Idiom vs. Metaphor: What Is The Difference and How To Use Them?

Idioms and metaphors are both non-literal methods of expressing ideas. They help convey abstract concepts. Although they share similarities, they are not identical. An idiom may have both a figurative and a literal interpretation, whereas a metaphor is a figure of speech that compares one thing to another to illustrate a point. This article will compare an idiom vs. a metaphor and discuss how to use them in writing.

What are Idioms and Metaphors?

Idioms are phrases whose meanings cannot be understood from the individual words used. Metaphors are expressions that symbolize something else, particularly abstract concepts.

Figurative language is a great tool to enhance your writing; idioms and metaphors are two examples. Idioms are commonly known expressions that communicate a different meaning than their literal interpretation. On the other hand, metaphors compare two things that share one attribute but are otherwise dissimilar, similar to similes.

What is the Difference Between Idioms and Metaphors?

Both idioms and metaphors are types of figurative speech that make the most sense in their original language and have unique qualities. However, their meanings, origins, and types of words differ. While expressions and figures of speech are also types of figurative language, they are not synonymous with idioms and metaphors.

Idioms and metaphors are both types of language that use figures of speech. However, idioms are expressions specific to the culture and language they came from. They result from using colloquialisms and other types of figurative language. If an idiom is written in English, it does not necessarily have the same meaning in another language.

The usage is the most significant difference between Idioms and metaphors. Idioms may seem absurd, whereas metaphors make a different comparison.

History of Idioms and Metaphors


Idioms and metaphors have been used in literature since ancient times. Here’s a look at the history of these two figures of speech.

The History of Idioms

Idioms were likely developed in oral tradition before being documented in writing. This is because they frequently employ wordplay and other linguistic techniques that may be difficult to convey in writing, resulting in the loss of their intended meaning. For example, the idiom “to have a chip on your shoulder” originated from an old custom of placing a chip of wood on one’s shoulder to provoke someone into a duel.

Some idioms in the English language have unclear origins. It is believed that certain idioms may have been borrowed from other languages. The phrase “the apple of the eye” may have originated from the Old English words āpul (meaning fruit) and ġeógn (meaning eye).

The History of Metaphors

The word metaphor in English originates in Old French, Latin, and Greek, dating back to the late 15th century. The French word for metaphor, métaphore, is almost identical. Metaphora in Latin means “carrying over,” while in Greek, the terms’ meta,’ meaning “between,” and ‘phero,’ meaning “to bear or carry,” are combined.

Scholars have believed that metaphor was a language issue for about 2,500 years since Aristotle’s time. This means that a word with a literal meaning could have a second meaning, which Aristotle deemed as “similar” to the first.

The comparison theory suggests that the meaning of a metaphor can be broken down into a set of literal similarity statements. Therefore, although metaphors are considered impactful for language in a rhetorical and poetic sense, they are not necessary for expressing fundamental truths. These can be explained using literal concepts and statements.

In the second half of the 20th century, the long-held belief about the Aristotelian perspective was proven incorrect by cognitive-science research on language, knowledge, meaning, conceptualization, and reasoning. This research prompted a complete overhaul of metaphor understanding, leading to the development of conceptual metaphor theory.

Examples of idioms and metaphors

Idioms and metaphors are used in literature to express thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Here are some examples of these figures of speech:


Here are some examples of idioms and their origins.

Kick the bucket.

The phrase “kick the bucket” is a colloquial and informal idiom in English that means “to die.” While there are various theories about its origin, it remains unclear. Here are some examples of how to use this idiom:

  • She was so ill and weak that the doctor said she would soon kick the bucket.
  • Her grandmother had been sick for a while, and she finally kicked the bucket yesterday.

See the light.

The idiom “to see the light” means to understand something clearly. The term “light” originated in the late 1600s and originally meant converting to true religion. Over time, by the early 1800s, it came to refer to any kind of understanding. Other related phrases include “light at the end of a tunnel” and “see the light of day.” Here are some examples of how to use this idiom:

  • She had been struggling for years but finally saw the light and left her abuser.
  • It took some time for him to realize the truth, but he finally saw the light.

It’s raining cats and dogs.

The expression “raining cats and dogs” or “raining dogs and cats” means it is raining heavily. Its origins are unclear, and it does not refer to actual animals falling from the sky. The term (with the word “polecats” rather than “cats”) has been in use since the 1600s. Here are some examples of how to use this idiom:

  • It was raining cats and dogs, so they had to stay inside.
  • The storm was so bad that it seemed like it was raining cats and dogs outside.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

The expression “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” means accepting a sure gain is better than taking a risk for more.

The phrase means that the falcon in the falconer’s hand is more valuable than the two birds in a bush because the falcon can provide a continuous food supply, whereas the birds can only offer a single meal. This expression was first used in literature in the 15th century by John Capgrave in “The Life of St. Katherine.” Here are some examples of how to use this idiom:

  • He was offered two jobs, but he decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush and chose the one with more security.
  • He was tempted to take on another business venture but remembered that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

The phrase “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” advises against putting all of one’s efforts and resources into a single area, as doing so could result in losing everything. It was initially used in the novel “Don Quixote” and is written as “It is part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.” Here are a couple of examples of this idiom.

  • She considered investing all her savings into one stock but then decided not to put all her eggs in one basket.
  • He had been putting all his energy into a single project but eventually realized he shouldn’t put all his eggs in one basket.


Here are some examples of idioms and their origins.

He’s a diamond in the rough.

The metaphor “He’s a diamond in the rough” means that the person referred to has many potentials but needs some work to reach their full potential. They are like an unpolished diamond. The phrase “diamond in the rough” has been used since the 1870s, while “rough diamond” has been used since the 1600s. Here are some examples where the metaphor is used:

  • She was known as a diamond in the rough, always undervalued and underestimated.
  • He was such a diamond in the rough – he had so much potential, yet no one noticed it.

She’s a ray of sunshine.

happy woman

The metaphor “She’s a ray of sunshine” likens an individual to a beam of sunlight, symbolizing their joyful and hopeful nature.

The phrase ‘ray of sunshine’ has its roots in Old English and French origins. It became a common sight in the English language around the 14th century. Over time, expressions and media using the term became more widespread, and it started being used to refer to something positive or to point out the opposite sarcastically.

Here are some examples of how to use this metaphor:

  • He was such a ray of sunshine – his presence always lifted everyone’s mood.
  • She was the only ray of sunshine in an

He’s a walking disaster.

The metaphor “He’s a walking disaster” describes a person who is always causing problems by comparing them to a walking disaster. Here are some examples of how to use the metaphor:

  • He was always getting in trouble – he was a walking disaster.
  • She tended to create chaos everywhere she – she was like a walking disaster.

Life is a journey.

The metaphor comparing life to a journey illustrates the various positive and negative experiences a person encounters throughout their lifetime. It is believed to have originated in the Bible, referring to life as a pilgrimage. Here are some examples of how to use this metaphor:

  • Life is full of ups and downs – it’s a journey that never ends.
  • People go through different experiences as they travel through life’s journey.

Benefits of Using Idioms and Metaphors in Your Writing

Idioms and metaphors are powerful tools to help concisely express complex ideas. They can convey emotional messages or highlight a point of view. Additionally, these figures of speech provide an exciting way to engage readers and add life to your writing. Combining idioms and metaphors with other literary techniques can create vivid descriptions and strong imagery.

Different Perspective

Idioms and metaphors also give readers a different perspective on familiar topics or ideas. They can invoke empathy, spark curiosity, and humor your writing. Furthermore, their usage is an excellent way to show a character’s personality traits or state of mind without explicitly stating it.

Using Idioms and Metaphors Correctly

When using idioms and metaphors, it is vital to use them in the correct context. For example, if you use an idiom with multiple meanings, make sure the intended meaning is clear. Additionally, be mindful of the reader’s cultural references and language understanding. It is best to avoid using them excessively, as they can make your writing overly complicated to understand.


two women talking

Here are some frequently asked questions about idioms and metaphors.

How about symbolism vs. metaphor?

Symbolism and metaphors are similar in that they compare two things. However, symbolism is more complex, as it often involves multiple layers of meaning to suggest something more significant than the literal interpretation.

Can idioms and metaphors be the same?

An idiom is an expression with a specific meaning in a language due to its cultural origin. At the same time, a metaphor compares things that share one attribute but are otherwise dissimilar, similar to similes.

What type of language are metaphors and idioms considered?

Metaphors and idioms are considered figures of speech or figurative language. They are used to compare or express an idea creatively. Additionally, expressions and figures of speech can be categorized as figurative language types.

Why is it essential to know idioms or idiomatic expressions?

Knowing idioms and idiomatic expressions is essential because these can provide deeper insight into a language and culture. Additionally, understanding idioms allows for more meaningful conversations with native speakers.

Do metaphors specifically use the terms like or as?

Metaphors don’t necessarily have to use “like” or “as.” Instead, they may rely on comparisons between two things that share some attribute but are otherwise dissimilar.

What effect do idioms have on the reader?

Idioms can have various effects on the reader. They can evoke strong emotions and help to create vivid images in the reader’s mind. Furthermore, they can add depth to characters or conversations by providing insight into their culture or background.

What is the primary purpose of using idioms?

The primary purpose of using idioms is to communicate an idea more concisely and effectively than other forms of expression. Additionally, they can convey deeper emotion or add humor to writing.

What are the five types of metaphors?

The five main types of metaphors are comparison, description, personification, cumulative, and mixed. Each type of metaphor has its purpose and can be used to communicate different thoughts or ideas more compactly.

What are the types of idioms?

There are four main types of idioms, which include pure idioms, prepositional idioms, partial idioms, and binomial idioms. It’s worth noting that some people may also classify euphemisms, clichés, and proverbs as types of idioms.

Idioms and metaphors are powerful tools for expressing complex ideas concisely and creatively. They can be used to evoke emotion or highlight a point of view and add life to your writing by combining them with other literary techniques. Understanding the differences between idioms and metaphors is important when correctly using these figures of speech so that readers understand their intended meaning. With an understanding of how they work, you can use them effectively in your writing to make it more engaging and impactful.

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