Writers and Idioms — Carolyn Wilker

You might recognize this saying, a feather in your cap, or you may have never heard the term.

Meaning of the Idiom

hat copyAccording to the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, a “feather in your cap” came from the late 17th century and originally meant a sign of foolishness, yet by the next century the phrase had turned about completely. It became a sign of something positive, such as “an achievement to be proud of.” On further research, the term has other meanings as well, including that of an enemy capturing its prey and adding a feather of that captured bird to its collection.

Defining an Idiom

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be determined by the definition of the words in the phrase. For example, the above noted phrase: How is one to connect the feather that’s part of a bird’s plumage with the cap someone wears? What have they to do with each other? Additionally, if you were to mention this expression to someone learning English, you might be greeted with a blank stare.

Frequency of Idioms in our Speech

Until I was writing and editing, I gave little thought to the phrases known as idioms—ones I heard in my community as I was growing up or those I learned in other places. If I didn’t know at first what they meant, I soon learned or asked. Indeed it sometimes seemed like a secret language whose terminology one needed to know to fit in.

More Examples of Idioms

Other idioms heard in my community were: Make hay while the sun shines, Hit the hay, Keep your chin up, and my mother’s favourite, when we wanted to get something accomplished quickly—Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Idioms Creep into our Writing

It’s surprising how often these phrases spring up in our speech, and when we write, it shows up there too! I ask the students in my creative writing class to listen for idioms in conversation until the next class, and of course, to write them down. Then we share the phrases in class and talk about what they really mean. On occasion, just for fun, I challenge my students to write a short story using as many idioms as possible. We are entertained by the responses.

Who are your Readers?  

Who’s in your audience? Will you risk turning readers away because they don’t understand?

When in doubt, leave out the idiom, unless a character in your book speaks that way. And if you’re going to use the idiom anyway, be sure to find a way to illustrate the meaning.


carolyn-wilkerCarolyn Wilker is a freelance editor, member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, a storyteller, writing instructor and author of the book, Once Upon a Sandbox, published in 2011. Publication credits include articles, op-ed pieces, devotionals, poetry and creative nonfiction in regional to international publications.

*Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, 2004, Oxford University Press

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