An “idiom” is a phrase whose meaning is different from the meaning of the words themselves. In other words, if you looked up each word of an idiom in the dictionary, the expression wouldn’t make any sense — or at least not mean what the speaker intended it to mean.

Consider the expression “it’s raining cats and dogs.” This common idiom means it’s raining very hard. If you think about the meaning of the individual words in the phrase, though, you’d expect to see cats and dogs falling from the sky!

English idioms, easily understood by native speakers, can nonetheless greatly confuse non-English speakers. Scholars estimate that the English language has more than 25,000 idioms!

Why do we use idioms so often, especially if they might confuse our listeners? As you think about common idioms, you’ll realize they allow us to express thoughts and emotions that other words can’t communicate as clearly or cleverly. Idioms feature imagery and symbolism that help us to express ourselves more effectively.

Though you may not realize it, you probably already know all sorts of idioms. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of the phrase “a dime a dozen.”

This idiom means something is extremely common, inexpensive or available anywhere. Although it doesn’t literally mean you can purchase something for less than one cent, it does effectively convey the idea that something is inexpensive or easily obtainable.

Let’s say you are headed to the beach with a friend. On the way, your friend realizes she forgot to pack a beach towel.

Since many beach shops sell inexpensive towels, you might say, “Don’t worry. Beach towels are a dime a dozen where we’re going!” Because your friend understands the idiom, she now knows there will be plenty of places to buy a towel at a very affordable price near the beach.


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Have you ever wondered…

  • What are idioms?
  • Why do people use idioms?
  • What does the phrase “a dime a dozen” really mean?

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Wonder #77- Dime a Dozen Static Image2Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Literal language says exactly what it means. Idioms, on the other hand, have meanings that rely on imagery and symbolism.

For example, “let the cat out of the bag” figuratively means someone has accidentally revealed a secret or surprise. If you interpret the idiom literally, you would assume that someone has let a real cat out of a bag.

Drawing “literal idioms” can be a fun way to explore how confusing the world of idioms can be to someone who is not familiar with the native language. Grab your art supplies and create a masterpiece that shows the literal meaning of one of your favorite idioms.

Feel free to pick an idiom from the list below or visit for more inspiration.

  • Chip off the old block
  • A piece of cake
  • Add fuel to the fire
  • Put all your eggs in one basket
  • Open up a can of worms
  • Cold feet
  • Face the music
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Cry over spilled milk
  • Throw in the towel
  • You are what you eat


Still Wondering

Examine the literal and metaphorical meanings of seven common idioms with’s fun, interactive Eye on Idioms activity!


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