Idiom: A group of words whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the constituent words. As for example, “It was raining cats and dogs”.
Creative writing is as much about playing games as anything in life is. We play games with words and meanings. If we are writing sci-fi or fantasy, we may even invent languages for our characters, whole new worlds springing up from our writing. I am delighted with inventive writing, and if I venture thus far, I will try to ensure that my worlds are internally consistent, and that I have given enough information in the back-cloth of the story to make clear the meaning of any particular idioms that I might then deploy in dialogue between the characters.
The use of idiom – throw-away phrases usually found in spoken language that are hard to translate but which carry with them whole worlds of meaning – in novels can be interesting. Because it is so hard to explain, the colour and purpose of idiom is usually demonstrated obliquely, through snatches of dialogue between characters. Words spoken between characters can show their common history and understanding, and will also allow readers to deduce the intention of phrases which, taken literally, appear meaningless.
If I write, “The lady said, was I pulling her leg, and that she would sock it to me if I didn’t mind my manners”, an editor might ask, “Pulling whose leg? Putting the sock on the leg?” “Hang on a sec,” might raise the question, “What is a sec, and why should I hang onto it?” If you write, “Betty’s going to give Bert stick when she catches up with ‘im” you are likely to find that, for an American translation, someone will have prefaced “stick” with an indefinite article.
Our local and accustomed use of idiom, which we feel so entirely comfortable with, is so enmeshed with our use of everyday language, it can be hard to notice when other people find local expressions peculiar and unfathomable. They can be hard to explain; they are never self-explanatory, and when I find myself trying to elucidate, embarrassingly, several more idiomatic phrases always seem to rush ever so helpfully to the rescue, so that conversation becomes a series of short snatches and embarrassing confusion.
But writers want to be understood, I assume; so although I use idiom all the time when I’m speaking with my family and am probably not even aware of doing so, I now try to avoid it in my writing. Written language is no less colourful for that, just different from what we might say to each other socially.
Thanks for listening.