Dec 16, 2009

TRULY SPEAKING: Idioms, Not Idiots

Summary: If you think idioms (like "she wore her heart on her sleeve") are idiotic, think again: They not only serve a purpose, they each have common origins. There are so many of them in today's global village that they can be downright confusing, instead of the shorthand they once were. How to sort them out? See the resources linked below!

“The artless young woman wore her heart on her sleeve for all to see.”

Do you take this sentence literally, envisioning a paper heart sewn onto a shirtsleeve—or worse, a messy sleeve from a blood-pumping heart? It may surprise you to learn that a lot of people do!

This type of phrase is called an idiom, and it’s used to convey an idea somewhat poetically, or metaphorically. There are a lot of these idioms in language—in every culture. (“I’m pulling your leg” in English and “I’m touching your hair” in Spanish both mean, “I’m joking with you.”) Some people, however, are completely befuddled by idioms, especially people on the autism spectrum—which, according to the Autism Society of America, is the fastest growing developmentally challenged population in the U.S.

Despite their seemingly nonsensical existence, idioms do serve a purpose. And whether you're struggling to pick up idioms in a new language you're learning or pondering the roots of those you've heard your whole life in your native tongue, you'll be relieved to know that the purpose of any idiom is not to make you look like an idiot (though it may sometimes feel that way).

Instead, they're meant to be a type of shorthand. They come from common social situations: In example, sailors "learned the ropes" when first starting out by practicing various knot-tying techniques. As they became seasoned, it was understood that they already knew how to tie any knot needed for any situation at sea. It became a kind of shorthand for older sailors to mutter, "He's still learning the ropes," in explanation of a younger sailor's mistake—even when this mistake was about something other than tying knots into ropes. One could logically reason that if the newbie sailor didn't know his knots yet, he must not know much else about sailing; so, saying this was enough. The shorthand explanation of "He's still learning the ropes" often saved the younger sailor from more severe discipline by the captain, who may not know his crew well enough to know each man's level of experience.

Today, we frequently say of a newer company employee, "She's learning the ropes," as an explanation of her adjustment to the company's processes and practices and any other aspect of the work culture.

BTW, "wearing your heart on your sleeve" is a phrase first coined by William Shakespeare in his play Othello, 1604. Just as lines are frequently picked up today from movies—"Show me the money!"—and brought into popular culture, so were many of Shakespeare's lines of that time period. And many have stayed with us through the evolution of English.

For more help, access these sites: - Includes an Idiom Dictionary, as well as an Idiom Thesaurus for searching phrases that convey the same idea

The Phrase Finder
- Although this is a British site, it offers a handy Phrase-A-Week e-mail option in addition to meanings and another Phrase Thesaurus

© KiKi Productions, Inc. 2009


  1. This is a very interesting topic for me. As a 'English as a second language' speaker, idioms have frequently made me look like an idiot, or a comedian (I choose the lather for self-esteem purposes). Not because I don't understand the meaning (although, some are hard to grasp), but more my misuse of them. I can't think of an example right now, but typically I'd try to use an idiom (which, btw, are very common here in America), but I would misplace a word, or say it wrong. In your example, it would be like saying:"She wore her her heart on her shirt".

    Another thing I would add, I think such abundance of idioms in American English is another reflection of fast-food nation. A single sentence replaces a paragraph. Use of idioms bring our point across in the fastest and shortest way possible.

    Here's another shout-out to people that speak primarily in idioms (yes, there are such people): stop abusing idioms, and instead, come up with your own way of expressing yourself!

  2. EXCELLENT points, Sabina. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. And I like your encouragement to others to use their own voices & their own modes of expression, too. This is very important -- especially in a diverse world where the former "shorthand" of colloquialisms & idioms is often outdated.

    My father-in-law, who grew up in Peru and also speaks English as a 2nd language, often does what you do, changing just one word to make the idiom sound comical to native English-speakers (who grew up hearing the same phrases said the same way all their lives). After 30+ years living in the U.S., he's become one of those people who overuse idioms. I believe he does this as a means of fitting in, as well as flaunting the knowledge of everyday English he's acquired. (And he also likes to be a joker, so he doesn't mind when he gets one wrong & makes people laugh.)

    I confess that there are plenty of idioms I DON'T use, because to this day, I just don't understand them.


Speak YOUR TRUTH now!