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Webster's New World American Idioms Handbook by Gail Brenner (Webster's New World, 2003)


A set expression of two or more words that means something other than the literal meanings of its individual words. Adjective: idiomatic.

For a definition of the idiom principle, see Examples and Observations, below.

See also:


From the Latin, "own, personal, private"

Exercises and Quizzes:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Every cloud has its silver lining but it is sometimes a little difficult to get it to the mint."
    (Don Marquis)

  • "Fads are the kiss of death. When the fad goes away, you go with it."
    (Conway Twitty)

  • "American idioms drive me up the hall!"
    (Ziva David in NCIS)

  • "I worked the graveyard shift with old people, which was really demoralizing, because the old people didn't have a chance in hell of ever getting out."
    (Kate Millett)

  • Kirk: If we play our cards right, we may be able to find out when those whales are being released.
    Spock: How will playing cards help?
    (Captain James T. Kirk and Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986)

  • Functions of Idioms
    "People use idioms to make their language richer and more colorful and to convey subtle shades of meaning or intention. Idioms are used often to replace a literal word or expression, and many times the idiom better describes the full nuance of meaning. Idioms and idiomatic expressions can be more precise than the literal words, often using fewer words but saying more. For example, the expression it runs in the family is shorter and more succinct than saying that a physical or personality trait 'is fairly common throughout one's extended family and over a number of generations.'"
    (Gail Brenner, Webster's New World American Idioms Handbook. Webster's New World, 2003)

  • "If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist."
    (Philip Johnson-Laird, 1993)

    "Idioms, in general, are deeply connected to culture. . . . Agar (1991) proposes that biculturalism and bilingualism are two sides of the same coin. Engaged in the intertwined process of culture change, learners have to understand the full meaning of idioms."
    (Sam Glucksberg, Understanding Figurative Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)

  • Shakespeare's Idioms
    "Shakespeare is credited with coining more than 2,000 words, infusing thousands more existing ones with electrifying new meanings and forging idioms that would last for centuries. 'A fool's paradise,' 'at one fell swoop,' 'heart's content,' 'in a pickle,' 'send him packing,' 'too much of a good thing,' 'the game is up,' 'good riddance,' 'love is blind,' and 'a sorry sight,' to name a few."
    (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

  • Levels of "Transparency"
    "Idioms vary in 'transparency': that is, whether their meaning can be derived from the literal meanings of the individual words. For example, make up [one's] mind is rather transparent in suggesting the meaning 'reach a decision,' while kick the bucket is far from transparent in representing the meaning 'die.'"
    (Douglas Biber et al., Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)

    "The thought hit me that this was a pretty pathetic way to kick the bucket--being accidentally poisoned during a photo shoot, of all things--and I started weeping at the idiocy of it all."
    (Lara St. John)

  • The Idiom Principle
    "The observation that meanings are made in chunks of language that are more or less predictable, though not fixed, sequences of morphemes leads [John] Sinclair [in Corpus Concordance Collocation, 1991] to an articulation of the 'idiom principle.' He states the principle thus:
    The principle of idiom is that a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constitute single choices, even though they might appear to be analysable into segments (Sinclair 1991): 110)
    The study of fixed phrases has a fairly long tradition . . ., but phrases are normally seen as outside the normal organising principle of language. Here, Sinclair extends the notion of phraseology to encompass a great deal more of language than it is commonly considered to encompass. At its strongest, we might say that all senses of all words exist in and are identified by the sequences of morphemes in which they typically occur."
    (Susan Hunston and Gill Francis, Pattern Grammar: A Corpus-Driven Approach to the Lexical Grammar of English. John Benjamins, 2000)

  • Modal Idioms
    "Modal idioms are idiosyncratic verbal formations which consist of more than one word and which have modal meanings that are not predictable from the constituent parts (compare the non-modal idiom kick the bucket). Under this heading we include have got [to], had better/best, would rather/sooner/as soon, and be [to]."
    (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)
Pronunciation: ID-ee-um

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