Idiom - idiomatic

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An idiom is a linguistic element or feature (e.g., a phrase or a grammatical construction) that is distinctive of or peculiar to a particular language (e.g., English, French, Arabic) The word idiom comes, through Latin idiōma,’a peculiarity of language’, from Greek ἰδὶωμα (idiōma), ‘peculiarity, specific property, unique feature’, a noun formed from the adjective ἴδιος (idios), ‘one’s own, pertaining to oneself, peculiar, appropriate, characteristic’..

The noun idiom is used in two different ways - either as a count noun to denote a specific feature or element in a language, as in ‘English has many idioms which refer to the weather’, or as a non-count noun to mean ‘the general nature or character of a language’, as in ‘Long, complicated sentences in the style of the Roman orator Cicero are alien to current English idiom’.

The related adjectives are idiomatic and its opposite unidiomatic. Idiomatic is applied to ways of speaking (or writing) which come naturally to a native speaker, while forms of expression which a native speaker would not naturally use may be described as unidiomatic.

Many different elements or features of a language may be referred to as idioms and/or described as idiomatic. Here is a selection.

Idiom is applied to such expressions as ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ (meaning ‘It’s raining very heavily’) and ‘To get the wrong end of the stick’ (meaning ‘To completely misunderstand the situation’), i.e., expressions whose meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of their constituent words. A non-native speaker of English would have to be told what these expressions mean, and it cannot be assumed that they can be translated word-for-word into other languages – the equivalent expressions, e.g., in Italian are Piove a catinelle (literally ‘It’s raining buckets’) and Capire fischi per fiaschi (literally ‘To take whistles for flasks’). For more idiomatic expressions of this kind see The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed, 2014, under Idiom, p. 204.

Set phrases such as ‘by plane’, ‘by car’, ‘by train’ are often described as idioms. These phrases may sometimes (seem to) contain grammatical irregularities: thus the phrases ‘by plane’, etc., are exceptions to the rule that all singular count nouns require the definite or indefinite article.

Other phrases may be idiomatic through having been established by convention as the (or an) appropriate response in particular circumstances. For example, when introduced to a stranger, one might say ‘Pleased to meet you’: to say in these circumstances ‘It pleases me to meet you’, though not ungrammatical, would be unidiomatic and tend to identify the speaker as a non-native speaker of English.

Whether stock similes such as ‘as red as a beetroot’ and ‘as thin as a rake’ are to be regarded as idioms may be disputed. On the one hand, the equivalent similes in other languages are not typically word-for-word translations – the equivalent Italian similes, e.g., are rosso come un pomodoro (literally ‘as red as a tomato’) and magro come un chiodo (literally ‘as thin as a nail’). On the other hand, some similes do translate word-for-word into (some) other languages – ‘as cunning as a fox’, e.g., is the same in Italian (furbo come un volpe). And, more significantly, a person who does not use the stock simile but (regularly) says, e.g., ‘as red as a tomato’ or ‘as red as a London bus’ can hardly be said to have made a linguistic mistake or shown a less than complete mastery of the English language.

Rather differently, the use of certain grammatical constructions may be described as unidiomatic when native speakers would naturally prefer a different construction. Thus the student who translates the Latin sentence Gallis victis Caesar Romam rediit as ‘The Gauls having been defeated, Caesar returned to Rome’ might be told that this translation, though correct, is unidiomatic: it would be better, because more idiomatic, to translate it as ‘After defeating the Gauls (or After the defeat of the Gauls), Caesar …’: the nominative absolute construction (‘the Gauls having been defeated’), though permissible, is not natural to English in the way that its Latin equivalent, the ablative absolute (Gallis victis), is natural to Latin. (On the nominative absolute in English see The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed, 2014, under Absolute clause, p. 4.) Again, a sentence containing a long series of nouns linked by ‘of’, though not ungrammatical, would be unidiomatic – e.g., the sentence ‘On the announcement of the arrival of the ambassador of the ruler of the state of Qatar the prime minister summoned his cabinet’, which might well be the literal translation of a sentence in Arabic, could be rewritten more idiomatically as ‘When it was announced that the ambassador of the ruler of Qatar had arrived, the prime minister …’.

The word idiom is also used, outside linguistic contexts, to mean the distinctive style of an artist: thus an art critic might say of a painting that it is in the idiom of, e.g., Hockney or Francis Bacon