Idiom vs. Metaphor: How They Are Different?

Have you ever been told you’re a ray of sunshine or that the sun rises and sets with you? Were you confused as to what they were talking about? In the first example, the person used a metaphor, while the second example was an idiom. So then, what is the difference between an idiom and a metaphor?

Idioms are expressions that have a figurative meaning independent of their parts. Metaphors are figurative language that takes a word and pairs a phrase with it to show likeness or analogy. Both idioms and metaphors are a colorful way to add depth to speaking or writing but have their own meanings and use.

This article will discuss the meanings of both idioms and metaphors, including the definitions and types of language. It will then explore common idioms and metaphors and how to use them in different contexts. 

The Difference Between Idioms and Metaphors

Idioms and metaphors share a couple of qualities — they are both examples of figurative speech. They also make the most sense when not translated into other languages from the original language. However, idioms and metaphors differ in more than a few ways. 

What Are Idioms?

Merriam-Webster defines an idiom as an expression that has a meaning that has nothing to do with the definition or use of the words (source). 

Idioms put together common words to form phrases that mean something other than their literal meaning. Forming idioms is different in each language because people derive idioms from language, culture, etc.

People use idioms in both speaking and writing to enhance their words with vivid imagery. Changing a sentence such as:

The community service hours were just a small part of retribution.

to

The community service hours were just a drop in the bucket when it came to retribution.

While both sentences mean the same thing, the idiom in the second one adds depth and allows the author to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. 

The word “idiom” has roots in several languages. English derives it from the French idiome and the Greek words: idiōma (peculiar phraseology), idiousthai (make one’s own), and idiousthai (own). Today, many of our idioms also have roots in many different languages. 

What are Metaphors?

We consider a metaphor to be a figure of speech where a phrase functions to describe another, drawing parallels between the two (source). 

Metaphors make writing or speaking more interesting because of the word choice we use to create them.

Archie was a pest.

Is Archie really a pest? Maybe, but, more than likely, Archie is more of a little-brother-type nuisance. The sentence compares Archie to a pest because they share certain qualities: bothersome, hard to get rid of, etc. This sentence uses the metaphor “pest” as a way to connect the two words and add meaning.

We can also trace the term “metaphor” back to many Greek words. Metaphorá means transferring ownership, metapherō means to carry over or transfer, meta means along with, and pherō means to bear or carry. 

From there, the Latin metaphora (carrying over) developed. The French then derived the word métaphore, which is where the English word today comes from.

Expressions and Figures of Speech

Idioms and metaphors have different meanings and roots, as well as types of words. Expressions and figures of speech are both types of figurative language but do not refer to the same thing.

Idioms are expressions, while metaphors are figures of speech. Idioms make sense in their culture and language of origin because they stem from colloquialisms and other types of figurative language. An idiom written in English such as this one would not have the same meaning in another language.

His guess of looking for his phone in the refrigerator was a shot in the dark.

Instead of referring to an actual shot during nighttime, this idiom means the chances of finding the phone in the refrigerator are quite slim.

Grammarians also include metaphors under the heading of figurative language. They consider words, phrases, or sentences that do not have literal meanings to be figurative language.

In addition to being an example of figurative language, metaphors are also figures of speech. Figures of speech are a form of rhetoric or persuasive wording. Metaphors describe one thing as something else to convince the reader or listener of the connection between the two. Take, for example, the following sentence:

She was a lion when it came to protecting her family.

Other forms of figurative language include personification, similes, and onomatopeias. Personification is when someone gives inanimate objects human qualities. 

Similes are comparisons and use the words “like” or “as” to compare two things. Onomatopoeias are words formed from sounds. Each one of these is nonliteral and serves as a way of adding creativity to writing or speaking. 

For more examples where we contrast word meanings, take a look at a couple of our articles: “Quasi vs. Pseudo” or “Mild vs. Medium.”

Grammar and Language Review

The following table summarizes the grammar and language components of idioms and metaphors. Use the information to find the similarities and differences between the two.

WordOriginDefinitionType of LanguageExample 


idiom
Greek and French rootsA way of using common words together in a phrase or sentence that does not have a literal meaningFigurative language: an expression that is unique to its language and cultureThe weather had been unfavorable all week, and the students were bouncing off the walls during indoor recess.


metaphor
Greek, Latin, and French rootsA way to compare two different things where the qualities of one are likened to the otherFigurative language: a figure of speech that draws a rhetorical connectionHis mind was a blank slate after being hypnotized.

Common Idioms and How to Use Them

One of the reasons many consider English a complex language to learn is because there are so many idioms. Not only have they been developed over the years according to culture, but the words do not retain their literal definitions within the idiom. 

For example, consider the idiom “sparked a fire” in the context of this sentence:

The last three wins had sparked a fire in the football players.

Literally, this sentence means the players had a fire start inside them because they are winning games. However, idioms don’t use the literal meanings of words. In this case, players are not filled with real fire: the wins have made them play even better than before. 

Table of Common Idioms

The following table contains popular idioms, example sentences, their figurative meanings, and how to rewrite them in a literal sense (source). 

IdiomSentenceMeaningHow to Rewrite
On the ballHe was on the ball when it came to tackling new projects.Ready to go; prepared; doing great workHe was prepared and ready to go when it came to tackling new projects. 
Wrap one’s head aroundI can’t seem to wrap my head around why she suddenly decided to move.Understand; fathomI can’t seem to understand why she suddenly decided to move. 
Give someone the cold shoulderHis coworker had been giving him the cold shoulder for over a week now.Ignoring; brushing offHis coworker had been ignoring him for over a week now.
Piece of cakeThe class was a piece of cake for Stacy because she had already learned the material at her previous school.Easy; taking little to no effortThe class was easy for Stacy because she had already learned the material at her previous school.
Tightly woundBruce was tightly wound because of the uncertainty of losing his job.Anxious; a ball of nervesBruce was anxious about the uncertainty of losing his job. 

Where Do Idioms Come From?

Some idioms have literal roots. Throughout time, the meanings of phrases change based on semantics and popular culture. However, some have developed from past practices or sayings.

The idiom “beat around the bush” refers to a person side-stepping or changing the subject. In England, bird hunters would beat around bushes to get the birds out. The indirect way of catching the birds shows that the meaning of “beat around the bush” has literal roots, even though we might use it a bit differently today. 

“Turning a blind eye” now means to ignore that something obvious is happening or true. This idiom also has its roots in Great Britain. 

An officer might be blind in one eye, and another officer would try to send him a signal during battle. The officer who had a blind eye did not agree with the other officer and pretended not to see the signal, citing his blind eye. He did not want to acknowledge the truth, so he literally turned a blind eye to the situation (source). 

Common Metaphors and How to Use Them

As a type of figurative language, we use metaphors to paint a picture in the reader or listener’s mind. They function to compare two seemingly unlike objects through the lens of a shared characteristic. Take, for instance, the following example:

Marjorie was a kite in the wind when it came to career choices. 

In this sentence, we see the comparison of Majorie to a kite in the wind. They share the characteristic of flitting here and there in a haphazard way. While the kite is flying around in the wind, Marjorie is flying to and from jobs.

A Comparative Table of Metaphors

For more examples, consult this table that includes example sentences, rewritten sentences that include metaphors, and the meaning of each metaphor.

Original SentenceRewritten SentenceMeaning of Metaphor
Tracy made a mess in her rush to leave the house on time. Tracy was a tornado in her rush to leave the house on time.Just like a tornado, Tracy left a path of destruction in her wake before leaving home.
Morgan was uncertain and called off the wedding.Morgan got cold feet and called off the wedding.If your feet are cold, you might be frozen or unable to do anything. Morgan was unsure about getting married.
A lazy person would be right at home in the comfortable living room. A couch potato would be right at home in the comfortable living room. A couch potato is an individual who likes to spend more time relaxing and less time getting up and out. 
She was different from her entire family.She was the black sheep of her family.A black sheep stands out in a herd of white sheep, just like having differences from the rest of a group.
He tried to improve the party by bringing his friends.He tried to spice up the party by bringing his friends.He decided to bring his friends to make the party better, just like adding spices might improve food.

The Value of Metaphors

Metaphors have many benefits, along with adding creativity to one’s writing or speaking. These figurative words can expand one’s imagination. When we need to draw a connection between two different things, we can activate our imagination to give meaning to the metaphor.

We can shorten verbose sentences by using metaphors. Going from many words to a small number of descriptive ones can keep the reader or listener’s attention. 

However, it is a bit different when one is the writer or speaker. Sometimes, there are no literal phrases and sentences to describe the way a person has experienced something. In these cases, you can use metaphors to send the message to the reader or listener. The experience is made much more personal by using figurative language to draw in the reader (source). 

Is Raining Cats and Dogs a Metaphor or Idiom?

In this sentence, “raining cats and dogs” means the rain is coming down fast and hard, but a non-native English speaker might have trouble understanding the meaning. The words (raining, cats, dogs) do not come together to form a phrase (raining cats and dogs) that makes sense in its literal meaning. 

Remember, metaphors compare one thing to an unlike thing, and, in this phrase, the sentence does not compare rain to being a cat or dog — it’s not a metaphor. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Since the phrase does not take into account the literal meanings of the words and, instead, strives to paint a figurative picture, it is an idiom. Cats and dogs are not actually falling from the sky, but a hard rain is actually falling.

Final Thoughts

Writers have several types of figurative language that they can use in poetry, prose, or speaking. Idioms and metaphors are two distinct ways to add descriptive details and encourage creativity. While they do have their similarities, idioms and metaphors both have their own meanings and usages. 

To sum up the information in this article, let’s round-up with a review of both idioms and metaphors. Idioms take words with literal definitions and turn them into phrases that have figurative meanings. Metaphors draw parallels between two seemingly different things by connecting a characteristic from them.

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