Skip to main content

Idioms are vivid artifacts of our imagination. On the lips of a skilled speaker or writer, they can be precise, evocative and fun

Illustrations by Graham Roumieu

More below Idioms: A field guide

Mark Abley is the author of Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean.

One evening last week, I scrolled through The Globe and Mail’s website. I wasn’t searching for news, I was looking for idioms. And the headlines I found were abuzz with them.

An article about BeauChapeau, a specialty store in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., had the headline, “This shop boasts a skilled sales team that wears many hats.” A story about one of Doug Ford’s new policies appeared below: “Red flags raised as Ontario reinstates doctor’s note requirement for sick workers.” And a reassuring article on personal finance was headlined, “There’s no reason to be too spooked by the prospect of a bear market.”

“Bear market,” “wearing many hats” and “raising a red flag” are familiar idioms – phrases that convey well-understood meanings that differ from the meanings of their individual words. They are vivid artifacts of our imagination. On the lips of a skilled speaker or writer, they can be precise, evocative and fun.

They are also intrinsic to the language. Red flags, deployed as a metaphor rather than just a colour description, have been flying across English for a long time: According to the vast Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of “red flag” to deliver a warning dates from 1748. Bear markets, referring to stock prices in widespread decline, go back more than a century. Wearing two (or many) hats is a younger expression, with the earliest recorded appearance coming from The Washington Post in 1949.

Journalists at this and every other newspaper often resort to idioms not just to save valuable space but also to liven up and dramatize the information in an article. Clever play with an idiom can take an idea one step further, so to speak. At a Montreal rally in January, 2017, protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump, I noticed a woman clutching a placard with the brilliant slogan, “I won’t stop till it rains glass.” Yet for anyone who didn’t grasp the sense of the idiom “glass ceiling” – which presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had so confidently expected to shatter – the words would have been baffling.

Idioms are the natural enemy of PR-speak. The other day, I had a phone conversation with a civil servant in Ottawa who was a master of government bafflegab. He talked to me earnestly about “developing capacities” and “strategic commitments” and “equity objectives.” I had a vague idea of what these words meant – but very little idea of what they were effectively hiding. Abstract polysyllables, which large corporations and governments rely on, seem to be the polar opposite of idioms.

Some idioms are poems in miniature. Think of “a skeleton at the feast,” a reminder of grief or sorrow that affects the general good cheer. Or “the early bird gets the worm,” a lively warning not to be late. Or a recently coined expression for Pluto and other distant bodies in our solar system: “ice dwarf.”

But idioms are not always innocent. If you look at the patterns of meaning they convey, you see how much they reveal about the power structures that English has developed over the centuries. It’s much better to be lion-hearted than chicken-hearted: small, vulnerable domestic animals get no respect in the language. “To have a cow” means to lose control of your emotions, whereas “to grab the bull by the horns” means to act with courage and decisiveness. Female animals, in general, suffer in English idioms far worse than male animals.

Not to mention women and girls. There’s no real equivalent in English for “Don Juan” except, perhaps, for old phrases such as “brazen hussy” and “scarlet woman.” Only men were allowed, or even expected, to “sow their wild oats.”

Idioms may be objectionable at times, but they help keep language real. I think of a rare disease that was first diagnosed in Japan in the 1990s. The formal name is takotsubo cardiomyopathy – takotsubo being a kind of octopus trap, which the bulging left ventricle of patients is said to resemble. These patients have endured such terrible emotional stress that their hearts have weakened. But unless you’re a medical professional, will the name “takotsubo cardiomyopathy" trip off your tongue?

Call the affliction instead by its idiomatic name: broken-heart syndrome.

Idioms: A field guide

In the illustration above, you saw the following idioms:

Raise the red flag • born with a silver spoon in your mouth • put your foot in your mouth • the winter of our discontent • taking the bull by the horns • skeleton at the feast • drive them nuts • dead as a dodo • when pigs have wings • stealing thunder • on Cloud Nine • raining cats and dogs • man of many hats • barking up the wrong tree • comparing apples to oranges • don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched • put all your eggs in one basket • a fly in the ointment • it ain’t over till the fat lady sings


When the heavens open and it rains buckets, we might also say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” This is a timeworn phrase, more than 300 years old, and it may have something to do with the traditional hostility between dogs and cats. But an even older usage – recorded about 1630 in a play by an obscure London dramatist named Richard Brome – evoked a rain of polecats and dogs. Polecats are widespread carnivores, often foul-smelling, the ancestor of the domesticated ferret. You don’t find them prowling the clouds. Violent weather conditions such as tornado waterspouts have led to very occasional falls of frogs and fish from the sky, but there are no attested records of cats, dogs or polecats dropping out of thin air. In many languages, though, heavy rain is the subject of a peculiar idiom. The Welsh talk about it “raining old ladies and sticks”; in Dutch, it can “rain kittens, old wives or pipe stems”; and in Danish, it “rains shoemakers’ apprentices.” That may be even harder to explain than a Spanish idiom that is said to be common in Medellin, Colombia: “It’s raining husbands.”


“You stole my thunder!” Unless you’re Thor, that can’t be a serious accusation. For mortals, it means you took someone else’s words or ideas and used them for your own advantage. The idiom has a clear origin. In 1709, a London dramatist and critic named John Dennis invented a new way of mimicking the sound of thunder for his play Appius and Virginia. The thunder method was successful, but the play was not; it closed after a few days. Attending a production of Macbeth soon after, Mr. Dennis was startled to find his noise-making apparatus back in use. “Damn them!” he said. “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder.”


Occasionally, a writer or speaker will find a deft way to combine two idioms in a memorable line. When you put your foot in your mouth, you make a serious blunder. If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you come from a wealthy family. And in 1988, speaking at her party’s national convention, Texas Democrat Ann Richards brought the house down by saying of Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”


Any time you speak of “a fly in the ointment” (a problem or flaw) or “a nest of vipers” (a group of evil-minded people), you’re using an expression that sprang to life in the Bible. Indeed the Bible is full of animals, though not always the obvious ones. Cats, which were worshipped in ancient Egypt, are mentioned there only once. Instead we find mythical dragons, satyrs, griffons, behemoths and the strange, terrifying Leviathan – a landlubber’s nightmare of a great whale. Jesus used one of the most memorable idioms in the Bible to suggest that money is the root of much evil. He declared, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” British writer Evelyn Waugh quoted this remark in his novel Brideshead Revisited, where the fabulously wealthy Lady Marchmain explains it away by saying: “Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints.”


The expression “as merry as the day is long” comes from Shakespeare’s history play King John, now a fairly obscure work, but very popular in the past – though I assume he meant to evoke a day in June or July, not one in January. At the far side of the turning year, beyond what Shakespeare called “the teeming autumn, big with rich increase,” lies “the winter of our discontent.” This expression has enjoyed an afterlife far beyond its original context: a bitter monologue by a cunning schemer who will soon grab the throne of England and adopt the name Richard III. Memorable phrases usually spawn imitators, and this one is no exception. A 2010 book about a family living offline had the title The Winter of Our Disconnect, and a political comedy show put on in 2016 by Second City in Chicago was called The Winner … of Our Discontent. But my favourite adaptation of the phrase occurred when an English camping store put a big sign in its front window: “Now is the winter of our discount tents.”


Food can lead language in weird directions. In German, “to have tomatoes on your eyes” indicates you’re missing something obvious. The Portuguese expression “feeding sponge cake to the donkey” refers to giving special treatment to a person who doesn’t need it. If you’re speaking Hungarian and you’re uncertain if a product is really as good as it’s made out to be, you’d say “the fence is not made from sausage.” And just across the border, in Romania, it’s unwise to “take someone out of his watermelons.” It means to drive that person crazy. Or, as we say in English, to drive him nuts.


Language change has weakened a dramatic way of conveying fear: “frighten the living daylights” out of somebody. True, you still hear the idiom from time to time. But it seems mild, even quaint, the sort of thing an elderly aunt might blurt out. That’s not how the phrase always sounded. “Daylights” used to be a term for a person’s eyes, and so the image had the same kind of force as the modern expression “make her eyes pop out of her head.” Over time, “daylights” came to refer to a person’s vital organs or life force; then the word vanished from daily use. Eyes or organs, if a fear was powerful enough to expel your daylights, you were terror-struck.


The fantasy of animals doing ridiculous things has led to idioms in several languages that vividly suggest the impossible. In English, we say “when pigs fly” or “when pigs have wings,” and some other European languages resort to the same image, among them Norwegian, Welsh and Estonian. But to convey the idea in French, you’d say “when hens have teeth.” The Dutch equivalent is “when calves dance on the ice.” And Russian takes the idea to a surrealist extreme: “when a lobster whistles on a mountaintop.”


“Dead as a doornail” has been traced back to the 14th century. It’s unclear what distinguished a nail in a medieval door from any other type of nail. Had it been flattened on the inside after hammering so that it could never be pulled out and reused? This phrase has endured while other, similar expressions have retreated – people in past centuries, if their minds weren’t occupied by doornails, also said “dead as a herring” and “dead as mutton.” Eventually, the fish and sheep were dropped in favour of the dodo, a big flightless bird from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Dodos went extinct in the 1660s, the first widely known example of human beings exterminating a whole species. Thanks to the bird’s appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “dead as a dodo” became a popular expression.


You can be sure it’s not a computer chip that people carry on their shoulders – but is it a potato chip, a poker chip, a chocolate chip or what? Actually, it’s a wood chip, and one of considerable size. “Chip on his shoulder” is an American idiom that once conveyed a literal meaning. As a Long Island newspaper noted in 1830, “when two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off.” So the idiom began with a brawl. Poker chips, by contrast, are the ones referred to in the expression “when the chips are down” – that is, when times are tough and a decision has to be made. “Cash in your chips” also comes from poker – it’s what you do when the game is over. It’s also American slang for “die.”