An Idiom is a special form of speech which is peculiar to a particular language. The two words idioms and collocations can be used inter changeably to refer to such words or phrases which tend to go together and whose total meaning cannot be worked out by looking at the separate meanings of the words that make up the idioms. However, its meaning might be deduced from the context.

Idioms are very important to a creative writer. Try to cultivate an ‘idiomatic’ style. This is of great importance, since to write idiomatically is to write vigorously, graphically and naturally. How much less vigorous is ‘He performed his promise’ than ‘He was as good as his word’. How much less graphic is ‘I tried every means in my power’ than ‘I left no stone unturned’. How un-natural is ‘She had formerly been in prosperous circumstances’ when compared with ‘She had seen better days’.

The translation of the idioms of one language into those of another is an important aid to the study of languages. Indeed, as a great teacher had declared, the unique and lasting value of translation generally as an educative training can hardly be over-estimated. Here are some hints on the translation of idioms.

Before beginning your translation, carefully read through the whole passage or sentence. In order to translate, you must understand, and very often, words or phrases or sentences in one part of the sentence or passage will give you a clue to the meaning of other parts. In the case of a difficult word or expression, consider its relation to the rest of the sentence in which it occurs. In other words, use the context to help you to decide the meaning of such words or expressions.


Try as much as possible to give your translation the same general tone that marks the original text. Follow as far as possible its style and diction. If the style of the original, for instance, is terse and pithy, or lively and fluent, let your translation be terse nad pithy, or lively and fluent, in accordance with it.


Your translation should be faithful. That is, it should truly and exactly represent the meaning of the original. Do not omit or insert anything, but keep close to your text. Give the sense of ach sentence as it comes, without necessarily adhering to the forms of expression or the individual words of which it is composed.


In translating idioms, be careful not to translate literally, but to render the idiomatic words or phrase of the one language by the corresponding idiomatic word or phrase of the other. E.g. the French idiom de’predre de l’etranger (literally ‘to depend from the foreigner’) must be translated into English by ‘to depend upon the stranger’.


The translation of figurative language requires caution. A metaphor may sometimes be rendered literally, but as a rule, it is best to convey its meaning in simple language. Thus, ‘This report bristles with errors’ may be expressed in the translation by ‘This report is full of errors’ while ‘He waded to the throne through a sea of blood’ is expressed as ‘He obtained the throne by the slaughter of all his opponents’.


In regard to order of words and sentence structure, be careful to follow the genius or idiom of the language into which you translate.

Remember, finally, that the prime object of translation is to reproduce the facts and ideas of the original in such a form as will make them clear to the reader of the translations.

No one can exhaustively deal with idiomatic expressions. Therefore, I will just familiarize you with some below:




1.     Talk above our heads (Unyielding). The lesson is above my head (make things more difficult)

2.     Don’t lose your head (remain calm)

3.     Don’t run your head against a brick wall (futile attempt).

4.     She ran impetuously into the office (headlong)

5.     Tom has a good head (commonsense)

6.     Head over heads in love (deeply in love)

7.     Can’t make heads or tails (puzzled). The case has come to a head (crisis)

8.     I took it into my head (believed)

9.     Off one’s head (mad)

10.  Headstrong (unyielding)

11.  Keep a cool head (calm)

12.  Head him off (Get in front and turn him back)

13.  Head a place (Become a leader)


1.      Well, keep your hair on (don’t get excited)

2.     Make your tear your hair (frantic)

3.     Make his hair stand on end (terrify)

4.     Hair breadth (narrow escape)

5.     Didn’t turn a hair (unworried)

6.     Hair do (style of hair dressing)

7.     Hair pin bend (sharp ends on hills)

8.     People do a lot of Hair splitting over the issue (irrelevant differences)





1.      Well, keep your hair on (don’t get excited)

2.     Make your tear your hair (frantic)

3.     Make his hair stand on end (terrify)

4.     Hair breadth (narrow escape)

5.     Didn’t turn a hair (unworried)

6.     Hair do (style of hair dressing)

7.     Hair pin bend (sharp ends on hills)

8.     People do a lot of Hair splitting over the issue (irrelevant differences)


  1. Not lift a hand; not do a hands turn (do nothing)
  2. Hands off (Don’t interfere) Hands up (surrender)
  3. Lay/Life hand on somebody (strike)
  4. Set hands to task (begin)
  5. With a heavy or an iron hand (oppressively)
  6. With a bold hand (arrogantly)
  7. Get the upper hand of (advantage)
  8. Keep one’s hand in (keep one’s skill)
  9. Shake hands (reconcile)
  10. Give one’s hand on a bargain (promise)
  11. Win a lady’s hand; ask for her hand (consent)
  12. Have hands full (-busy)
  13. Keep one’s hand or a dirm hand on (control)
  14. A good hand (expert)
  15. Hands crossed (watching)


  1. His fingers are all tombs (clumsy)
  2. Have at your finger tips or ends (know all well)
  3. Put finger on (show precisely)
  4. Turn or twist his fingers round my little finger (dominate)


  1. From top to toe (completely)
  2. On one’ s toes (alert)
  3. Tip toe (move secretly)


  1. Bring a person to his knees (force to submit)
  2. On the knees of the gods (Yet uncertain)
  3. Water is knee deep; grass is knee high (very)


  1. Grease his palm (bribe)
  2. Yield the palm to somebody (admit defeat)
  3. Bear/carry the palm (victorious)
  4. An itching palm (always ready for bribe)
  5. Palm something off upon somebody (let him accept bribe)


  1. At the face value (on the surface)
  2. Do it without loss of face (indignity)
  3. I can’t face the girl (couldn’t meet)
  4. He had the face (boldness)
  5. He has two faces or is double faced (insincere)
  6. Pull a face at me or make a face at me (sign of disgust)
  7. Save/lose face (reputation)
  8. Put a good face on something (make it seem less bad)
  9. On the face of it (from appearance)
  10. Face the music (suffer)
  11. Face it out (refuse to give way)
  12. A wall faced with concrete (covered)


  1. Be all legs (over-grown; lanky and thin)
  2. Full at somebody’s legs (deceive in joke)
  3. Give somebody a leg up (help in need)
  4. Not have a leg to stand on (no defence)
  5. Stretch one’s legs (run/ a walk)
  6. Take to one’s legs, or one’s hind legs (stand to speak)
  7. Get someone on his legs (bring him to health)
  8. Stand on my own legs (independent)
  9. Shake a leg (dance)
  10. Show a leg (get out of bed)
  11. Walk him off his legs (tire him with walking)
  12. Run him off his legs (tire him with running )
  13. On one’s last legs (near death)
  14. Feel or find one’s legs (self confident, realize abilities)
  15. Keep one’s legs (not fall)
  16. On its last legs (about to collapse)


  1. Live from hand to mouth (poor)
  2. Fight hand to hand (close quarters)
  3. Bind him hand and foot (helpless)
  4. Be hand in glove (love)
  5. Serve him hand and foot (complete service)
  6. It is on hand (possession) on one’s hand (responsible)
  7. Get it off your hand (get rid of)
  8. Out of hand (out of control)
  9. Feed out of my hand (obedient) come to hand (within reach)
  10. Ready to one’s hand (conveniently rear)
  11. Bear or lend a hand (help)
  12. Win hands down (easily)


  1. The gift is earmarked for you (reserved)
  2. At the word I pricked my ears (listened closely)
  3. I play the music by the ear (can’t read, but play tune I know)
  4. May I have a word in your ear (speak privately)
  5. Let’s say within earshot (hearing distance)
  6. My words go in one ear and out at another (easily forgotten)
  7. I have good ear for music (interested in)
  8. All ears (attentive)



  1. The sight makes my mouth water (wets appetite)
  2. Messages were sent by word of mouth (not written)
  3. He is down in the mouth (depressed)
  4. Keep your mouth shot (say nothing)
  5. You’ve taken words out of my mouth (anticipated)
  6. Don’t put words into his mouth (what tell what to say)
  7. Mouthy (boastful)


  1. They gave me a cold shoulder (not welcome)
  2. They advanced shoulder to shoulder (side by side)
  3. He is head and shoulder above us in maths (superior)
  4. Put your shoulders to the wheel (great effort)
  5. He has an old head on such a young shoulder (intelligent)
  6. He spoke straight from the shoulder (rebuke frankly)
  7. Take this upon your shoulder (bear it)
  8. Shoulder your way through the crowd (push, shove)
  9. Carry shoulder high (support)


  1. They were armed to the teeth (well armed)
  2. He has a sweet tooth for honey (likes)
  3. He escaped by the skin of his tooth (narrowly)
  4. I can’t help to show my teeth (threat)
  5. I stay at UNIFE in the teeth of strong opposition (against force)
  6. He fought tooth and nail (bitterly)
  7. Tooth like (comb, rake, etc.)
  8. He is toothless (harmless)
  9. Beans are tooth some (sweet)


  1. Your letter will put his back up (anger him)
  2. Our backs are to the wall (desperate)
  3. I have backed out (withdrawn)
  4. Put your back into it (work hard)
  5. The back of your problem is broken (worst part done)
  6. Hold back the crowd (control)
  7. Put it back (return it); Don’t hit back (return)
  8. Back the car into the garage (cause to go back)
  9. Back Emmanuel up (support)
  10. Back fire (explosion in a wrong place)
  11. Fire back (retaliate)
  12. Background (view farthest away)
  13. Stay or keep in the background (where one won’t be noticed)
  14. Backing (support)
  15. Back log (arrears of work or order to be executed)
  16. Okafor back slides (falls from goodness to bad old ways)
  17. Look backwards (opposite direction)
  18. Backwater (water untouched by currents, place untouched by event)
  19. Backwash effect (movement behind)
  20. Backwoods (wild country)


  1. He is just skin and bone (thin)
  2. Save your skin (avoid injury)
  3. Put yourself in my skin, boots, shoes (imagine you were myself)
  4. Her beauty is skin deep (superficial)
  5. At the news he nearly jumped out of his skin (started violently)


  1. I have set my heart in the job (become very keen)
  2. He wears his heart on his sleeves (shows feelings)
  3. He repeated the lesson by heart (without a copy)
  4. Are you so heartless/hard-hearted (cruel)
  5. Thy heart is in my mouth (anxiety)
  6. I have no heart to disappoint him (sympathy)
  7. Take heart (be confident)
  8. Take it to heart (be affected)
  9. A change of heart (become better person)
  10. He is after my own heart ( of the sort I like)
  11. In the heart of the forest (centre)
  12. It touched my heart strings (deepest feeling)
  13. It is heartening (encouraging); It is heart breaking (deep sorrow); It causes heartache (deep sorrow)
  14. Heartfelt (sympathy)
  15. She is heart whole (not yet in love)
  16. Hale and hearty (strong and healthy)
  17. A hearty eater, meal, appetite (a big one)
  18. My hearty approval (total)
  19. Heart burning (discontent)
  20. He has a heart of gold (kind)
  21. He is broken hearted (grief stricken)
  22. Don’t break my heart (discourage)
  23. In my heart (my inmost secret recesses)


  1. Have lost one’s tongue (become shy to speak)
  2. Find one’s tongue (able to speak again)
  3. Hold one’s tongue (be silent)
  4. Have one’s tongue in one’s cheek (say what you don’t want taken seriously)
  5. Tongue-tied (unwilling to talk or shyness)
  6. Tongue twister (word difficult to pronounce)
  7. Have a ready tongue (fluent)
  8. Keep a civil tongue in one’s head (not rude)
  9. A silver tongued orator; sugar coated tongue (deceiver)


No back bone (no will of his own)

Back stairs influence (clandestine/underhand)

Breed bad blood (cause strife / enmity)

A bad egg/penny (worthless man)

Bad form (bad manners)

Bag and baggage (all belongings)

Keep the balls rolling (keep things going especially amusement)

Bandy words (wrangle / exchange arguments)

Baptism of fire (soldier’s first fighting experience)

Call to the bar (admit as barrister)

Bear down on (sail in the direction of)

Lose bearing (uncertain of position)

Beat about the bush (round-about manner)

To be dead beat (Fatigued)

Bed and Board (Lodgings’ and food)

As you make your bed, so must you lie (bear consequences of your action)

Take to one’s bed (confine for sickness)

To have a bee in one’s bonnet (be cranky/hold fantastic notions)

Bee line (short cut)

Behind your back (without one’s knowledge)

Make belief (pretend)

To give a person a person a wide berth ( keep away from)

To take the bit between one’s teeth (become unmanageable)

Bite the dust (die/defeated

Biter bit (cheater cheated)

His bark was worse than his bite (vain verbal threats)

To have kissed the blarney stone (persuasive tongue)

A blue stocking ( a woman of great literary abilities)

To have a bone to pick with someone (something to say to someone which might cause a quarrel)

Break the news (reveal something unpleasant in a mild way)

To play second fiddle


Try to figure out the meaning of the following idiomatic or proverbial stataments:

  1. Make the poor children feel like fish out of water to a dry, sandy beach, panting.
  2. A dog does not eat another dog.
  3. A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches.
  4. The more a man knows, the more he has to suffer.
  5. Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.
  6. The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.
  7. Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten
  8. He who brings kola brings life.
  9. Life is full of irony.
  10. A Toad does not run in the day light for nothing.
  11. It is always important to appreciate and understand the source of water in a pumpkin leaf. If one does not know where rain started to drench him, he would not remember where he dried up.
  12. You can smell the rotten ones two miles away.
  13. A child who is well brought up is usually known from the way she behaves.
  14. A cockerel that lands in a strange land walks with one leg up while it surveys the environment.
  15. We have a lot to lose if love goes sour.
  16. Eneke the bird says that since man have learnt to shoot without missing; he has learnt to fly without perching on a twig.
  17. You may be disappointed if you fail, but your are doomed if you don’t try.(Beverly Sills)
  18. Every exit is an entry somewhere else (Tom Stappard)
  19. When what we are is what we want to be, that’s happiness.(Malcolm Forbes)
  20. You are never a loser until you quit trying. (Mike Ditka)
  21. We make ourselves rich by making our wants few. (Henry David Thoreau)
  22. Mistakes are part of the due one pays for a full life. (Sophia Loren)
  23. A man who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything. (Peter Marshall)
  24. The moment may be temporary, but the memory is forever. (Bud Meyer)
  25. I love you, not only for what you are. But for what I am when I am with you.(Roy Croft, Love Fist stanza)
  26. You call it madness, but I call it love
  27. Do you love me because I’m beautiful, or am I beautiful because you love me? (Oscar Hammerstein, II)
  28. If I know what love is, it is because of you. (Herman Hesse)
  29. Tell me whom you love, and I will tell you who you are. (Houssaye)
  30. Love doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new. (Ursula K. LeGuin)
  31. If I am not worth the wooing, I am surely not worth the winning. (Longfellow)
  32. There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved. (George Sand)
  33. I love Thee, I love but thee. With a love that shall not die, till the sun grows cold, and the stars grow old. (William Shakespeare)
  34. The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, its indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, its indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it is indifference. (Elie Wiesel)
  35. Decision you alone must take. Examine it in the light of your own philosophy of life, your wider goals, your future expectations, and then decide one way or the other.
  36. When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, the post of honour is private station.
  37. Love is the cause of everything the lover does. (St. Aquinas)
  38. All our hatred and repulsions; All our sorrows, hopes, despairs; All our enterprises, fears and angers; ultimately point, like finger posts to the place where our treasure of love lies.
  39. Love is the principle and the root of all affections: for we rejoice in the presence of a good only insofar as the good is loved. (St. Aquinas)
  40. In space and time, being is diversified; but in the heart, they are one. You may be far away from me, yet you are in my heart. (A3far).
  41. Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure; We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous”; Actually, who are you not to be?; we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us; And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. (Akeela & The Bee)
  42. He is not friend who is continually asking for help, or he who never associates help with friendship. (Epicurus)
  43. Prudence is the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid. (St. Augustine)
  44. A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the events of uncertainities.
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