Getting to grips with...
What are idioms?
Idioms are a colourful form of expression in which the meaning of the words does not match the literal meaning. For example if a friend says someone is hot, they may be talking literally of someone who has been in the sun too long, or idiomatically of someone who is very attractive to the opposite sex. As a result, in idiomatic English a person can be cool (elegant, stylish and admirable) and hot at the same time! Idiomatic English can be very hard for non-native speakers to understand, especially because the idioms vary a lot from country to country. For example in the USA someone who waits until afterwards before telling you what you should have done is called a Monday morning quarterback (from American football). In England we would say that person has 20/20 hindsight (perfect eyesight when looking back).
Why are idioms used?
Idioms allow people to express themselves more colourfully by making their language more personal and vivid. You could say someone is clumsy, but if you call him a butterfingers it is very clear why he keeps dropping things.(For some reason this expression is often used in connection with the English cricket team...). As a language English is very rich in idiom, similie and metaphor, and more are being added all the time, while others quietly drop out of use. Other idioms such as hunker down (meaning to prepare yourself as something difficult begins, as in hunkering down for a long winter) were common in England two hundred years ago, dropped out of the language in Britian, and then were re-imported as 'americanisms' from across the Atlantic.
Where do idioms come from?
Sometimes idioms develop spontaneously, when someone uses a word or expression that seems to describe a situation perfectly. At other times, idioms arise from jargon. Jargon is the technical language which is used by a small group, such as sportsmen or soldiers. Computer specialists, for example, use a lot of jargon, some of which has now escaped into the general language as idiom. For example, to max out a hard disk meant to fill it up the storage completely with data. However, today you can hear non-technical secretaries complaining that they have 'maxed out' their credit cards. (i.e. spent up to the maximum they are allowed.) sometimes jargon can completely change its meaning when it becomes an idiom.
For example a quantum leap was used by physicists to mean the smallest distance that something could possibly move. However, the modern idiom means almost the opposite - something which is a very large jump indeed. (e.g. 'Doctors have made a quantum leap in understanding what causes headaches')
Many idioms come from sport e.g. Gone to ground, on a sticky wicket; sea travel (the English used to do this a lot), e.g. taken aback, feeling pooped; or from the body e.g. get cold feet, have green thumbs. No-one knows where some other idioms come from, but everyone has a theory!
How do you recognize an idiom?
The easiest way to identify an idiom is when the literal meaning is not appropriate. If you hear that Mr Jones lost his rag when his son crashed his new car, you can assume that this does not just refer to losing a cheap piece of cloth! Or you might be able to recognize an obvious metaphor. Expressions such as give him an inch and he'll take a mile or he's got a tiger by the tail are reasonably self-explanatory, but others, such as Shank's pony (walking) or Hobson's choice (no choice) can be understood as idioms, but the meanings need to be learned.
Why should you learn idioms?
Because English is very rich in idioms, and English people not only use them all the time, but play games with them, make them into puns or adapt them to particular situations. For example the idiom taking liberties (meaning to act in an offensively familiar way, or to abuse a privilege you have been given) was recently used as the title of a TV programme describing how the government is restricting the rights of its citizens under the name of 'security'. British newspaper headlines enjoy playing with idioms, giving them new meanings, or twisting them to fit what they are reporting about. For example a property developer lied in order to buy land for a skyscraper. The newspaper report about it had the headline 'Builder's tall story' (a tall story is an idiom for something which you should not believe).
Some British sports commentators seem to speak only in idioms. For example 'Fred was in the box when he was clattered by Jones. The ref saw red, and pointed to the spot. Smith thought all his Christmasses had come at once, and put it in the top corner of the net. Jones' manager looked sick as a parrot.' (This is idiomatic English for 'Fred was near the goal when he was unfairly knocked down by Jones. The referee decided that Jones should be sent off, and awarded a penalty. Smith was delighted to take the penalty kick, and scored a goal. Jones' manager was not pleased.')
Should you use idioms?
Yes, indeed. but be very careful that you know exactly what you are saying. There is the story of the girl who asked the vet to send up her cat. The vet did not understand, since to 'send up' means to imitate something to make it look ridiculous, and this would have been a strange thing to do to a sick cat. However, the girl knew that to put down an animal means to kill it, so she wanted the vet to do the opposite.
And very similar idioms can have almost opposite meanings
'To look over' means to inspect quickly.
'To overlook' means to miss something you should have noticed
How do you learn idioms?
Reading English texts or listening to native speakers will help you to find you a large number of idioms. After a while some idioms will become familiar, and you will learn the places and situations where you hear them. There are also many books that give you lists of idioms and these are useful if you discover an idiom and want to know what it means. Such a book could be a treasure trove (full of value) or a lemon (a disappointing failure.) And of course you can look for sites like this one on the internet.
So let's psyche ourselves up (get ready ), to get stuck in (start working hard) and get our heads around (learn to understand) idioms