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What Are the Different Types of Idioms?

Meg Higa
Meg Higa

Idioms can be a single word, a phrase or clause, or they can be a complete sentence or expression. People often explain their use as figures of speech. Many are indeed figurative, sometimes simply visually exaggerated. For example, it must be raining very heavily in order to describe it as "raining cats and dogs." Idioms can be metaphorical, polysemic, opaque or transparent, and are often colloquial or cultural.

These phrases or sentences are peculiar, enigmatic expressions of a given language. At face value, based solely on the literal definitions of the expression's words, idioms often make no sense. Usually, the expressions have a hidden cultural context, such that only a native of the language and of the culture from which the phrase arose can understand its meaning. They are a significant field of study for theoretical linguists and educators of foreign languages.

"He flew out the door" is a figurative example of an idiom.
"He flew out the door" is a figurative example of an idiom.

Many idioms are metaphorical. Several adages are derived, for example, from the metaphor of time as a currency. Some of the metaphors are obscure analogies, but others may be broadly universal. "Spending time" with children is a phrase that can probably be understood in any language translation.

The most common type of idiom are polysemes. They are words — often verbs — and phrases with multiple, somewhat related meanings. An example is the verb "run;" to "run with a smart idea" or "run a computer program" are related to, but quite different from running a foot race.

Although the distinction is not an absolute one, different types of idioms are categorized as either opaque or transparent. The determinant is to what degree the idiom's literal translation reveals, with some thought, its underlying meaning. "Leave no stone unturned," is a transparent idiom for searching thoroughly. The opaque German idiom, "to bite into the grass" might mean various things, but the expression becomes quite clear when explained that it means "to die."

Idioms are almost always colloquial or cultural. Americans are often uncomfortable talking about death, so the cryptic English idiom is "to kick the bucket." This exact same expression in Brazilian Portuguese, however, means "to give up, with emphatic drama." Both were born independently from their respective cultures, and have true meaning only within their local context.

The cultural depth of idiomatic expressions is to the extent that most native speakers of a language are rarely aware they are uttering colloquialisms. Some linguists and sociologists speculate that these inventions of language are a culture's way to differentiate itself — a code which outsiders cannot decipher. As such, idioms are often the most difficult aspect of a foreign language to both learn and comprehend.

Discussion Comments


What is it called when someone mistakenly (or for humorous effect) combines two idioms so that the result is nonsense? Example: That's water over the bridge.


@lighth0se33 – It may be a tiny bit humorous, but I think it is really embarrassing to the person who is unfamiliar with our language. So, I try not to laugh whenever someone misuses an idiom.

I have cousins who are from Puerto Rico, and they don't speak English very fluently. I try to never use idioms when I'm around them, because this would only confuse them. I am also afraid that they might try to use them when I'm not around, and they could forget the exact phrasing and embarrass themselves.

Though a small part of me chuckles inside when I hear an improper idiom, I am usually successful at stifling that laughter. Instead, I offer up help with the phrasing.


Some everyday idioms that are meant to add a touch of humor to a bad situation make me very uncomfortable. This is because of my stepfather's tendency to use them to deliver bad news.

I really don't think you should say that someone just “bit the dust” when you are telling a person close to the one who just died the news. My stepfather used this idiom to tell me and my brother that our grandfather had just died, and we were horrified.

He had been in a car accident, so it was totally unexpected. The crass way in which our stepfather told us this news made it even more terrible. I couldn't believe he could be so casual about the whole thing.


I totally understand why time is analogous with money in idioms. It is truly the most valuable thing we have, and ironically, we often have to spend most of it slaving away to make actual money.

So, when we take time off of work to do something important, we are actually “spending” that time losing money. Whatever we gain may be of emotional or physical value, but we are losing income because of our choices.

I feel like every minute spent at a doctor's office or home with an illness is money spent, because it is. I'm not spending it on something I want to be doing, but even when I do take off to go do something enjoyable, I have that feeling of dread from the lost income hanging over me.

It is really funny to me when people mess up American idioms. My family took in several foreign exchange students when I was a teenager, and I had to teach them various slang words and phrases.

The effect was really lost on them. They only said the idioms to try to fit in with everyone else, and often, it alienated them further. When they messed up and got laughed at, they really felt like they stood out.

One exchange student told another student that her pet fish “hit the bucket.” She meant to say “kicked the bucket,” but she got her words confused, and once the other student realized that she was trying to say her fish had died, she burst out laughing, making matters worse.

Of course, I know I'd be doing the exact same thing if I were to speak another language myself -- I guess idioms are the trickiest thing to learn in any language.

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    • "He flew out the door" is a figurative example of an idiom.
      By: kantver
      "He flew out the door" is a figurative example of an idiom.