"She sat down to write her paper without batting an eyelash." This sentence contains an example of what is called an idiom. Idioms are individual forms of expression specific to one language. They can be thought of as a group of two or more words that together mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words. "Without batting an eyelash" means to be passive, or show no interest in an event or situation. This phrase first appeared in the early 1900's."Batting", used in this phrase, was intended to mean "blinking". If a person is so cool and calm that they do not even blink when confronted with something unusual, they there is no outward show of emotion. "Without batting an eyelash" is just one of about ten thousand idiomatic expressions!
Idioms are said to appear in every language. Some of ours have even originated elsewhere. Our English idioms can be quite confusing to a foreigner since the meaning of them, as previously noted, may have little or nothing to do with the meanings of the words taken one by one. An example of this is the phrase "let the cat out of the bag". While today that means to reveal a secret, a hundred years ago the phrase actually meant to let a cat out of a bag. Foreigners may find that to fully understand our language, they will have to understand our idioms.
The use of idioms dates as far back as biblical times, and can come from something as random as horse racing. Many authors throughout history have made up idioms to liven up their writings. These authors were popular, so the words they wrote became equally popular. Some examples of these authors are Homer, Aesop, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.
Word experts have difficulty with agreeing on the exact origins of our idioms, but it is said that some came from Native American customs and others from African-American speech. Some have become popular because they rhyme, or because they contain alliteration. There are idioms that originated as colloquialisms (informal speech), some as slang (casual, playful, non-standard language) and there are those that were well-known proverbs or adages (short passages that express practical, basic truths).
An overused idiom or phrase is referred to as a cliché. A cliché has the reputation of being a once fresh and original expression that is now old and too commonplace. While many times this reputation is upheld, if one pays close enough attention to their phrasing, clichés can serve as the basis of their language. An example of proper use of cliché could be columnist George Wills comment on the fact that the fans of the Chicago Cubs support their team through "thick and thin".
While there are many clichés heard today, many of them so common that we may not even think about it when we hear or read it, there are still some not-so-common idioms. Some that have not become too clichéd include these phrases; "Air your dirty laundry in public", "Ax to grind", "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", "Call you on the carpet", "Drop you like a hot potato", "Gone to pot", "Ignorance is bliss", "Mum's the word", "Pull the Wool over your eyes", "Red Herring", "Straighten up and fly right", "What's good for the goose is good for the gander" and "Word of mouth".
A quarreling pair or group of people talking about their disagreements or embarrassing issues in public are referred to as "Airing their dirty laundry in public" whereas 'to air' means to discuss thing aloud where anyone can here and 'dirty laundry' would be intimate details one would not normally share.
Having an "ax to grind" is not a good thing. It is a form of flattery one uses to gain something for a selfish reason. One would flatter and thus trick another in order to get a favor from them. This originated in the early 1800's when a man wrote a story in a newspaper about how, when he was a boy, a man used flattery to trick him into sharpening the man's ax. The catch was that the boy was not paid for...