An idiom is a group of words that carry an established meaning based on their common usage. Idioms are closely tied to the culture they originate in and make little or no sense to those outside of that particular cultural group. Perhaps you have tried to translate common idioms from your language into English and your communication has failed. For instance, in China a possible response to, “How are you?” is 马马虎虎 (mamahuhu) the meaning is so-so, but if this is translated literally, it means horse horse tiger tiger. A strange response to “How are you?” here in America.
Even though I grew up in America, sometimes I am still confused by the idioms we use. One that I have struggled with is, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Instead, I have embarrassingly said, “Don’t lick a gift horse in the mouth” then realizing that made no sense, changed to, “Don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth.” While both of these actions are not advisable, they are also not the correct idiom. Which is meant to express that people ought to not find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor. It originated from the idea that one should not inspect the teeth of a horse that was given as a gift to determine its age, and therefore value. Since I have learned the origin of the idiom it has helped me to use it accurately. However, the origins of most idioms are debated or completely unknown.
There are many other idioms that include animals and none mean what they sound like.
- When pigs fly: It’s never going to happen
- It’s raining cats and dogs: It’s raining really heavily.
- Cat got your tongue? : Asked of someone being unusually quiet, typically in order to persuade them into talking.
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks: You can’t make people change their established and traditional ways.
- Curiosity killed the cat: Getting in other people’s private business can get you into trouble.
- Kill two birds with one stone: Accomplish two tasks with only one action.
- Beat a dead horse: To continue to do an action that is useless.
- Every dog has his day: Success will come to everyone at some point, even those that are low and unlucky.
- A dog eat dog world: When people cheat or lie to get ahead in life, work, etc because of competing with others.
- Ants in your pants: Not able to sit still.
- Chicken out: To change your mind about something because of fear.
- Copy cat: To imitate or copy someone else’s behavior, style, etc this is negative.
- Rat race: Struggle or competition for power.
If your American friends use idioms or other phrases and slang you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask them what it means. They are probably so in the habit of saying something that they don’t know how it might sound to a non-native speaker.
What idioms do you have in your home culture? Have you ever used an idiom incorrectly and embarrassed yourself like me? Share with us in the comments.