Clichés and idioms


Understanding and using clichés and idioms in a foreign language is a sign of great comprehension: it edges your language right up there with that of native speakers, and helps you communicate in a more realistic way. What is difficult about these aspects of language, particularly idioms, is that they differ vastly from language to language, and seem to have no correlation to life in any sense whatsoever. For example, the English expression ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ in French translates to ‘It’s raining knots’: how cats and dogs came to be associated with heavy rain Luke Prodromou explains in his article ‘Idiomaticity’ on onestopenglish:

“The first [theory] says it originates in old Norse weather lore, in which the cat was associated with rain and the dog with the wind (Oxford Idioms). The second, dating from the 17th century, arose from the fact that many cats and dogs used to drown in floods caused by torrential rainstorms and their bodies were found in the streets afterwards, as if they had fallen from the sky (Terban). The third theory takes us back to the middle ages when houses had thatched roofs. The area just under the roof was the only place for animals to keep warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals lived in or on the roof. When it poured with rain, life on the roof became so wet that the animals would sometimes slip and fall off – hence it’s raining cats and dogs.”

As for knots: I’m still not sure!

This interesting slide show would be a great tool for more advanced students: not only does it offer an interesting insight into the origins of these clichés, it also offers a great opportunity for some investigative translation. You could first show your students the phrase in English, and ask them to guess what they think it means. Then ask them to think of the equivalent in their own language, and, if possible, ask them to find the (usually absurd) literal translation into English using the internet. has got over 150 lessons based on idioms, from basing a whole lesson around a single word, to collections of idioms using words to do with food, sleep, the weather, animals, and family. Just search for ‘idioms’ in the search box, and find resources suitable for your classes.

Macmillan English Campus customers can also use the news article ‘The success of foreign comedians in the United Kingdom’. It is available at three different levels – Easy, Medium, and Difficult – and talks about English’s wealth of idioms. Alternatively, you could test your students’ knowledge of English idioms using the vocabulary activities ‘Feeling off-colour’ (Course ID: MVA004224), ‘PC games’ (MVA004016) and ‘The corner shop’ (MVA004011), which ALL ask students to complete sentences by dragging and dropping the appropriate idiom into place.

Have fun!


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