Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Esther from Fremont, CA. Esther Wonders, “Why are idioms so confusing?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Esther!

We were dusting the knick-knacks on the shelves of the Wonderopolis library the other day when we overheard an interesting conversation between the goldfish in the bowl by the window:

Fish 1: Are you as bored as I am, Red? I wish we could go outside.

Fish 2: Are you kidding me, Carl? It's raining cats and dogs out there.

Fish 1: Right, but I figured we could find a puddle to swim around in.

Fish 2: Sounds dangerous to me. What happens when the rain stops and the Sun dries up the puddle?

Fish 1: Didn't think about that. That would be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Fish 2: Yeah, the grass is always greener on the other side of the glass. We should probably stay here and just swim around randomly all day.

We kept a close eye on the fish the rest of the day, but we didn't see them attempt to sneak out into the rain. Their conversation confused us a bit, though. Dogs? Cats? Frying pans? Fires? Green grass? Were they hallucinating?

Nope! The fish were just using idioms. Idioms are a type of figurative or formulaic language that consists of expressions or phrases that have a figurative or metaphorical meaning that is different from the literal meanings of the individual words themselves.

In other words, an idiom is a figure of speech that has a fixed meaning that you wouldn't be able to glean from the meanings of the words that make up the phrase. Thus, idioms are not to be taken literally.

For example, when Red the goldfish said that it was raining cats and dogs, he didn't mean that there were actual dogs and cats falling from the sky. Instead, this idiom means that it's raining very heavily.

Likewise, jumping from the frying pan into the fire doesn't involve either frying pans or fires. It means you go from one bad situation to an even worse one. And as far as the grass being greener on the other side of the glass, that simply means that a different situation often seems better than the one you're currently in.

Idioms can be found in all languages and cultures around the world. In English, idioms are used so frequently that they can make learning English much more difficult for foreign students.

When learning a new language, it can be difficult enough to learn the literal meanings of words. Just imagine how much more confusing it can be to discover that phrases using those words can have entirely different meanings!

Each language has its own unique idioms. The English idiom "raining cats and dogs" can't be translated literally into another language. Other languages will have their own unique ways of expressing similar thoughts and feelings.

Language experts are discovering that idioms aren't just a form of grammatical trivia. Instead, they're an important part of how we communicate. Some experts suggest many people may have as many idioms as they do words in their common vocabulary.

It may seem odd that we would use so many phrases with meanings different from the literal meanings of the words that make up those phrases. Some experts suggest that this is powerful evidence of the fact that humans aren't meant to function on only a literal, logical basis.

Instead, our language reflects the complex beings that we are. Rather than using only literal, logical words and phrases, we choose to use expressions that paint word pictures and create humorous mental images. In this way, our languages and communications become richer and more robust — even more human some might say!

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