Idioms are a very interesting form of figurative language. They provide us with a new way of looking
at the world.
Figurative language enables us to explore language in interesting ways. Figurative language
is a form of language that uses concrete, literal images as a base.
The concrete image is combined with a startling and seemingly unrelated image to create something new.
An idiom can be thought of as a cultural metaphor that requires some understanding of word and world
knowledge. That is, idioms are sayings that have been used for generations and have become part of the cultural vernacular.
Idioms do require some knowledge about words and how they go together.
An example of a popular idiom is, 'a wolf in sheep's clothing.' If we
look closely at the idiom from a literal point of view we have two quite separate and contrasting images.
First, there is the image of the wolf. Historically the wolf is viewed as a predator. We have learnt
from stories such as The Three Little Pigs that a wolf is a dangerous creature that cannot be trusted.
Second, we have the image of the sheep. A sheep is an animal that is viewed as relatively docile, harmless and
Finally, when we combine the image of the wolf with the image of the sheep we have the strange picture
of a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.
Idioms Activities cont...
Now, the two separate images of the wolf and sheep don't normally 'go' together. But the beauty of
idioms is that the two images can actually be fused to create a whole new meaning.
To successfully combine the two contrasting images requires a leap of imagination on our part.
And idioms, with their creative use of language, are very good at triggering that leap.
So in our example of the wolf, we can picture a wolf actually dressed in sheep's clothing. We can
imagine also that the clothing may in fact be a disguise.
We assume this because we know the wolf's nature and that beneath the sheep's clothing it remains a
Why does the wolf dress in sheep's clothing?
Answer: The wolf is trying to distract us from its true
nature. The wolf hopes to trick us into thinking it is harmless; that it is just a sheep.
When we use the idiom of a wolf in sheep's clothing to describe a person we are essentially saying that
a particular person cannot be trusted, even though his/her appearance and manner appears harmless to us.
The idiom of a wolf in sheep's clothing reminds us that sometimes we need to look beyond surface
appearances to discover a person's true nature.
Sample from a soon to be released Idioms Program: 'On Cloud 9'
Right-click to download this PDF file here.
Lazar, G. (2003) Meanings and Metaphors: Activities to Practise Figurative Language, Cambridge University Press
Content Updated 8/11
For a free Idioms program, scroll to the end of this page.
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