Idioms and metaphors

Earlier this week I was challenged by a client when I observed that the expression ‘to kick the bucket’ was an idiom. My client was convinced that it was a metaphor. Of course, curiosity got the better of me …

Idiom: noun 1. a form of expression peculiar to a language, especially one having a significance other than its literal one.

Metaphor: noun 1.  a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance.

Source: Macquarie Dictionary online


Idiom: ‘to kick the bucket’.

Metaphor: ‘laughter is the music of the soul’.

A very brief tour of a few Google-ised websites later and there I was: reasonably clear about the difference … for the most part. Problems can arise because there are some idioms that are also metaphors (or if you’d prefer, some metaphors that are also idioms), but for the most part, they are two separate forms.

Once my initial curiosity had been fed, my interest went further: where did all these idioms come from – and, for that matter, the metaphors? Today, to ensure that this post does not evolve into a mini PhD, we’ll stick to three idioms I have encountered recently. Please feel free to add your own!

To kick the bucket:

This is generally accepted as another way to say ‘to die’. Its origins are unclear, with references to suicides by hanging (they kick the bucket on which they are standing), the yoke on which slaughtered pigs are hung, and a method used by Chicago gangsters to punish ‘double-crossers’.

Burning the midnight oil:

Working late into the night. The origin of this one is also unclear with some claiming it refers to the time before electricity when people worked using the light from an oil-filled lantern and others that it was a religious ritual wherein the old oil was burnt through the night and replaced by fresh oil at daybreak.

The duck’s nuts:

This is Australian and New Zealand slang for ‘the best’. Again, the origin is uncertain, although there is an argument that it is the ANZ version of either ‘the bee’s knees’ or ‘the dog’s bollocks’.