What’s an Idiom?

This entry is part 3 of the series International English

potatos-and-mashBangers and Mash?

When you hear the term “bangers and mash,” does your mouth water or does it go dry? British readers with know the idiom means sausages and mashed potatoes. Readers in other countries may imagine a scene of extreme violence.

To clarify this expression, the British writer could say, “We’ll have bangers and mash for supper— I have some nice pork sausages.” The International reader now knows what’s on the menu.

Street Children?

A South African may write about “The street children,” and the local readers will immediately recognise the tragedy of children who live without adult supervision, sleeping under bridges or in the bushes. Readers from other countries may not understand. The S.African writer could rather call them “homeless orphans” and everyone will know what is meant.

These phrases, understood by the native speakers of a language, are called idioms. As writers, we need to be aware of them, and clarify their meaning for our international readers.

A common idiom

Most people world wide understand the meaning of the noun, bucket, and the verb, kick. But what happens when you put them together? Click To Tweet

Most people world wide, no matter what form of English they speak, will understand the meaning of the noun, bucket, and the verb, kick. Now let’s see how these two words can cause confusion.

Here in South Africa, we might use the expression that someone has kicked the bucket. We mean that they have died. Passed away. Move to Eternity. They are no more. Can you imagine a person who doesn’t understand the idiom being told his teacher has kicked the bucket? What picture would that create in his mind? Of his sophisticated, well-dressed teacher running down the road, kicking a bucket?

Incidentally, the French would rather say Manger les pissenlits par la racine – which means he ate dandelions by the roots. Another French term is Avaler son extrait de naissance, meaning he swallowed his birth certificate. Again, the pictures  these expressions use to a non-French speaker would not point to death!

The Polish writer would say “he kicked the calendar” while in Cyrillic, the meaning of the words would be “he hugged the bunch of flowers”. In Finish, the writer would say “he threw the spoon into the corner”, in German “he gave the spoon away” and in Portuguese, “he beat the boots”. In Danish literature, we’d read that “he took off the clogs”, in Swedish he would “fall off the stick”, and the Greek would “shake the horse-shoes”.

Whew! maybe it’s easier to say he died.

What do these idioms mean?

Here are a few more amusing expressions which are a normal part of other languages. Imagine what you think they mean before reading the next line.

What does a Brazilian do if he “peels a pineapple”? Descacar o abacaxi.

Did you guess he is dealing with a complicated problem’?

If you hear an Arab saying, “I don’t have a camel in the caravan”, laisa lii fiiha naqa wa la jamal,

he is telling you “this matter doesn’t concern me”.

 An expression often used in British English (I don’t know about American) actually comes from Germany. Hals und Beinbruch!  This translates as “Break a leg”.

I always think that’s such a silly expression. It actually means “Good Luck!” So someone is going to write an important examination, and you tell him to “Break a leg!”  What an unhelpful piece of advice.

Offer a Korean a tasty treat telling him it’s a chocolate, don’t be surprised if he contradicts you with the words. “It’s a carrot!”

He’s just told you, “that’s obvious! or “Of course!”

Explain your idioms

From these few examples you can see that the mere knowledge of words does not mean a clear understanding of what’s being said. If it’s important to use an expression in order to show a character’s way of speech, then make sure you get it right. And come up with a way to clarify what you mean with an illustration or an explanation. For example, “I’m sorry, I have to tell you he’s kicked the bucket. He died at 9 pm last night.” Otherwise, maybe stick with English that will be understood internationally.

And in case you think this is a small matter, according to the Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia, there are estimated to be at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions in American English alone.

What idiom can you think of from your own home English? Share it in the comment below. Let’s have fun!

6 comments on “What’s an Idiom?

  1. Wow, that’s fascinating!

    I always giggle quietly to myself when Americans talk about their pants, because in English-English, that refers to underpants! I know it’s not an idiom as such but it’s a linguistic difference that makes me laugh.

    • Yes, I got into trouble with my three-year-old grandson when they came over from America because I’d put out his undies for him but he couldn’t find his pants! I kept pointing to them and saying, “There they are!”

  2. That is so interesting and especially relevant in the Blogging World as we essentially broadcast all over the world. Incidentally, we also say “kicked the bucket”, here in the US

  3. Being an Aussie, our language is full of idioms. I try to watch it when I write because it can mean something completely different (especially in the US) I told another blogger the other day that her new sunglasses made her look really funky (it was a compliment in Australian (as in “groovy”) but apparently not in America!)

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