An idiom is an expression whose meaning can't be deciphered from the usual meanings of the words within it.
When you say It's raining cats and dogs, you don't mean Russian Blues and German Shepherds are falling from the sky (although that would be awesome and adorable and would sound hilarious… provided that they all landed safely on trampolines).
But someone who's never understood the idiom might look up into the sky in an incredibly confused manner. ("Learn something new about meteorology every day, I guess.")
Every language has its own idioms, and they're not meant to be taken seriously. For example, if you're an English speaker visiting Miami in mid-August, you might utter the idiom I'm sweating bullets! But to express the same humid sentiment, your Dutch friend would say I sweat carrots!
While idioms can provide a fun look into a writer's culture, it's usually a good idea to avoid them in your academic writing. As our bullets and carrots example shows, they're often not the clearest way to express your ideas, and many of them are simply worn-out.
Some of our favorite examples of idioms:
- a leopard can't change his spots (you can't change who you are)
- dead ringer (100% identical)
- get your walking papers (get fired)
- pass the buck (avoid responsibility by giving it to someone else)
- flash in the pan (something or someone that initially shows potential but ultimately fails to deliver)
- the ball's in your court (you're in control of the situation)
- at the drop of a hat (immediately)
- get a taste of your own medicine (finding out what it's like to be treated the way you treat people)
"Burt may have been the star of the JV team, but on the varsity squad, he just can't cut the mustard."
Sadly, we're not talking about a bologna sandwich-making team. Can't cut the mustard is an idiom that refers to someone who isn't adequate enough to compete or participate.
"The thieves took the couch, the coffee table, the TV, the fake ficus… the whole nine yards."
Who steals a plastic tree? We don't know, but we do know that the whole nine yards is an idiom that means everything or all of it.
"After Tiffany told Darren about Sharla's massive crush on him, Sharla had an axe to grind with her supposed best friend."
While we'd like to tell you that axe grinding is an ancient bonding ritual between BFFs, it's actually an idiom that means to have a dispute with someone. Watch out, Tiff.