English is full of idioms. Idioms make English descriptive and meaningful. English idioms, in fact, can turn language into a form of poetry. So, did you know that many English idioms come from poetry and literature? In this article, we look at famous examples of English Idioms in poetry and literature.
If you have been studying English and English idioms, you will likely wonder about the formation of these phrases, as well as to where they derive their meanings. Furthermore, you might be surprised to know that some idioms are clearly modern, describing sports, technology, or modern habits.
However, it’s quite surprising to learn that many idioms appear in parts of old classical literature.
In this post, we list some of the most popular idioms in poetry, and explain how you can use these expressions in your everyday English conversation to make your language even more masterful and artistic.
Idioms: A Brief Definition
Firstly, if you’re not a native English speaker, then it’s time to know that there are more than 25,000 idiomatic expressions you can use in your daily conversation and even in your content piece. Secondly, you might not know that you use such phrases in your everyday life without knowing they are idioms.
As defined in the Meriam Webster dictionary, idioms are expressions that are being used in a peculiar manner – an unusual way. This peculiarity can be grammatical, or meaningful.
For students studying English idioms in poetry, you cannot simply derive the meaning by investigating the definition of each word in the phrase. This can be quite strange as literally, they don’t make sense at all, but once we completely understand them their meaning is obvious, as if there’s a silent translation that’s happening within our heads. But as mentioned above, there are thousands of idioms in the English language, and it’s important to learn a new one now and then. So, come on and let’s check some examples!
Top English Idioms in Poetry
Using an idiomatic expression can be really interesting and fun, especially if you are a fan of poetry. These groups of words can easily catch your reader’s attention. Furthermore, idioms have a nice “ring to the ears,” adding nuance and feeling.
If you’re into classic literature, then perhaps you know William Shakespeare, one of the most notable poets and writers in the history of English literature. His novels and classic masterpieces are heavily laced with romantic English idioms and we’re going to discuss some of them in this post. Who knows? You might be able to include them in your own creations as well!
Break the ice
This idiomatic expression appeared in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Petrucio was being encouraged by Tranio to break the ice with the beautiful Katherine, convincing him that the woman might like him back if Petrucio would try to talk to her.
These days, this idiom means: to relieve tension or to start a conversation with someone to get to know them better, a cue to develop a new relationship.
Jonas tried to break the ice by complementing the beautiful lady, but then, he was completely ignored.
How should I break the ice with my new classmates when I move schools?
Set my teeth on edge
This idiom appeared in the first part of the Shakespeare play Henry IV. In the play, King Henry uses this phrase to express his discomfort when reading or hearing a piece of poetry.
To set someone’s teeth on edge means to cause distaste or annoyance.
My nosy neighbor really sets my teeth on edge. He always looks at me as if I’m doing something wrong whenever my friends come along for a quick chat.
The noise of the roadworks near my house sets my teeth on edge. I hope they finish soon.
Wear my heart upon my sleeve
This English idiom appeared in the play, Othello. The character is afraid to reveal her true feelings as it might hurt Othello.
Today, this phrase describes someone who shows real emotions about something. To show feelings openly.
She really wears her heart on her sleeve. It’s obvious how much she loves her family.
Scott is such a sensitive guy. He really wears his heart on his sleeve: he cried during the movie yesterday!
Dead as a doornail
Shakespeare used this idiom in the second part of Henry IV. The idiom also appeared as an opening script in the play, A Christmas Carol.
This expression means that something seems dead, without hope of being revived. It can also be used to express empathy toward something or someone that is hopeless.
My computer crashed when I spilt my drink on it. Now it’s as dead as a doornail.
I hit a cat with my car. When I got out to check, it was as dead as a doornail.
My hopes of getting that promotion are as dead as a doornail.
There’s method in my madness
Shakespeare used this idiom in poetry in one of his most famous pieces, Hamlet. The poet described that when a person seems to act irrational or crazy, there might be a purpose behind it, a sort of a plan.
Today, this idiom means that sometimes, a person who seems to act randomly or strangely has a greater purpose behind his/her actions.
When you see her paintings before they are finished, it is easy to say that nothing makes sense. But when she’s done, you realize there’s method in her madness.
This plan might not make sense now, but trust me. There’s method in my madness.
The world is my oyster
This idiom was used in the “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The character who said this line believed that the world is filled with possibilities and chances.
Today, it means you can do or achieve anything, that nothing can stop you.
Now I’ve retired, the world is my oyster. I can use my savings to go anywhere.
With this new smartphone, the world is your oyster. From calling across nations to working online, this phone opens up a world of possibilities.
English Idioms in poetry and literature
Idioms in poetry and literature, for the most part, help authors make their works more distinguished and renowned. They are often added in a dialogue to paint the character’s personality, power, status, or to convey a situation vividly and creatively.
Many famous authors have created their own idioms or changed the meaning of common phrases to create a more effective expression of their works.
Idioms in poetry derived from the literary works of well-known authors in history
I can’t do [x] to save my life
This idiom was written by an English novelist, Anthony Trollope, in his work “The Kellys and the O’Kellys.”
The initial quote is: “If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”
“I cannot do …. to save my life” means that the person is totally incapable of doing something. They are not good at doing a particular activity. It can also be used for the speaker to be humble, to undervalue his/her skills.
Are you telling me to join the talent show? I couldn’t sing in front of a crowd to save my life!
I can’t cook to save my life.
Pot calling the kettle black
This idiom appeared in an excerpt from the Spanish novel “Don Quixote” written by Cervantes. Therefore, this is actually a Spanish idiom that moved into English.
Back then, pots and kettles were both made of cast iron and blackened when exposed to the fire. Generally, this idiom implies that an individual should never criticize someone for their mistakes because they are also wrong.
This idiom is about criticism derive on mistakes, looks, or situation in life. It emphasizes that the speaker is not any different. This idiom describes an act of hypocrisy.
He was called a trespasser by the man who was caught snatching from my Aunt’s farm. It was the pot calling the kettle black.
You tell me off for being late? You’re ALWAYS late! That’s the pot calling the kettle black.
Love is blind
This phrase was first seen in a literary series written by Geoffrey Chaucer entitled “The Canterbury Tales.” It was originally written as “For the love is blind all day, and may not see.”
In general, it indicates that love, in all forms, is not based on the outside appearance. It is not expected nor learned. True love is all about being unconditional.
My neighbor, who is a beauty queen, chose the simple and unattractive mailman over dozens of rich suitors. My mother told me that indeed, love is blind.
Live off the fat of the land
This expression is popularly used in the novel of John Steinbeck named “Mice and Men,” where Gerry is telling Lenny his dreams of having a house of their own, rabbits, cows, and pigs. Furthermore, this has also been found written in the Book of Genesis.
It means to attain everything you want –your goal, a house, money, but without working for it.
I’ve been working days and nights to double my savings so that I can buy a new car. Sometimes I just wish I can live off the fat of the land.
Extend an olive branch
This idiom in poetry appeared in the Greek Myth of Athena –when she gave an olive branch tree to the Athenians as a gift. This phrase was also heard from the Story of Noah that was written in the scriptures. It happened when a dove was sent to look for signs that the great floodwaters had receded, and it came back bringing an olive branch tree indicating that it is safe to leave the ark.
The phrase means to fix a disagreement, stop an argument, and to make peace.
No matter how much you hate him, he’s still your father. Can you at least think of how he raised you when you were a kid and finally extend an olive branch to him?
It’s time to extend an olive branch to the other department. We need to get back on track.
Mad as a hatter
This idiomatic expression means that a person is suffering from insanity. It is based on a real-life practice of hatters in the 17th century, where mercury was used to make their hats and was thought to make them insane.
Meanwhile, one of the authors who used this phrase was Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventure in the Wonderland.
I saw her out in the rain, running in the street, dancing and laughing. Honestly, I think she is as mad as a hatter.
The idioms mentioned above have been attributed to specific authors. However, we cannot claim that any of them were definitely the first to coin the phrase. Moreover, it is possible that they were using expressions that already existed in society. It is impossible to be 100% sure.
Either way, it is indeed a good thing when writers are able to capture their readers and make them fall in love with their words. Additionally, their sentiments, feelings, and works will be forever remembered and will continue to capture hearts for years to come.
Learning English Idioms in Poetry is Fun!
There are still a many more idioms in the English language. Each and every day can be a new learning experience for you.
Check out our Youtube for a new idiom every week, along with authentic examples of English idioms and metaphors.
Learn more English idioms on our website!
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