• Slang and Teaching Idioms


    In TESOL education, idioms appear particularly daunting for students and teachers alike and for this reason they are often neglected in English courses. A brief overview of everyday slang reveals an intimidating array of idioms that could easily go unnoticed by the native speaker but prove confusing for the student of English. On Kenneth Lawrence’s website devoted solely to idioms, he has attempted, like many other books on idioms and websites that focus on them, to organize idioms into coherent categories. The categories are diverse; there are bird idioms, money idioms, and even arm, head and finger idioms. It is clear from the amount of idioms in existence and the limited activities used for teaching them that idioms are a subject for more advanced English learners. Of the English learning websites I explored, the only teaching methods suggested were matching games, fill in the blank, rewriting idioms as real meanings, and multiple choice definition matching. Most work with idioms in the classroom is written whereas most of its use will only be verbal. Whether it is because it is not an “essential” part of English grammar or it is too advanced to spend much time on, idioms haven’t received their due attention.

    Teaching idioms is especially relevant for the student of Business English. is a website completely devoted to how sports idioms are related to Business English. In the category of “Baseball” common idioms like “make a pitch,” “throw someone a curveball,” and “play ball” are introduced as frequent phrases used in the business world. Even the apparently limited idiom subject of “sports” has more than ten different categories including cricket, football, sailing, boxing and even archery. Considering how important rapport between client and businessman and between businessmen themselves is, idioms are extremely relevant for any Business English class. A businessman needs correct English grammar as well as the vocabulary of “business talk” to sound competent at his job.

    In his article “Without Slang or Idioms, Students are in the Dark!,” David Burke discusses teachers unwillingness to teach idioms and slang. Burke claims that teachers are averse to teaching idioms and slang because they have been “equating slang with obscenity.” This seems easy enough- there are many slang words that are vulgar- but when one pays close attention to idioms it becomes clear they can be found in even the most basic conversation. According to Burke, teachers’ most persistent request for books on teaching idioms and slang is fewer examples and more activities. He suggests listening to dialogues with slang and discussing what they might mean before revealing the meaning and contends that the students will be eager to learn what they consider “real” English for a change.

    From a similar stance as Burke, Dimitrios Thanasoulas defends idiom’s place in the English classroom. In his article “An Introduction to ‘Befogging’ Idioms,” he emphasizes the importance of context when teaching idioms. In his opinion, reference books are too often used in the introduction of idioms and make the student feel overwhelmed with “trivial and frustrating phrases and expressions.” Thanasoulas stresses that the importance of communicative English must not be underestimated when comparing to linguistic English. Thanasoulas has revealed an interesting distinction that may explain why idioms are so often ignored; they cannot be classified as “grammar” and easily simplified with rules, instead, they serve a communicative purpose that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words. Thus, idioms are not considered as important even though misunderstanding them would seriously limit one’s English. This is one area of English where rules and grammar must be put aside in favor of experience and context.

    Molly Shaver

  • Slang and Teaching Idioms


    ‘Idiom: groups of two or more words that taken together mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words.

    Slang: informal speech that is outside conventional or standard usage and consists both of coined words and phrases and of new or extended meanings attached to established terms.’

    For a more specific definition we can look to, which offers the following detailed account of the two terms.


    ‘An idiom is an expression (i.e. term or phrase) whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions and the arrangement of its parts, but refers instead to a figurative meaning that is known only through conventional use. In linguistics, idioms are figures of speech that contradict the principle of compositionality.’

    Common features of idioms:

    Non-compositionality: The meaning of a collocation is not a straightforward composition of the meaning of its parts. For example, the meaning of kick the bucket has nothing to do with kicking buckets. (Kick the bucket means to die.) See also collocational restriction.

    Non-substitutability: We cannot substitute a word in a collocation with a related word. For example, we cannot say kick the pail instead of kick the bucket although both bucket and pail are synonyms.

    Non-modifiability: We cannot modify a collocation or apply syntactic transformations. For example, John kicked the green bucket or the bucket was kicked has nothing to do with dying. (Although John kicked his bucket and John's bucket was kicked are both valid)


    The non-standard or non-dialectal use of words in a language of a particular social group, and sometimes the creation of new words or importation of words from another language.

    Slang can be described as way of deviating from standard language use, and is very popular in adolescence. Slang functions in two ways; the creation of new language and new usage by a process of creative informal use and adaptation, and the creation of a secret language understood only by those within a group intended to understand it. As such, slang is a type of sociolect aimed at excluding certain people from the conversation.

    Slang initially functions as encryption, so that the non-initiate cannot understand the conversation, or as a further way to communicate with those who understand it. Slang functions as a way to recognize members of the same group, and to differentiate that group from the society at large. Slang terms are often particular to a certain subculture, such as musicians, skateboarders, and drug users. Slang generally implies playful, informal speech.



    Any port in a storm

    This means that in an emergency any solution will do, even one that would normally be unacceptable.

    As mad as a hatter

    This simile means that someone is crazy or behaves very strangely. In the past many people who made hats went insane because they had a lot of contact with mercury.

    You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

    If something isn't very good to start with, you can't do much to improve it.


    Rabbit. Verb

    To talk, often unceasingly.

    Abb. Rhyming slang, from Rabbit and Pork.

    Gander. Noun

    A look.

    E.g “Will you have a gander at my job application, and check it for spelling mistakes?”

    Gasper. Noun

    A cigarette. [Early 1900s]

    When trying to differentiate between slang and idiom, the following definition is offered by

    ‘Idiom is yesterday’s slang and slang is tomorrow’s idiom. In other words, idiom is slang that has, through use and over time, become acceptable to use in informal language.’