Thursday, January 19, 2012

Idioms vs. Cliches

"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 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 here and 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," at FunBrain. You "help the grand master 'Salvabear Dali' finish his paintings" by identifying the correct expression. Have fun :-)

*photo courtesy of


  1. How do I use them? VERY sparingly. :) Like you, I'm always conscious of that cliche issue. I guess the only way I'd use them (on purpose) would be if it was obvious that I WANTED to use a cliche.

    This is a great post, though. Makes me think again about the words I choose and whether they really say what I meant them to say - not to mention, how many other writers have said the very same thing in the very same way. Can't wait to try the Paint by Idioms game. Thanks!

  2. Love this, Kenda! I never thought much about the difference, but now that you mention it...:) Yes, we have our own within our family, many that are paraphrases of movie lines or something one of us said that stuck around. Love yours. Good post, thanks!

    Happy weekend!

  3. I never thought about the difference, either. I don't use idioms much in my writing, except one or two in my Irish novel 9because I did like them so much when I read them in a site giving Irish sayings.) But I think any new fresh way of saying things eventually works its way into the language as an idiom. I guess a cliche is a stale idiom.

    I love "turn the clock back to where it ticks."