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The Necessity of Idiomatic Expressions in English Language

The Necessity of Idiomatic Expressions in English Language

Language is not the only medium to express one’s thoughts and ideas, but it is also the very essence of its speakers. There are many elements at play when we learn and master a certain language and use it as a medium to express our thoughts and ideas in the world. Amongst these, idiomatic expressions stand out as an indispensable treasure that can add fun and creativity to the speaker’s expressions. Before we dive into the necessity of idiomatic expressions in English language, let us understand what idioms are.

What are Idioms:

According to Merriam-Webster, Idioms can be defined as “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements.” In a nutshell, idiom can be understood as symbolic and often a metaphorical expression or a phrase that cannot be understood solely based on their “face value” or literal meanings. They are somewhat puzzling yet wonderful expressions or phrases that add variety to our communication. They are enriched with unique metaphors that have evolved over time in the English Language, and are reflective of our history and culture. To understand the subtle nuances of English and speak like a native, it is absolutely a must for non-native speakers to deeply understand the meaning and usage of idiomatic expressions.

Difference between an idiom and a phrase?

A phrase on the other hand is just a group of words- either those that have meaning when used independently, or simple any random group of words. In fact, idioms too are actually just phrases but just that the former adds more power to the sentence. 

Examples:

1. Idiomatic expressions

2. Group of words

3. Writing pad

And the list goes on- just that a phrase too, just like the idiom has two or more words.

Need for Idiomatic Expressions

There are many reasons why idioms are indispensable to the English Language. Let's have a look at some of them which makes this element absolutely crucial to English language acquisition and for bridging the communication gap between native and non-native English speakers. 

1) Creative Expression:

One of the primary reasons idioms play such a crucial part in the English language is their ability to spice up our expressiveness and creativity. Imagine a world where our language consisted solely of literal expressions—no metaphors, no figurative language, just straightforward descriptions. It would be a world without the usual jest in our expressive language.

Ever heard of the idiom "a tough cookie"? Now, while the literal meaning of this idiom might be a little difficult to “digest”, its figurative meaning delivers a powerful message of facing any tough situation head on with courage. Idioms like these can help us convey our complex ideas in the simplest way possible. Idioms such as these help us convey our complex thoughts and ideas in the most subtle way possible. They can upgrade our everyday chit chat from “dull and boring" to “exciting and refreshing”.

2) Cultural Significance

Besides their linguistic charisma, idioms also offer glimpses into the past. Oftentimes, it is extremely difficult to trace the actual historic significance of a specific idiom, but the cultural connotations idioms have through history, usually passed unequivocally through the passage of time.

For example, consider the idiom “Mad as a hatter” which means someone who is behaving maniacally or inappropriately. Now what do you think brought this idiom into usage? The origin of this phrase can be traced back to the 18th century, wherein hatters would use a chemical containing mercury to turn animal hide into felt to make hats. This methodology and technique became so famous that hatters used it through the 19th and the 20th century as well. However, due to the constant exposure to mercury, many of these hatters were known to have mercury poisoning and they would behave unusually, often displaying mood swings, loss of memory and even paranoia in most cases. And hence the phrase “Mad as a hatter” was born. 

Even in ancient India, people would traditionally offer butter as an offering to gods in temples to exact favors from them. Hence, the idiom “butter up” not only has been used in English but also has its variations in many Indian Languages. Ever heard of “makkhan lagana”? You get it!

3) Educational Tools for Language Learners

For language learners, idioms can be an indispensable tool that might help them not only get used to the culture, but also add more power to their conversations by making it effective and relatable. Appropriate usage of idioms actually makes your point of view "easy on the ears" no matter how difficult the idea may be, mastering a new language is definitely not an easy task as it involves not only learning new vocabulary and understanding grammar but also understanding the subtle hints of expressions that make a language authentic and provides fluency. Idioms can thus provide learners with an opportunity to achieve this native-like proficiency.

Striking a balance between applying idiomatic phrases in English and maintaining a genuine conversation is an important skill for language learners to master. To maintain this balance “one might have to get it as right as rain”, which means “trying to get it perfect". However, like the saying goes “no pain no gain”. You will have to work hard for what you want and achieve this fluency in application by practicing your idioms.

4) Bridging the Cultural Gap between Natives and Non-Natives

While idiomatic expressions enrich our spoken and expressive language, it is equally important to understand the challenges it would pose for non-native speakers and new language learners. Idioms very often draw on cultural and historical contexts, which makes them extremely tricky and puzzling, not only while interpreting its figurative meaning but also while using them appropriately. Moreover, idioms enable us to see and express our thoughts based on the unique and diverse experiences of a specific community, country or region.

The English language, which is so widely spoken all across the world, has absorbed idioms from various cultures and countries. Slowly evolving over time, it has further expanded its reach and enriched its usage by harboring a sense of inclusivity. This diversity has further allowed speakers from different backgrounds and cultures to bring their unique idiomatic expressions into their conversations.

For instance, let’s think of the idiom “Break a leg”. Whoa! Whoa! Hold on. Don’t go around breaking someone’s leg, just yet. For a non-native speaker this idiom might be confusing and even a little melodramatic. But considering its meaning, it might just get you a thumbs up and a smile from a native speaker for “wishing them good luck” on their important day.

5) Engagement and Enjoyment

Besides their cultural and educational importance, idiomatic expressions also contribute undoubtedly to making a conversation more effective by combining creativity and humor. The English language is constantly evolving and idioms add variety and freshness to it. They offer its speaker a blank canvas on which they can paint their vivid thoughts, express emotions and stimulate the imagination of their audiences, in the most fun and unique way possible. Idioms, therefore, is an inseparable part of linguistics that helps achieve meaningful yet enjoyable conversations.

Consider the idiom "hold your horses." Rather than telling someone to stop or slow down, this expression paints a picture of someone running around “like a headless chicken”(that is funny too!!!) absolutely panic-stricken, looking for a horse to hold. It adds a layer of humor and imagery to communication, making it not only informative but also enjoyable.

Challenges And Application

Despite their uncountable benefits, idiomatic expressions can sometimes be challenging to adopt and apply. Their cultural and figurative nature may make them confusing for non-native speakers. This contextual nature can lead to misinterpretations as non-native speakers might only want to focus on their literal meanings. 

It is extremely important for English language learners to approach idiomatic expressions with caution as they require understanding and practice. Rather than shying away from the complex nature of idioms, embracing them as an internal part of language learning fosters a deeper appreciation for the nuances and cultural richness they bring to our communication. In fact, nowadays idioms are used widely around the world and can often be heard in movies and TV shows (remember Joey from Friends?), wanting you to use them in everyday conversations and make you sound just like native English speakers. So why not give it a shot to incorporate them in your daily banter. Here are the most common English idioms and phrases for you to learn!

Idioms

Meaning

Example

The elephant in the room

An obvious problem that everyone avoids talking about

“Can we address the elephant in the room before the meeting starts?”

Cold turkey

To quit something or an addiction abruptly without a warning

“She decided to stop smoking and quit cold turkey.”

Get your ducks in a row

Get everything organized and set in order before starting a new work/project

“She must get her ducks in a row before the start of her medical college.”

Get someone’s goat

To upset someone or make them angry

“The way you keep on interrupting me really gets my goat all the time!!”

Eager Beaver

Someone who is over-excited or over-zealous about something

“Sid is such an eager beaver. No wonder he gets a lot of projects to do.”

Running around like a headless chicken

To run around doing a lot of things in an unorganized manner

“Sarah always runs around like a headless chicken during Christmas preparations.”

Monkey business

Mischievous activities that are generally disrupting and unapproved of

“The kids are all so quiet for such a long time. I hope they are not up to their monkey business.”

A hot potato

A controversial or an uncomfortable topic that no one wants to discuss or talk about

“The debate on religion and politics is a hot potato in many countries nowadays.”

Best thing since sliced bread

To hype up or show extreme enthusiasm about a new thing or a person

“They make our new teacher seem like the best thing since sliced bread, but we must not be too quick to judge.”

Couch potato

A person who would rather watch TV all day than do some physical activity

“My brother plays so many video games. I am worried about my brother turning into a couch potato.”

Beat around the bush

Saying things out of context because you don’t want to discuss the actual matter at hand

“Stop beating around the bush and clearly tell me what is the matter.”

Beef up    

To make something more stronger or more effective

“They beefed up the security around my apartment after the robbery last night.”

Blessing in disguise

A good thing that seemed to be bad before

“Missing the train was actually a blessing in disguise as I just heard on the news that that train met with an accident about an hour ago.”

More holes than a Swiss cheese

Something that has a lot of issues and problems

“Her New Year’s party plan has more holes than a Swiss cheese.”

I hope you all enjoyed learning about idioms and will start using them to “spice up” your everyday English Conversations.

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Article Author

Author image
Firdous Khan

Firdous is an imaginative wordsmith and a story teller. She has been coaching young minds to be able to express themselves creatively and confidently express their ideas since the past 12 years using her extensive experience in creative writing and public speaking. She loves reading and writing fictional stories, essays and poetries. As a true bibliophile, she continues to draw inspiration from the wonderful world of books and weave emotions into each piece of work. She believes in encouraging originality and fosters creativity in her students through her persistence, collaboration and constant support.

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