An idiom is an expression whose literal meaning differs from the intended (figurative) meaning. For example, if an American student says that an exam was “a piece of cake,” s/he means the test was very easy (not that the exam was a literal dessert pastry). Or imagine you are preparing to give a presentation to an important client. A little bit nervous, you go over your outline in the break room. Just as you’re about to leave and face your audience, your best friend at work shouts a cryptic sentence in an eerily cheery tone:
“Break a leg!”
No, they’re not hoping you fracture your tibia–they’re wishing you good luck! (Why “break a leg?” It’s unclear, but some believe it resulted from a superstition against wishing someone good luck).
Here are five more popular idiomatic expressions English language learners might encounter in the United States.
1. “Costs an arm and a leg”
Speaking of legs… If something is so expensive that it shocks you, it is common to say that, “It costs an arm and a leg.” It’s almost like saying that you can’t pay it so if feels as if you would almost have to give your limbs in order to afford the item. For example, if you see a phone that normally costs $100 on sale for $700, you might say it costs “an arm and a leg.”
2. “When pigs fly”
Think about the last time you saw a pig fly. We’re going to go ahead and assume you have never witnessed such a spectacle. So if someone tells you, “When pigs fly,” they are trying to tell you that it will never happen. For instance, if a boy walks up to a girl and he asks her on a date, she might say, “When pigs fly.” Not the nicest way to reject someone, of course, but you get the idea. It’s never going to happen.
3. “Hit the nail on the head”
The head of a nail is the flat part you strike with a hammer. Hit it the head accurately, and the nail goes in straight and true. That’s the literal meaning of hitting a nail on the head. The figurative (intended) meaning is to be precisely accurate. Say you and your friend are playing a game in which you describe a picture that you see behind your friend and your friend has to guess what it is you’re describing. You begin describing, and your friend guesses correctly. “You hit the nail on the head!” you might say. That means that the answer is correct, and precisely so.
4. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
When you look at a book, at times you won’t know if it is a good or bad read. You might see an eye-catching, beautifully designed cover and we assume it’s a great book. But maybe it’s horribly written. Or you might see a terrible cover and we think the book must be terrible, too. But maybe it’s masterfully executed. The same principle applies to anything, any person, any situation. The figurative (intended) meaning of the expression is, acquire information before making a snap judgement. A frowning woman with a hardened face might be a mean person. Or she may have just lost a family member. Someone may have stolen all of her belongings. What appears to be true on the surface and what is actually true are often two different things. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
5. “Bite off more than you can chew”
Have you ever literally bitten off more than you can chew? It’s not a comfortable feeling.(If you’re not too careful, you’ll choke). Same goes for life. As an idiom, to bite off more than you can chew means to take on more responsibility than you can handle, whether at work, in school, or at home. If you already work 80 hours per week, for example, and you want to start your own business on the side, you’re probably biting off more than you can chew. Similarly, the idiom can also mean to challenge a much stronger or skilled opponent. A German Shepard that attacks a mountain lion will quickly discover it has bitten off more than it can chew.
Review these five idioms and incorporate them into your everyday speech. Start slowly. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Let’s see what can you remember? (Don’t look back!)
When pigs fly means…
A) It costs too much money
B) You’re eating too much
C) It is never happening
You can’t judge a book by its cover means…
A) When you can’t understand a book because it has a cover.
B) When you can’t tell what someone or something is like by just looking at it or them.
C) When you can’t tell why the book has a cover.
You see a pair of shoes that you really want, and it costs $5,000. What situation are you dealing with?
A) When pigs fly
B) You can bite off more than you can chew
C) It cost an arm and a leg.
My brother said the right answer on a show and won a million dollars! He knew the answer without any hesitation. He…
A) hit the nail on the head
B) broke a leg
C) costs an arm and a leg
To bite more off than you can chew means…
A) To attempt to do more than you can handle
B) To eat food and not be able to chew it
C) To bite more and chew fast
Answers: I. c – II. b – III. c – IV. a – V. a