Thursday, November 06, 2008


Rick from Petoskey, Michigan, asked about the meaning of idiom. It is applied in a variety of ways.

The most common use is to describe a set of words that makes little sense logically or grammatically, and which usually defies direct translation into another language. Yet, the combination forms a vivid or poetical expression, though it may soon degenerate into a cliché. Examples include to sit on the fence, to cut your own throat, or a woman on fire. They are not to be taken literally, but they have meaning to those in the know: to be undecided, to contribute to your own downfall, and to be highly enthusiastic and focused.

In a broad sense, idiom is a synonym for language, the form of speech peculiar or proper to a people or country.

In a narrow sense, it is a synonym for dialect, a variety of speech peculiar to a specific geographical region or district. There are also professional idioms characteristic of lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, etc. This is also called jargon.

In addition, idiom is used to define a distinct artistic style: the idiom of the French impressionists, the jazz idiom, the idiom of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In all cases, the word tracks back to the Greek idios, one’s own.

SIDEBAR: The Idiom Connection

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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