Examples of Idiom in Literature

Idioms are curious figures of speech that exist in a language. Unlike literal phrases, idiomatic expressions do not mean exactly what the individual words state. Instead, they take on a separate figurative or cultural meaning. Idioms add color and texture to language by capturing concepts pithily in imaginative ways. They are commonly used in literature to convey ideas creatively and philosophically.

What are Idioms?

An idiom is a common phrase that does not equate to the literal summation of its parts. Idioms typically emerge from a culture and take on a figurative meaning that accepted shorthand within that community.

Some features of idioms:

  • The meaning is not obvious from the individual words. For example, “kick the bucket” refers to dying rather than literally kicking a bucket.
  • They cannot be translated word-for-word into other languages. Idioms are inherently cultural.
  • They are colloquial phrases that become broadly adopted in a linguistic community.
  • The figurative meaning is widely recognized by native language users.
  • They add color and capture cultural concepts in succinct memorable packages.

Idioms develop within cultures as clever encapsulations of ideas. Once they take hold, the figurative meaning becomes quickly understood even though a literal reading seems nonsensical. This compact blending of imagery and language gives idioms a unique flair.

Common Examples of Idioms

Idioms are ubiquitous across languages. Though the specific phrases vary, every tongue has figurative idiomatic expressions. Some examples in English include:

  • Bite the bullet
  • Break a leg
  • Bring home the bacon
  • Let the cat out of the bag
  • Sitting duck
  • Steal someone’s thunder
  • Under the weather

Often idioms rely on historical cultural images. For example, “bite the bullet” references having to bite a bullet for pain relief when no anesthetic was available. “Sitting duck” conjures the image of an easy target. While their original metaphors may fade over time, idioms take on a life of their own as accepted colorful phrases.

Significance of Idioms in Literature

Idioms serve several important functions in literature:

Conciseness -The compressed nature of idioms allows layers of meaning to be conveyed in just a few words. Authors can impart concepts succinctly using these culturally-imbued phrases.

Rhythm and Memorability – The pithy phrasing of many idioms gives them a catchy memorable cadence. Authors intentionally employ them to create flowing rhythms and sharpen characterizations.

Revealing Character Perspective – A character’s use of idioms can provide perspective into their cultural background, education level, emotional state and more. Idioms give personalized voice to characters.

Reinforcing Themes – Recurring idioms act like motifs to subtly underscore themes in literature. Their repetition links back to core ideas.

Adding Humor or Wit – Idioms often have an amusing quality. Their whimsy can add moments of levity, irony or wit to a literary work.

Examples of Idiom In Literature

Example#1

“To Autumn” by John Keats

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft”

In this stanza from Keats’ poem “To Autumn”, he uses the idiom “full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn”. The idiom “loud bleat” refers to the loud cries of adult sheep, emphasizing their maturity in contrast to lambs. Keats uses this pastoral idiom to vividly portray the season’s progression.

Example#2

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray

“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.”

Here Gray employs the idiom “short and simple annals of the Poor” to describe the brief, unembellished records of the rural poor. The idiom reinforces his theme valuing their modest contributions despite lacking fame or status.

Example#3

“To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,”

Burns uses the idiom “best laid schemes” meaning well-planned designs, only to upend it saying such schemes often go awry, or “gang aft a-gley”. This idiom highlights the poem’s message about the unpredictability of life.

Example#4

“Shirley” by Charlotte Brontë

Heaven forbid that I should say one word ‘against him’: I don’t want to ‘get into hot water’.”

Brontë uses the idioms “Heaven forbid” and “get into hot water” to deepen characterization and themes about social constraints on speech at the time.

Example#5

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

“Elizabeth tried to join in their discourse, but could only think of Lydia’s situation, and the very circumstantial detail which she had given them of all the particulars of their journey.”

In the excerpt, Austen uses the idiom “very circumstantial detail” to describe how Lydia thoroughly related all the specifics of her elopement. The idiom emphasizes how Lydia meticulously told them every particular about her scandalous adventure.

Example#6

“Representative Men” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“His heart was as great as the world, but there was no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong.”

Here Emerson employs the idiomatic expression “no room in it to hold the memory of a wrong” to highlight the boundless forgiveness and optimism of his subject. The idiom conveys the idea of having no space to retain grudges or grievances.

Related Terms

Here are two literary terms related to idioms:

Idiomatic expression – This refers to an expression or phrase that does not follow the regular rules of grammar, but is accepted as a standard part of the language. Idioms are a type of idiomatic expression.

Figurative language – This refers to language that uses figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, and personification as opposed to literal language. Idioms are a type of figurative language because their meaning is figurative rather than literal.

Examples of Idiom In Literature
Examples of Idiom In Literature

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