Understanding English idioms

By Herbert Vego

“WHAT’s so good about using English idioms?” a high school student asked me after I had finished my lecture on the use of idioms in column writing.  I favored him with a brief answer.

I told the class that using idiomatic expressions or idioms is indeed an important technique in transmitting “visual” thoughts to readers. An idiom is a group of words in current usage having a meaning that is not deducible from those of the individual words.

“Raining cats and dogs” is now a common substitute for “raining very heavily.”

“Over the moon,” rarely used, means “extremely happy”. Uncommon idioms, however, should be used sparingly and only when the context of the sentence would allude to the real meanings!

There are two features that identify an idiom: firstly, we cannot deduce the meaning of the idiom from the individual words; and secondly, both the grammar and the vocabulary of the idiom are fixed, and if we change them we lose the meaning of the idiom. Thus the idiom “pull your socks up” means “improve the way you are behaving” (or it can have a literal meaning).

Many idioms originated as quotations from well-known English writers like William Shakespeare. For example, “at one fell swoop” comes from his play Macbeth and “cold comfort” from King John.

Some idioms are typically used in one version of English rather than another. For example, the idiom “yellow journalism” — based upon sensationalism and exaggeration — originated from American English.

Other idioms may be used in a slightly different form in different varieties of English. Thus, the idiom “a drop in the ocean” in British and Australian English becomes “a drop in the bucket” in American English. However, in general, globalization and the effects of film, television and the Internet mean that there is less and less distinction between idioms of different varieties of English.

Google says that the English language is made up of over 1.5 million words. The same word can have a variety of different meanings depending on the context it is put in; two or more words can have the exact same spelling but are pronounced differently, depending on their meanings. The apple ceases to be an apple when written as “the apple of one’s eyes.”

The idioms made from the combinations of those words further alter their meanings metaphorically. In the above example, “apple” is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

Another important feature to point out is that idioms are fixed, which means that people cannot just decide to make up their own.

Since it is impossible to cram into this column all well-known idioms and their meanings, let me cite a few widely-used ones:

“Add insult to injury” means making a bad situation even worse.

If it’s “a drop in the bucket,” it’s a very small part of something big or whole

“An axe to grind” refers to a dispute with someone.

“Blessing in disguise” is something good that isn’t recognized at first.

To go “back to square one” is to start all over again.

Beating around the bush. Avoiding the main topic. Not speaking directly about the issue.

“Come hell or high water” expresses any difficult obstacle to overcome.

To “cry over spilt milk” is to complain about a loss from the past.

You become a “Devil’s advocate” when you take a position for the sake of argument without believing in that particular side.

“Flash in the pan” refers to something that looks promising in the beginning but not in the end.

To “go for broke” is to gamble everything you have.

“The last straw” is the final problem in a series of problems.

“Your guess is as good as mine” is widely used in column writing to hide an insinuation. But it could lead the reader to think as the writer does.



YOU must have seen more new service vehicles with the name and logo of MORE Power.

You must have seen those company ads inviting applicants to new positions.

All these and more are strong indicators that an impending law would expand the distribution utility’s franchise from Iloilo City to 15 towns of Iloilo and a component city. President Duterte is expected to affix his signature on it before his last day in office on June 30.

MORE Power President Roel Z. Castro, when asked for a comment, told us, “Yes, I believe he will sign it.”

But of course, Castro knows that even if the President does not sign it, it will become a law within 30 days from receipt in his office, plus 15 days after its publication in a newspaper of general circulation.

The new law would allow MORE Power to compete with the Iloilo Electric Cooperative (ILECO) in Alimodian, Leganes, Leon, New Lucena, Pavia, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Zarraga, Anilao, Banate, Barotac Nuevo, Dingle, Duenas, Dumangas, San Enrique and Passi City.

Reminded about some people’s doubts on the capability of MORE Power to energize added territories, Castro said, “Remember, when we were applying to take over the Iloilo City franchise? Doubters openly vilified us, alleging that we were inexperienced in the power industry. Now they know they were mistaken.”

MORE’s provincial expansion is not equivalent to expropriation but to healthy competition that could trigger lower prices. It would merely give the option to ILECO’s customers to either “stay” or “transfer”.

The success story of MORE in its first two years of operation is best exemplified by the rise of its customers from 64,000 to 86,000.

It has slashed the cost of electricity from almost ₱11 per kilowatt-hour in 2020 to ₱7.22/kWh today – an indication that it has reduced the system’s loss from 28% to 7.8%.