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Idiom Vs. Metaphor, Differences, And When Can You Use Each?

Idiom Vs. Metaphor, Differences, And When Can You Use Each?

Idioms have been considered metaphors plenty of times. Metaphors and idioms have been described as the same type of figurative speech. But what are idioms and metaphors? What is the difference between them?

An idiom is an expression that has a figurative meaning. A metaphor is a figure of speech that refers to one thing by pointing out another for a rhetorical effect. An idiom is a group of repeated words or ideas with a figurative meaning. A metaphor is a figure of speech.

Idiom comes from Latin, meaning “special property.” In Ancient Greek, the word meant “special feature or peculiarity”; later on, it referred to “one’s own.” The word first recorded use was in the 1500s.

It is believed that metaphor originated from old French in the 16th century. Métaphore, in French, coming from the Latin word Metaphora, meant “carrying over.” In Greek, metaphor meant “transferred of ownership,” “to carry over,” or “to transfer.”

As we currently know it, the earliest example of a metaphor is one of the most famous ones today. In a play written by William Shakespeare in 1623, a quote reads, “All the world’s a stage.” This quote is a metaphor because the world is not a stage. Still, Shakespeare wanted to draw comparisons between what happens in people’s everyday lives and the drama he writes in his plays.

A metaphor can provide clarity and similarities between two things. An idiom is a manner of speaking that is a custom of a person or a group.

Another critical difference between an idiom and a metaphor is that the meaning of an idiom is not immediately apparent for most people. With a metaphor, you’re using something well known to explain something else.

Idioms are very particular expressions of the language in which they are spoken. An idiom that is written and spoken in English rarely translates accurately to another language. Every language and its many dialects have its idioms.

Metaphors are easily translated between languages and are understood by everybody.

What idiom and metaphor both have in common is that they create imaginary effects on the written and spoken word.

What Are Some Different Types Of Metaphors?


For as long as we can remember, metaphors have been ingrained in the way we speak and write. We use metaphors to make a comparison between two different things to get our point of view across. We use a metaphor mainly for two things: to describe something or someone faster and to create a mystery in some situations.

Sometimes while you speak, you need to let someone know another person’s attitude in as little time as possible. So here, you often choose to compare that person to an animal. For example: “Irene is a raging bull at work.” Instead of describing what makes Irene’s behavior an aggressive one, the raging bull comparison settles it.

But maybe we are telling a compelling story. We want to keep our audience’s attention, so we choose metaphors to create uncertainty around the narration. For example: “A coat of darkness covered the forest, and the trees sounded like sharp blades.”

There are still specific types of metaphors that we need to go through: Standard, implied, visual, and extended.

  1. Standard: this is a primary metaphor that compares two unlikely things. “Life is a rollercoaster” is a standard metaphor that refers to the ups and downs of life.
  2. Implied: this metaphor compares two things that are not the same without mentioning one of them. For example: “My mom will bark at me if I don’t clean my room.” This sentence refers to a mother scolding or screaming at her son like a dog without mentioning the dog.
  3. Visual: this one is used in advertising. The comparison occurs with images of different things. For example, a box of cigarettes with a skull and bones image next to it means smoking can kill you.
  4. Extended: this is a metaphor that is longer than a simple sentence. We find this type of metaphor in professional writing like novels, short stories, poetry, or plays. Most Shakespeare characters often speak in extended metaphors.

Idioms Examples

We already established that every language has its own idioms. These are phrases that you are not supposed to take literally because they usually don’t make sense outside the particular group of people where it is known.

It’s essential to understand each culture. An idiom used in the United States can make no sense in other countries. Similarly, they can mean a completely different thing. One of the most famous English idioms is “it’s raining cats and dogs.” The phrase does not refer to anything about animals. It means it’s raining really hard. Other countries have an idiom for when it’s pouring rain. This idiom is rarely used outside the US.

A clear example of an idiom meaning different things in different countries is “with long teeth.” In Finland, it means you’re doing something you don’t want to do. In France, it means a very ambitious person.

Being literal is out the door when understanding an idiom. Idioms can make learning a new language quite fun and very confusing. Aside from being regional, idioms can change depending on social groups or socioeconomic status.


Here Are Some Famous Idioms In English

  • Break a leg, meaning good luck.
  • Blessing in disguise, a negative event that turns out to be something positive.
  • Pull yourself together refers to “calm down.”
  • The straw that broke the camel’s back is when you run out of patience.
  • Say that again means agreeing with something.
  • The elephant in the room means there is a major issue that isn’t being talked about.

Some idioms from around the world:

  • My cheeks are falling off. An idiom from Japan, meaning the food is excellent.
  • A cat in gloves catches no mice. From Spain, this is their way of saying, “nice guys finish last.”
  • Not all doughnuts come with a hole. Italian for “you don’t always get what you want.”

Can A Phrase Be An Idiom And A Metaphor?


There is no proof for this. A metaphor needs a comparison between two things, while in an idiom, there is none. Some people have argued about the phrase “rain check” being both an idiom and a metaphor. Still, there is no comparison of the rain with something else for it to be a metaphor.

A rain check is recognized in the dictionary as a noun meaning “a ticket piece that is good enough for a later performance when the scheduled one is rained out.” “An assurance of an extension of an offer.”

The phrase comes from the literal cancellation of an event due to rain. The term eventually became an idiom when people began to use it to cancel any plans, regardless of whether it involved rain.

What Is The Relationship Between Metaphor And Poetry?

When poets write, they want to express their feelings and what they see or think thoroughly. This is why metaphors are the primary weapon in the art of writing poetry.

In Shakespeare’s plays, the narrator and the character all speak in verses as if constantly reciting poetry. This helped Shakespeare express in great detail the desires, drama, comedy, violence, and passion of the characters in each of the plays’ acts.

One of the famous lines of “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare’s most well-known work, reads “Juliet is the sun,” referring to the brightness of light that the presence of Juliet brings.

Metaphors are used in any literature but never in the amount they appear in poetry.

In 1959 American author Sylvia Plath wrote a poem called “Metaphors.” Plath wrote the poem thinking she was pregnant, and the original title was “Metaphors for a Pregnant Woman.” Here is a quote from “Metaphors”: “An elephant, a ponderous house; A melon strolling on two tendrils.” Plath compares herself to an elephant, a big house, a pregnant woman, and something as round as a melon on top of two skinny legs. The first and final lines of the poem are clear metaphors for pregnancy “In a riddle in nine syllables” and “Boarded the train there’s no getting off.” Plath refers to the uncertainty of the nine months of pregnancy and the start of a trip with no return.

Poetry as an art form existed before the written word. Some studies say that poetry was first recited and sung. Metaphors have existed in poetry since then.


Idioms and metaphors are both used to express something else. The main difference between them is that an idiom is a very particular expression of different groups or countries, and metaphors are figurative speech with a universal understanding.

A metaphor can be translated into any language and be understood; an idiom cannot.