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Private, Personal, and Peculiar

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 1 October 2009

If I told you that “I’m not hanging noodles on your ears” (Bhalla, 2009), you’d look at me in puzzlement. If an English speaker said to a Russian, “I’m not pulling your leg,” the Russian would think the same about the speaker. In both languages, the phrase means, “I’m telling the truth.” Both phrases are examples of idioms.

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be established by a literal translation of the words in the phrase. The word idiom, like the word idiosyncratic, has the Greek “idio” which means private, personal, or peculiar. A group of people uses an idiom in a peculiar fashion that indicates membership in a culture or cultural sub-group. For example, the adolescent users of a language often have a wealth of idioms that, when known by adults in the culture, no longer maintain their cachet.

For someone learning a new language, idioms are especially challenging. It’s not that English Language Learners don’t know idioms. They know the idioms of their own culture. But they don’t know the idioms of English and each idiom is unique.

In this school year’s installment of Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events (E4), we have added idioms. We’ve included the idioms as part of E4s because idioms are especially prevalent in conversations. Idioms occur in narrative text or stories but they are much less frequent in informational texts where language is more precise and less colloquial.

How should the idioms in the E4 be used? The intent is to support students in becoming aware of the many special phrases that are used in language. All idioms can’t be taught. The basic instructional procedure is to use the idioms that are part of the E4s to assist students in becoming aware of idioms—in English and in their native languages.

Bhalla, J. (2009). I’m not hanging noodles on your ears and other intriguing idioms from around the world. Washington, DC: National Geographic.