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What makes idioms confusing


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Idioms are nonliteral expressions, which makes them confusing enough.  However, something the same word or similar phrase has entirely different, even opposite meanings.  Here is one of the best examples of this;

THE BOMB

"That concert was the BOMB"

If something is 'the bomb' it means that it is the absolute best.

TO BOMB something

"Man, I BOMBED That test!"

If you bomb something (usually a test or similar), it means you fail it miserably.

TO DROP A BOMBSHELL

"when my boss told me I was fired, he really dropped a bombshell on me"

This means that something or someone astounded you or you were caught unprepared and by surprise.  This idiom usually refers to some news or unexpected development.

There are others, of course. Which idioms can you name that use the same word(s) in many different ways? Do you know what it means?

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  • 2 weeks later...

They can be even more confusing when you try to translate them into another language. It's hard because we know they are not literal but learners of English probably don't. On it's best day, English is confusing! So many rules and then, contradictions for these rules.

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We experienced this when we lived in Germany and would speak to English speaking people from non- English speaking countries. I can't think of an example right now but they were very common american idioms, lost in translation.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I find similar to the "bomb" usage of "sick".  I had an observer refer to a classic car I drove as "sick" meaning cool (not to be confused with temperature) but meaning a compliment of the cars looks or condition.  Sick in the sense of health, meaning "ill" would not be used in referring to the car.

There are so many threads here on idioms that are phrases when literally translated would not make sense to the non-native speaker and some, that I have never heard, I could not figure out.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Quite agreed....add to it that depend upon where you go, regionally things can be used or understood in very different ways. What might be acceptable or even amusing in one area could be misunderstood or offensive in another- and this is among speakers of the same language!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Because idioms can have multiple meanings, i think they are really confusing if you haven't been introduced to them or taught them. They are usually mistaken for general knowledge but this is clearly seen when you meet someone who speaks English, but is from another culture. They have to be introduced or taught the new way of understanding your idiom.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think that idioms are confusing while you are not familiar with them, with the context, or with the person you are talking to.

First time you came across with an idiom, the foreign-language speaker will try to translate the saying literally and, obviously, the phrase will make no sense.

Similarly, there are idioms that oftentimes are brought into English as literal translation of a foreign idiom, and then it's the language translation what makes no sense.

Many English idioms, however, have an equivalent in other language, not literally though.

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  • 1 month later...

One area of confusion is most idioms in a particular language are meant for a certain geographical area, ethnic community or has a liguistic connotation.

That's why it is difficult to literally interpret an idiom of one language in another language.

Sometimes, a meaningful idiom in one language makes no meaning in another.

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  • 1 month later...

I agree, idioms can be terribly confusing, and I am also confused by the ones that have the properties of that you just stated which is that they are the opposite of what they mean but universally understood as such. A common one that has been confusing me lately is "giving the benefit of the doubt", which to me is very confusing because you would only give the benefit of the doubt to someone you already doubt, in which case, why would you give him or her "the doubt" and why would it be beneficial?

I understand what it means in general, but when I dissect it like that it confuses me.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think some of the idioms involving the word "burn" can be confusing to non-native English speakers. The obvious definition of "burn" is "to set on fire." But some expressions use the word burn in a different way.

I am going to "crash and burn" -can refer to a person who knows they are going to over-do it, like work until they cannot go on anymore.

A "Burn" can be a bad joke played on a person.

"You got burned." It can mean you were disrespected somehow, or ripped-off.

A "slow burn" is when a person has a delayed reaction to being insulted."

"That's going to burn." meaning that will hurt you later.

"Don't burn any bridges." meaning don't destroy relationships that you may need to prosper in the future.

I also believe that in car-racing, to "burn rubber" means to speed off quickly.

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  • 2 months later...

Idioms can certainly be confusing and more so for children. I believe it is so because when you are younger you tend to look at everything literally and idioms aren't meant to be viewed that way.

           

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I thought of another one that is fairly modern which is to call something "sick" when you mean something is good. It's hardly confusing to us, since I assume most of us have grown up with the term, but of course, being sick wasn't always pertained to something good and it really makes me wonder why these words are being chosen to say something positive.

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  • 1 month later...

Idioms are nonliteral expressions, which makes them confusing enough.  However, something the same word or similar phrase has entirely different, even opposite meanings.  Here is one of the best examples of this;

THE BOMB

"That concert was the BOMB"

If something is 'the bomb' it means that it is the absolute best.

TO BOMB something

"Man, I BOMBED That test!"

If you bomb something (usually a test or similar), it means you fail it miserably.

TO DROP A BOMBSHELL

"when my boss told me I was fired, he really dropped a bombshell on me"

This means that something or someone astounded you or you were caught unprepared and by surprise.  This idiom usually refers to some news or unexpected development.

There are others, of course. Which idioms can you name that use the same word(s) in many different ways? Do you know what it means?

Oh my gosh! This is so true! The "bomb" thing confuses me so much. I have to rely on context clues sometimes before I can understand that something is good or bad. Pretty weird if you ask me. I'm also confused sometimes when someone is referred to as "cool". I don't know if they mean cool as in awesome or cool as in aloof. I know that when it's aloof, people prefer to use "cold" instead of cool but I've heard of people using cool too which makes it a bit confusing.

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  • 6 months later...

Idioms are meant to spice a language. They push the reader to think outside the box. They can get very confusing because we see things differently. Idioms are usually used on a casual setting with the intention of getting the message across to the recipient without offending them.

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I thought of another one that is fairly modern which is to call something "sick" when you mean something is good. It's hardly confusing to us, since I assume most of us have grown up with the term, but of course, being sick wasn't always pertained to something good and it really makes me wonder why these words are being chosen to say something positive.

This is the point of an idiom, to use words and expressions in an unusual way, to use the opposite meaning is to emphasize it. So when something is sick it means  to be very good, because being sick(ill) is bad, not good.

This is common in most languages, to use it in the opposite meaning to emphasize it.

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  • 9 months later...

I do think the idioms "shot himself on the foot" or "get a taste of his own medicine" basically mean the same thing. Meaning, you did something that backfired and hurt no one but yourself. What makes idioms confusing is that you can say different things about the same thing and people don't always think they have the same meaning when they actually do.

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Some idioms are derived from the country's culture or how things are done in a certain way. If you are not a native you will certainly would not understand or the idiom may not make sense because you are not aware about the background story or idea behind it. Even if you studied and are fluent in a certain language, once the natives started using unfamiliar idioms you will somehow feel being left out.

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"Dope" is another.  It's mostly fallen out of use as a slang term, but in the 90s, it was quite popular.  I used to mean either "idiot", "marijuana" or to say that something was great. 

"Fly" is also a term that means different things:  "Great" or an annoying insect.

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