the nick of time began as in the nick. The now obsolete meaning was “the critical moment,” dated from the 1500’s. I always wondered where that phrase came from.
  • Peeping Tom is a bit creepy but in a light creepy way. The phrase alludes to the Lady Godiva story. A tailor named Tom watched the naked lady ride by, and he was blinded for this grave transgression. H’m, kind of like the kid who announced that the emperor had no clothes on?
  • Familiarity breeds contempt  is at once understandable to native speakers, but it’s origin is sketchy. The first recording is from Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee (c.1386). That might be difficult for a non-native speaker to make sense of at first. Although if the idea or sentiment of the phrase has been around for a time before 1386, then maybe other languages held something similar to it.
  • Keep a low profile actually alludes to the word profile from the 1600’s usage. Then profile meant “a visible contour.” Actually, some of that remains meaningful in the present use. I tend to think of it as shadowy behavior, to keep a low profile. So a visible contour made less visible, shadowy.
  • Near miss actually originated in World War II. When a bomb landed and exploded in water close enough to damage a ship hull, it was called a near miss. Today it is an attempt that falls short of success, whatever the attempt is.

In the final analysis idioms have been around as long as donkey’s years. They are as rich as Croesus and often ride roughshod over more easily understood phrases. They make a difference in our unique manners of using our language in speaking and writing. Idioms come from biblical, nautical (by and large, high and dry), French (a la carte), Latin (carpe diem), Shakespeare, Chaucer, Native-American (bury the hatchet), and other sources that we can only surmise. An idiom is rarely a moot point, although it can pull the wool over someone’s eyes.

text source - The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Ammer  
photo credit - Walker Evans, Yale University Art Gallery