AskDefine | Define idiom

Dictionary Definition



1 a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language [syn: parlance]
2 the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people; "the immigrants spoke an odd dialect of English"; "he has a strong German accent" [syn: dialect, accent]
3 the style of a particular artist or school or movement; "an imaginative orchestral idiom" [syn: artistic style]
4 an expression whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up [syn: idiomatic expression, phrasal idiom, set phrase, phrase]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A phrase characteristic of a particular language, that cannot necessarily be fully understood from the separate meanings of the individual words which form it, but instead must be learned as a whole unit of meaning.
    You can't translate "kick the bucket" word for word into French with the same meaning because it's an idiom.
  2. A manner of speaking, a way of expressing oneself.
  3. An artistic style (for example, in art, architecture, or music).
  4. An instance of such a style.
  5. A communicative system under study, which could be called either a dialect or a language, when its status as a language or dialect is irrelevant.
  6. A programming technique which experienced programmers in a language are assumed to know.


Derived terms


phrase that cannot be understood from its component words
manner of speaking
style of art, etc
  • Japanese: 様式
instance of such style
specific property of any language
  • Japanese: 方言, 訛り

Extensive Definition

An idiom is a term or phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions and the arrangement of its parts, but refers instead to a figurative meaning that is known only through common use. In linguistics, idioms are widely assumed to be figures of speech that contradict the principle of compositionality; however, this has shown to be a subject of debate. It may be better to refer to idioms as John Saeed does: words collocated together happen to become fossilized, becoming fixed over time. This collocation -- words commonly used in a group -- changes the definition of each of the words that exist. As an expression, the word-group becomes a team, so to speak. That is, the collocated words develop a specialized meaning as a whole and an idiom is born e.g. He really threw me a curve when on our first date he asked if I could pay for the dinner. Note, in some cultures, when a man and a woman are courting each other, the male is traditionally the one who takes up the bill or pays the bill; however, times change and in many modern societies, a lot of couples go Dutch (yet another idiom).
In the English expression to kick the bucket, for example, a listener knowing only the meaning of kick and bucket would be unable to deduce the expression's actual meaning, which is to die. Although it can refer literally to the act of striking a specific bucket with a foot, native speakers rarely use it that way. It cannot be directly translated to other languages – for example, the same expression in Polish is kopnąć w kalendarz (to kick the calendar), with the calendar being as detached from its usual meaning as the bucket in the English phrase is. The same expression in Dutch is het loodje leggen (to lay the piece of lead), which is entirely different from the English expression, too. Other expressions include break a leg and fit as a fiddle. It is estimated that William Shakespeare coined over 9,000 idioms still in use today.
Idioms hence tend to confuse those not already familiar with them; students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions the way they learn its other vocabulary. Many natural language words have idiomatic origins, but have been sufficiently assimilated so that their figurative senses have been lost.

Idioms and culture

An idiom is generally a colloquial metaphor — a term which requires some foundational knowledge, information, or experience, to use only within a culture where parties must have common reference. Idioms are therefore not considered a part of the language, but rather a part of the culture. As cultures are typically localized, idioms are more often not useful for outside of that local context. However some idioms can be more universally used than others, and they can be easily translated, metaphorical meaning can be more easily deduced.
The most common idioms can have deep roots, date back many centuries, and be traceable across many languages. Many have translations in other languages, and tend to become international.
While many idioms are clearly based in conceptual metaphors such as "time as a substance", "time as a path", "love as war" or "up is more", the idioms themselves are often not particularly essential, even when the metaphors themselves are. For example, "spend time", "battle of the sexes", and "back in the day" are idiomatic and based in essential metaphors. These "deep metaphors" and their relationship to human cognition are discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book Metaphors We Live By.
In forms like "profits are up", the metaphor is carried by "up" itself. The phrase "profits are up" is not itself an idiom. Practically anything measurable can be used in place of "profits": "crime is up", "satisfaction is up", "complaints are up" etc. Truly essential idioms generally involve prepositions, for example "out of" or "turn into".
Interestingly, many Chinese characters are likewise idiomatic constructs, as their meanings are more often not traceable to a literal (i.e. pictographic) meaning of their assembled parts, or radicals. Because all characters are composed from a relatively small base of about 214 radicals, their assembled meanings follow several different modes of interpretation - from the pictographic to the metaphorical to those whose original meaning has been lost in history. It may be a feature that helps everyday life.
Second language's English—using idiom to refer to language.
Further examples of idioms are "back seat driver" or "feeding frenzy".


"Idiom" can also refer to the characteristic manner of speaking in a language, also called its parlance. An utterance consistent with a language's parlance is described as idiomatic. For example, "I have hunger" is idiomatic in several European languages if translated literally (e.g. Dutch ik heb honger, German ich habe Hunger; French j'ai faim; Spanish tengo hambre; Italian ho fame), but the usual English idiom is "I am hungry".
This sense is also carried over to programming languages, where the former sense does not apply, as an expression or statement in a programming language can generally have only one meaning. For example, in Haskell, it is possible to apply a function to all members of a list using recursion, but it is more idiomatic to use the higher-order function map.

Computer science

In computer science, an idiom is a low-level pattern that addresses a problem common in a particular programming language. An idiom describes how to implement particular aspects of components or the relationships between them using the features of the given language.
For instance, in C source code one might see while(*a++ = *b++);, which copies characters from b to a until the null character ('\0') is encountered. This is an idiom in that a C programmer on seeing it does not need to mentally parse what it might mean, although in this case the effect of the code can be deduced from the literal syntax and C's order of operations.


idiom in Danish: Idiom
idiom in German: Redensart
idiom in Spanish: Idiotismo
idiom in Esperanto: Idiotismo
idiom in French: Idiotisme
idiom in Hindi: मुहावरा
idiom in Indonesian: Idiom
idiom in Hebrew: ניב (ביטוי)
idiom in Dutch: Idioom
idiom in Japanese: 慣用句
idiom in Polish: Idiom
idiom in Kölsch: Idėomatische Ußdrock
idiom in Russian: Фразеологизм
idiom in Simple English: Idiom
idiom in Serbian: Идиом
idiom in Sundanese: Babasan
idiom in Swedish: Idiom (språk)
idiom in Turkish: Deyim
idiom in Ukrainian: Ідіома
idiom in Yiddish: אידיאם
idiom in Chinese: 熟语

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Acadian, Anglo-Indian, Brooklynese, Cajun, Canadian French, Cockney, French Canadian, Gullah, Midland, Midland dialect, New England dialect, Pennsylvania Dutch, Yankee, Yorkshire, adjectival phrase, argot, bundle of isoglosses, cant, choice of words, class dialect, clause, cliche, composition, construction, dialect, dialect dictionary, diction, expression, formulation, grammar, headed group, idiotism, isogloss, jargon, language, langue, lingo, lingua, linguistic atlas, linguistic community, linguistic island, local dialect, localism, locution, manner of speaking, noun phrase, paragraph, parlance, parole, patois, peculiar expression, period, personal usage, phrasal idiom, phrase, phraseology, phrasing, provincialism, regional accent, regionalism, rhetoric, sentence, set phrase, speech, speech community, standard phrase, subdialect, syntactic structure, talk, term, tongue, turn of expression, turn of phrase, usage, use of words, usus loquendi, utterance, verb complex, verb phrase, verbalism, verbiage, vernacular, way of speaking, word-group, wordage, wording
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