A word or phrase in a language that in common usage has a meaning not evident from the dictionary definition of the word(s) involved.

The sense intended by Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is #5 on dictionary.com:

A style of artistic expression characteristic of a particular individual, school, period, or medium: the idiom of the French impressionists; the punk rock idiom.

Idioms and Violence

Wars and abuses seem to be a good breeding ground for idioms and languages. What follow are some examples.

In the English Civil War the city of Coventry was a Parliamentary stronghold. When Oliver Cromwell's army took Royalist prisoners, they sent them to Coventry, where if they escaped execution, they would have a difficult life being shunned by the local people. So to be "sent to Coventry" is to be ostracised and ignored by everyone as a punishment.

When someone is "marooned", he is cut off from the civilization with no means of returning home. In the XVII century the word "maroon" was first applied to runaway Negro slaves who, being fugitives, made their new homes in places as inaccessible as possible.

If you are "sold down the river" you get a bad deal. This phrase comes from the practice of American sugarcane plantation owners of getting rid of troublesome slaves by selling them to other landowners lower down the Mississippi.

It is often forgotten that some children were seized in England and sold to plantation owners to work as servants in America. Thus, the word "kidnap" is composed of kid (boy) plus nap (steal).

It is not longer used the word "petard" except in the phrase "hoist with his own petard", the sad fate of that man lighting the fuse.

The expression "when balloon goes up" indicates that events are becoming critical. In both World Wars barrage balloons were used to deter low-flying enemy aircrafts. If a balloon was sent up, it meant that air attack must be imminent.

In November 1990 Margaret Thatcher "met her Waterloo": she was defeated in the election of the Conservative Party leader, and so resigned as Prime Minister. In the Battle of Waterloo the Napoleon's army was routed by Wellington's and Blucher's forces. It was the end of Napoleon, who abdicated four days later.

I’ve been interested in idioms ever since I overheard my primary school teacher telling her colleague that she was fed up because “the kids in the class are always berwi fel caws pys”. I knew of course that this meant the children were ‘boiling like pea soup’, but I had no idea what it meant. Only later did I discover that she was annoyed that the class wouldn’t stop talking.

It was then that I realised that every language must have its own idioms, and that they probably make exactly as little sense to foreign learners as our own:

“I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth! She left him high and dry, but at least he’s got her off his back now.”

Shortly before I moved to Germany, I received a book of German idioms from a colleague as a leaving present. It was quite old, but provided an interesting insight into the German mindset, for example, the German equivalent to ‘all good things must come to an end’ is „alles hat ein Ende - nur die Wurst hat zwei“ (lit: ‘everything has an end, only the sausage has two’ - It’s hard to imagine any race stereotyping itself more effectively!).

Aside from confirming what we always knew about Germans and their eating habits, the book was sadly a bit dull. It was technically a dictionary which listed an idiom followed by a short explanation, for example:

Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm
deutet an, daß ein Kind Eigenschaften und Verhaltensweisen von den Eltern übernimmt
means that a child takes certain characteristics and behaviours from their parents

which whilst useful, isn’t really interesting. For my 23rd birthday however, I received a fantastic French idiom dictionary called «Nom d’une Pipe!» which was not only fully illustrated with Blake and Mortimer comics, but also contained literal, word-for-word translations into English:

Lécher: to lick
Ours mal léché toi-même ! : Badly-licked bear yourself!
You’re a big oaf!”

Idioms are what make languages interesting. They not only give an fascinating insight into the people (such as confirming that Germans eat only sausages or that the French are prone to licking bears, though sometimes not very well) but they also give the language itself a new depth and richness. Sure, ‘he ran away’ works, but ‘he legged it’ is far more descriptive.

As I’ve mentioned, the “big” languages have not only idiom dictionaries but also books about them, analysing them and generally making them interesting. Sadly however, smaller languages do not. Welsh, for example, has only three books of idioms, all of which were written before 1979. And useful though they are, they’re very boring.

Another problem with smaller languages is that, when the native idiom gets forgotten, it often gets replaced with a translation of that of a more dominant language - in the case of Welsh, the English. For example, the perfectly good ‘dw i'n yfed cwrw ond unwaith yn y pedwar amser’ (lit: I drink beer only once in the four seasons) has been all but replaced with the English ‘unwaith yn y leuad glas’ - once in a blue moon.

This is a shame, as the father of the Welsh Nationalist movement, Emrys ap Iwan, so eloquently put it: “As shall be the language, so shall be the man, and so shall be the nation. Good language promotes civilisation, and poor language, or language that is not used well, hinders it.”

So to prevent the richness and interestingness of Welsh idiomatic speech dying out, I present you with 10 of my favourite Welsh idioms:

Welsh: “Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a chyllyll a ffyrc!”
Literally: “It’s raining old women and knives and forks!”
English: “It’s raining cats and dogs!”

Welsh: “Rhedodd e i ffwrdd gyda’i wynt yn ei ddwrn”
Literally: “He ran away with his breath in his fist”
English: “He ran away as fast as he could”

Welsh: “Dw i’n roi’r ffidil yn y tô”
Literally: “I’m putting the violin in the roof”
English: “I’m giving up”

Welsh: “Dw i’n teimlo fel tynnu blewyn o’i ddrwyn!”
Literally: “I feel like pulling a hair out of his nose!”
English: “I feel like hurting him / doing something cruel to him”

Welsh: “Mi rown fy mhen i’w dorri”
Literally: “I give my head for breaking”
English: “I’m certain”

Welsh: “Mae e yn llygad ei le yn ei barn”
Literally: “He’s in the eye of his place in his opinion
English: “He’s quite correct, in his opinion”

Welsh: “Roedd hi’n freuddwyd gwrach”
Literally: “It was a witch’s dream
English: “It was wishful thinking

Welsh: “Paid â chodi pais ar ôl piso!”
Literally: “Don’t lift your coat after pissing!”
English:Don’t cry over spilled milk

Welsh: “Mae e’n ar gefn ei geffyl gwyn”
Literally: “He’s on the back of his white horse
English: “He’s up to no good”

Welsh: “Mae hi‘n siarad fel melin pupur”
Literally: “She speaks like a pepper mill
English: “She talks non-stop”

Id"i*om (?), n. [F. idiome, L. idioma, fr. Gr. , fr. to make a person's own, to make proper or peculiar; prob. akin to the reflexive pronoun , , , and to , , one's own, L. suus, and to E. so.]


The syntactical or structural form peculiar to any language; the genius or cast of a language.

Idiom may be employed loosely and figuratively as a synonym of language or dialect, but in its proper sense it signifies the totality of the general rules of construction which characterize the syntax of a particular language and distinguish it from other tongues. G. P. Marsh.

By idiom is meant the use of words which is peculiar to a particular language. J. H. Newman.

He followed their language [the Latin], but did not comply with the idiom of ours. Dryden.


An expression conforming or appropriate to the peculiar structural form of a language; in extend use, an expression sanctioned by usage, having a sense peculiar to itself and not agreeing with the logical sense of its structural form; also, the phrase forms peculiar to a particular author.

Some that with care true eloquence shall teach, And to just idioms fix our doubtful speech. Prior.

Sometimes we identify the words with the object -- though be courtesy of idiom rather than in strict propriety of language. Coleridge.

Every good writer has much idiom. Landor.

It is not by means of rules that such idioms as the following are made current: "I can make nothing of it." "He treats his subject home." Dryden. "It is that within us that makes for righteousness." M.Arnold. Gostwick (Eng. Gram. )


Dialect; a variant form of a language.

Syn. -- Dialect. -- Idiom, Dialect. The idioms of a language belong to its very structure; its dialects are varieties of expression ingrafted upon it in different localities or by different professions. Each county of England has some peculiarities of dialect, and so have most of the professions, while the great idioms of the language are everywhere the same. See Language.


© Webster 1913.

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