Idiom: A set phrase of two or more words that means something different from the literal meaning of the individual words.
So much of what we say and what we read is not meant to be taken literally. We need to understand various groups of words in their figurative sense. Idioms (e.g., "On the spur of the moment"), metaphors (e.g., "Her smile is pure sunshine"), similes (e.g., "She eats like a bird"), and proverbs (e.g., "Look before you leap") are forms of figurative language. While all of these forms appear in written materials, it is the idiomatic expression that is prominent in our spontaneous conversational language. Since two-thirds of the English language contains such ambiguities (Arnold and Hornett, 1990; Boatner and Gates, 1975), it is essential to understand idioms. If we don't use idiomatic expressions in everyday conversations, our speech sounds stilted, unnatural, or childlike.
Children as young as eight years old can grasp some of the linguistic ambiguity of idioms. Just how easy or difficult it will be for individuals to understand idioms will depend, to a great extent, on the inherent nature of each idiom (Spector, 1996). Although most phrases with multiple meanings generally are some form of figurative language, there are phrases that are merely a group of words that can have two meanings (e.g., "There is a three-day sale at Macys," "Great, I'll take Thursday, Friday, and Saturday").
People from culturally and linguistically diverse groups, including individuals learning English as a foreign language (EFL) find idioms extremely challenging. Although some idiomatic expressions from other countries have counterpart American idioms (for example, one hair from nine oxen/a drop in the bucket, or, like ants on top of a hot cooking pot/on pins and needles), the figurative meanings of the majority of idiomatic expressions generally do not translate from language to language, or from culture to culture.
Within cultures, idiomatic espressions change. The specific idioms that make up the range of idioms used by one generation may be quite different in the next. For example, we no longer hear expressions such as, "the cat's meow" or "one's salad days."
A study by Spector (1994) shows how difficult it is for people from other countries to understand idioms. The subjects were high school students in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes, who were in the United States for between one to four years. They were asked to answer questions about jokes based on idioms. For example, they were asked to interpret the idiom working for peanuts in this joke:
Question: "Why did Snoopy want to quit the comic strip?"
Answer: "He was tired of working for Peanuts."
The following responses were given.
Literal interpretations: "No salary, no money. You work and you get peanuts back;" "They were paying him with peanuts."
Tangential or unrelated interpretations: "He was sick of it, he was getting bored;"
"When you don't want to work anymore;" "Working for stupid people. He was tired of working for them."
Related interpretation: "The job is not good, not important."