What is an Idiom? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Idiom
  • 0:33 Examples of Idioms
  • 2:47 Why Use Idioms?
  • 3:45 Shakespeare
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Break a leg! It takes two to tango. In this lesson, we'll learn all about idioms, those colorful figures of speech that play with language and take on a meaning of their own.

Definition of Idiom

An idiom is an expression that takes on a figurative meaning when certain words are combined, which is different from the literal definition of the individual words. For example, let's say I said: 'Don't worry, driving out to your house is a piece of cake.' We would understand that the expression 'piece of cake' means that it's easy. Normally, we obviously wouldn't associate the word 'cake' when it is on its own as anything other than dessert. But in this context, it's a well-known idiom.

Examples of Idioms

There are tens of thousands of idioms used in the English language. As we can probably understand, idioms are difficult for people whose first language is not English. Actually, even native English speakers in the Motherland of England have a hard time with American idioms. Americans know them because they're common expressions. We're used to hearing them in our homes, at school, and in our favorite television programs.

Sometimes American idioms make their way around the world, and sometimes an expression doesn't even make it out of a particular state. Here a few of the most commonly used idioms in the United States and their likely origins. (Note that these origins may be in dispute.)

'As happy as a clam'

Mary was happy as a clam on the day of her wedding.

Meaning: Pleased, very content

Origin: So why in the world would a clam ever be happy? They're shellfish, they don't have feelings. The expression most likely began because when a clam's shell is opened up, it does look like the clam is smiling.

'Pass the buck'

It is Tim's responsibility to mow the lawn. He shouldn't pass the buck to his younger brother.

Meaning: To dodge one's responsibilities by giving them to someone else

Origin: The game of poker became extremely popular in the 1800s in the United States. Of course, many of the cowboys and bar patrons who played the game were degenerate gambler types who could not be trusted. So, a system was instilled that on each new game a different person would deal out the cards and they would be given some kind of marker to indicate that it was their deal. Often times a knife was used as a marker. The handles of these knives were typically made out of a buck's horn. In time, the marker just became known as a buck.

'In like Flynn'

Michael left the bar with that girl Anna. He is in like Flynn.

Meaning: To be successful romantically

Origin: Actor Errol Flynn had quite the reputation around town as a ladies' man. The handsome actor did not keep his party-time romantic escapades a secret; in fact, he published a book called My Wicked, Wicked Ways which discussed his night time romps at length.

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