"It's tough trying to keep your feet on the ground, your head above the clouds, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, your finger on the pulse, your eye on the ball and your ear to the ground." --Proverb quotes
Idioms. Don't you love them? They say things in quirky ways that make the point interesting. Nose to the grindstone? What hard work! Ear to the ground? What a way to keep tabs on what's going on.
What about bite your tongue, chip on his shoulder, flash in the pan, get up on the wrong side of the bed, or go out on a limb. Maybe even let sleeping dogs lie, not playing with a full deck, and put a sock in it. I love the imagery, don't you?
An idiom (n.), according to Dictionary.com is 1. "a group of words whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the constituent elements," or 2. "a language, dialect or style of speaking peculiar to a people." In other words, it's a phrase that means something else than the literal words and is a "construction or expression in one language that cannot be matched or directly translated word-for-word in another language" (Literary Terms and Definitions). Imagine trying to explain to an ESL student can't cut the mustard. Want more examples of common idioms? Check out lists hereand here.
The problem with idioms, however, is that--although they might have started out as a quaint and unique colloquialism--in writing they can quickly become cliche. George Tamayo makes the distinction between the two: "Idioms and cliches are two different things, and while idioms can be cliches and cliches can be idioms, they should be kept distinct." He continues: "The usage writer E. Ward Gilman has observed that the word 'idiom' is usually positive... A cliche is a word or phrase that has been overused to the point of having lost its freshness or vigor."
Personal example here. We had a saying around this house when the kids were growing up that was unique and original, and I say falls in the category of an idiom--although when it was being bantered around, no one stopped and said, "My, what an original idiom." No, I think initially it was meant as an insult. Here it is:
"Turn the clock back to where it ticks."
None of us, hubby, Melissa, nor Keith could ever actually define its meaning, but looking back I rather suspect it came to light when one of the kids accused the other of something, and the accused flung it right back to the accusee! Loved it then, love it still. It's quaint, fresh, and will never grow trite, at least not around here. It certainly fits the definition--not predictable based on the elements, and a style of speaking peculiar to a people, i.e. this particular clan!
Got any original idioms unique to you and yours? Any classics that are favorites you feel never go out of style? How do you use idioms in your writing without them sounding cliched?
p.s. if you're so inclined, try the "Paint By Idioms Game," atFunBrain. You "help the grand master 'Salvabear Dali' finish his paintings" by identifying the correct expression. Have fun :-)