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An idiom is a word or phrase which means something different from its literal meaning. Idioms are common phrases or terms whose meaning is not real, but can be understood by their popular use.

Because idioms can mean something different from what the words mean it is difficult for someone not very good at speaking the language to use them properly. Some idioms are only used by some groups of people or at certain times. The idiom shape up or ship out, which is like saying improve your behavior or leave if you don't, might be said by an employer or supervisor to an employee, but not to other people.

Idioms are not the same thing as slang. Idioms are made of normal words that have a special meaning known by almost everyone. Slang is usually special words that are known only by a particular group.

To learn a language a person needs to learn the words in that language, and how and when to use them. But people also need to learn idioms separately because certain words together or at certain times can have different meanings. In order to understand an idiom, one sometimes needs to know the culture the idiom comes from.

To know the history of an idiom can be useful and interesting, but is not necessary to be able to use the idiom properly. For example, most native British English speakers know that "No room to swing a cat" means "there was not a lot of space" and can use the idiom properly, but few know it is because 200 years ago sailors were punished by being whipped with a whip called a "cat o'nine tails".[citation needed] A big space was cleared on the ship so that the person doing the whipping had a lot of room to swing the cat.

A better understanding of an idiom is that it is a phrase whose meaning cannot be understood from the dictionary definitions of each word taken separately.

Some common idioms[edit | edit source]

  • Break a leg
A way to wish someone good luck.
  • To live it up
To enjoy life, to live widely
To die.
  • Shape up or ship out
Used to tell someone that they should leave if they don't improve their behavior or performance
To cry about something but without actually caring.
A useless journey or pursuit.
  • There's no room to swing a cat
There is not a lot of space.
  • To pay through the nose
To pay a lot of money, more than is normal.
  • To bark up the wrong tree
To choose the wrong course of action.
  • To spill the beans
To tell a secret.
  • It's raining cats and dogs
It's raining heavily.
  • To get into hot water
To get into trouble.
To be scared.
  • Top dog
  • To smell a rat
To think that something is wrong.
  • To chicken out
Not doing an activity because of fear.
  • To give up
To quit.
  • To give up on
To stop believing in something or someone.
  • I could eat a horse
To be very hungry.
  • To be on top of the world
To be really happy.