An idiom is a figure of speech that means something different than a literal translation of the words would lead one to believe. For example, "it's raining cats and dogs" is a common idiom in English, but it's not meant to be taken literally: Household pets are not falling from the sky! It's a colorful way of saying that it’s raining really hard outside.
Because idioms are such interesting ways to get a point across, they're often seen in literature. In fact, many of the most common idioms we use today were originally coined by great writers as a unique metaphor; then people liked them enough to start using them in everyday conversation. See how many of these famous examples of idioms in literature you recognize.
William Shakespeare was a master of using the English language in new ways, and many of the figures of speech we use today come from his plays. Here's a sampling of them:
- Break the ice - This phrase was first used in The Taming of the Shrew. Tranio encourages Petruchio to "break the ice" with Katherine to get to know her, suggesting that he may like her better — and get her to like him. Today this phrase is used to refer to relieving tension or getting to know someone better, usually by making small talk, or a kind gesture to start a new relationship.
- Wear my heart upon my sleeve - This saying was first used in Othello when Iago describes how he would be vulnerable if he revealed his dislike of Othello. In the play, the phrase continues to state that the “daws," or crows, would be able to peck at his heart if he revealed it. Today, people use this phrase to mean that they are showing their real feelings about something.
- Set my teeth on edge - In Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur complains about how much he hates poetry, saying, "And that would set my teeth nothing an edge, nothing so much as mincing poetry." Today the phrase is used to express distaste for something, particularly annoyance, and also discomfort, like the noise of nails dragging on a chalkboard.
- There's method in my madness - In Hamlet, Polonius observes Hamlet's antics and says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." He suspects Hamlet isn't behaving as irrationally as he seems to be on the surface. The phrase has changed slightly, but the meaning is the same: Even though your action seems random, you have a purpose to them.
- Dead as a doornail - Though this phrase is perhaps better known as the opening description of Ebenezer Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, it was previously used by Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Part 2 Jack Cade says, “I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” The phrase is still used emphatically, implying that something is so dead it's as if it were never alive in the first place.
- The world is my oyster - In The Merry Wives Of Windsor, when Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol money Pistol draws his sword and says, "Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” Today the phrase is full of optimism rather than violence and is used to say the world is full of possibilities and you can do anything.
Many other authors also coined their own idioms or used common idioms in their works to great effect. Idioms often help make dialogue more realistic and make clear a character's personality, education or background. Here are more idioms used in famous works of literature:
- I can't do [X] to save my life - This phrase can be traced back to English novelist Anthony Trollope in The Kellys and the O'Kellys. The original version is "If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate." Here the speaker explains that he's so bad at small talk he couldn't do it even to save his life. It’s still used to indicate someone is no good at an activity, often in a self-deprecating way.
- Pot calling the kettle black - This phrase comes from the Spanish novel Don Quixote by Cervantes. It referred to the fact that pots and kettles of the time were made of cast iron and got blackened in the fire and is used to suggest that one shouldn't accuse or criticize another of something they're also guilty of.
- Love is blind - First seen in writing in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales“ - For love is blind all day, and may not see” - this phrase means that true love is not superficial and also captures the idea that love can be unexpected or random.
- Live off the fat of the land - Though a version of this phrase exists in the Book of Genesis, it's perhaps most famously used in John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men. George tells Lenny they'll live off the fat of the land and have rabbits when they make enough money to stop traveling around for work. The phrase means getting the best of everything without having to work hard for it.
- Extend an olive branch - This phrase hearkens back to the Greek myth of Athena who gifted the olive tree to the Athenians and the Biblical story of Noah, when a dove came back bearing an olive branch to show the great flood waters had receded and the animals could safely leave the ark. Today the phrase means to offer peace or a truce after a disagreement.
- Mad as a hatter - This expression is said to refer to the use of mercury to set felt hats which was thought to drive hat makers crazy. Though the expression predates his work, Lewis Carroll created his Mad Hatter character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in reference to this English idiom.
Great literature has always been filled with idioms to describe characters and settings in vivid, memorable terms. Whether the authors were the first to coin a phrase or were simply making the best use of the language they heard around them, idioms add sparkle and wit to the works in which they are employed. If writers are lucky, their sentiments will be memorable enough to continue being used for hundreds of years.