Are you word smart? Then you know an idiom is a word or phrase that has developed a meaning that is different than the meaning of the words the idiom is constructed with? Right? It's not difficult. Think of phrases such as "raining cats and dogs," "kick the bucket," "straight from the horse's mouth," and "once in a blue moon."
Now, we've never witnessed cats and dogs actually falling from the sky, we're pretty sure that kicking a bucket wouldn't kill you, horses can't talk, and the moon isn't actually blue. The thing is that these colorful phrases are idioms; they are phrases that developed over time to have meanings other than what is literally meant.
All languages have idioms. They are one of the components of language that make learning a language other than your native tongue difficult. If you told a new English learner that it was raining cats and dogs outside, he or she would likely be very confused... or think you were seeing something.
Idioms are fun. Take this quiz to find out if you know common phrases better than most everyone else.
This idiom means it's raining really hard. The phrase is so old that we're not sure where it came from - one theory is that it came from an obsolete word, "catadupe," which meant "waterfall."
To "cry wolf" comes from an old children's tale, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." In it, the shepherd boy loses sheep because he "cried wolf" so many times that villagers stopped taking his alarm seriously.
If you've just barely managed to do something, you've done it "by the skin of your teeth." It actually comes from the Book of Job, but historians aren't clear on what inspired its use.
The phrase "in a nutshell" is used when someone is summing up a story. Use of the phrase goes all the way back to ancient Rome, but it was popularized by Shakespeare.
Someone overly dramatic who uses emotions to manipulate people might be accused of crying "crocodile tears." Ancient people believed that crocodiles wept during their meals -- perhaps to lure more victims.
"Pounding the pavement" is an expression for taking a long, purposeful walk, typically in reference to finding a job. If you actually got out and went door to door in the business district, your feet would literally be pounding the pavement!
"Kicking the bucket" is an idiom for dying. Its origin is far from lighthearted: the phrase possibly originated when people who hung themselves would kick the bucket they were standing on.
People who "stick to their guns" aren't going to give up easily. It originally meant to hold your own in battle instead of fleeing.
The expression "break a leg" seems cruel when considered literally, but it's actually a way to wish someone good luck. It arose from superstition - people thought if they mentioned something bad, something good would happen instead.
To get the truth "straight from the horse's mouth," you have to talk to a first-hand witness. The phrase originated from buying and selling horses; you could verify a horse's age, for example, by examining its teeth.
A "bigwig" is someone who's really important or wealthy -- for example, the CEO of the company where you work. The saying springs from the British, who wore large, white wigs if they were important and rich enough to afford them.
To 'leave no stone unturned' is to be extremely careful and thorough while researching something. The phrase is often used to describe a criminal investigation, a research project or a search for a lost item.
'Turning over a new leaf' refers to starting fresh. Just like trees grow new leaves each spring, so too can we look for times to begin anew.
The phrase "get it together" means that someone needs to compose themselves and perform to a higher standard, be it in work, school or just life in general.
The phrase "shape up or ship out" means that someone needs to perform better or leave. It originated in American military forces when soldiers or sailors were underperforming.
If you cut someone some slack, you're easing up on expectations or being more understanding - at least for now. It began as a nautical term.
This fun idiom from poker means that you have to let things happen, and then react accordingly. Sometimes, there's just nothing more you can do.
Occasionally, there will be two full moons in one calendar month; in modern times, this phenomenon has been dubbed a "blue moon." In addition, the moon sometimes takes on a blue appearance when enough ash particles are in the atmosphere, such as when the volcano known as Krakatoa exploded.
Hitting the hay is the equivalent of going to bed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, beds were often sacks stuffed with hay. The expression "hit the hay" and "hit the sack" are interchangeable.
"Hang in there" is a phrase commonly used to comfort someone who's having a rough time. A popular theory points to a widely circulated photograph of a kitten hanging from a silk rope as the culprit for the now-popular phrase.
The phrase comes from the wild days when men whipped out pistols from their holsters and fired at hip level. Now, it refers to someone who makes snap decisions and says things without always thinking them through.
When a car's gas tank gets low, the only thing keeping it running are the leftover fumes from the gas. This led to the expression "running on fumes," which is often used when someone just can't keep going without sleep and/or food. A similar expression is "running on empty."
If you "couldn't care less" about something, then you don't care very much at all. "Could care less" is often mistaken for this phrase, which was popularized in the US sometime in the '50s.
Someone who's "tickled pink" is thrilled or delighted with something. It arose from the shade your face might turn if tickled for an extended period of time.
Alas, this exciting phrase has nothing to do with graveyards or the walking dead; instead, it refers to the premise that a person's skeleton is the bare minimum for maintaining a human-looking appearance.
In this idiom, the fence is an imaginary dividing line between one decision or another, and the indecisive person is straddling the divider - in other words, "on the fence."
If you can do it without thinking, it's a "piece of cake." It most likely originated from contests in the late nineteenth century, when cakes were given as prizes.
"When pigs can fly" or "when pigs fly" is an expression of disbelief: something is so unlikely that it won't happen until pigs can fly (a very unlikely event indeed).
This common expression is used to mean that you shouldn't make assumptions about a situation or person based on appearance alone. You may find your initial assessment to be quite wrong!
Missing the boat (arriving too late to board the vehicle headed the way you wanted to go) was a sorry thing indeed - so sorry, in fact, that it became an idiom for missing an opportunity.
If you "don't have a horse in the race," then you don't have anything staked on the outcome of a certain event. This idiom clearly came from the practice of betting on horse races.
The phrase "preaching to the choir" is commonly used to describe someone speaking to a group that is already in agreement. A pastor telling the people already in church that it's important to be in church on Sunday would be "preaching to the choir."
If you "spill the beans," then you've just revealed a secret, whether it's yours to reveal or not. Some say this idiom hails from ancient Greece, when votes were cast secretly with white or black beans; spilling them meant that the tally would be known too soon!
If a man is known for "sowing his wild oats," then he's known for sleeping around. Wild oats were not considered to be useful in the 16th century, nor was it helpful for a man to father children outside the family.
Red herrings were apparently used to train hunting dogs to follow a scent despite the herring's sharp smell, and some say escaped prisoners would use the fish to throw the dogs off the trail during their escape. In both cases, the "red herring" is used as a distraction!