Column: Who are you calling an idiom?


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Some people take things literally. Kleptomaniacs take things, literally.

Literalists aren’t fans of idioms. Idioms are phrases with figurative meanings; they aren’t intended to be taken literally. Believe it or not, my friend, Byron, tends to take things literally; so, when I suggest we “paint the town red” on Friday night, he goes to his garage to get his paint rollers.

In fact, poor Byron really has an ax to grind with idioms, although if I told him that, he’d claim he only had a problem with idioms. Idioms are designed to express a sentiment, feeling, or an idea. If I said, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” I’m not claiming to be a chicken or egg farmer; instead, I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t count on something before it has come into reality. In the same way, when I say, “Curiosity killed the cat,” I’m certainly not suggesting that NASA’s Mars rover murdered a cat; I’m suggesting that it’s dangerous to be too curious. 

An idiom is a type of figurative language. The point of figurative language is to make your speech or writing more impactful or effective. Other types of figurative language include euphemisms, metaphors, similes, hyperbole, personification, and — my favorite — puns. In fact, idioms exist in most languages. This isn’t just another tricky English construction that makes our language hard to learn.

One of my favorite idioms is, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” While I don’t agree literally with this statement, its figurative truth holds up to scrutiny. We shouldn’t judge people at face value; instead, we should look “under the hood,” so to speak, and get to know them better before we draw any conclusions.

The only literal thing that costs an arm and a leg is going swimming with hungry sharks. As an idiom, however, something that costs “an arm and a leg” is merely incredibly expensive. The same idea goes for “robbing the cradle.” You’re not stealing a baby, but instead, when someone says this she means that you are marrying someone significantly younger than you.

Idioms are a dime a dozen, so forgive me if I rubbed you the wrong way; please don’t get bent out of shape. Sometimes, it’s hard to wrap your head around figurative language.