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Department of Linguistics



Volume 16 No 2  December 2009

No jam for the wicked: do all English speakers understand and use the same idioms?

Julia Miller, of Adelaide University, reports on the results of a survey into English idiom (see Australian Style 15.2).

I would like to begin by thanking all those who completed my idiom survey last year. There was a huge amount of interest, with 2085 surveys completed by native speakers of English aged 16 or over in Australia and the UK. Some people did more than one survey, but overall there were about 1500 different participants. Since these people were either already interested in language or coerced by their school teachers, this doesn’t count as a random sample of the population, but the findings do indicate a general pattern of idiom use by different age groups in the two locations.

Eighty-four idioms were divided equally between six different surveys. These idioms represented the classes of Biblical (e.g. cast pearls before swine), literary/historical (e.g. an albatross around the neck), Australian in reference(e.g. back of Bourke), British in reference (e.g. send someone to Coventry) and older reference (e.g. full steam ahead).  Participants were asked to suggest any idioms they knew, from a word and picture prompt, and then to indicate whether they had heard this particular idiom before, what it meant, and where/how often they would use it. The aims were to elicit as many idioms as possible, and to ascertain whether certain idioms are more familiar to, and used by, certain age groups in certain countries.

The ten most familiar idioms from the surveys are shown in Table 1. Idioms including the word ‘steam’ were obviously popular, and so were those of a Biblical origin. The ten most used idioms were almost identical, with the penny drops replacing not to move an inch.  The least used idioms in the survey, aside from Australian or British expressions, were to rain fire and brimstone (26%); to be/look every inch (25%); jam tomorrow (23%); and to beat swords into ploughshares (17%).

Table 1: Idioms most familiar to all participants

Most familiar idioms in Australia and the UK

Familiarity level

to cry wolf


to let off steam


to turn the other cheek


full steam ahead


to run out of steam


not to move an inch


an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth


give someone an inch and they’ll take a yard/mile


look before you leap


the blind leading the blind



Those idioms which were most familiar in Australia were, not surprisingly, Australian expressions (see Table 2). Some of these idioms were entirely unknown to the UK participants. Only don’t come the raw prawn with me had a fairly high UK rating, perhaps due to its distinctiveness, and Barrie Mackenzie’s influence.

Table 2: Idioms more familiar in Australia than the UK

More familiar in Australia

Familiarity level in Australia

Familiarity level in the UK

done like a dinner



in the box seat



like a shag on a rock



to get a Guernsey



don’t come the raw prawn with me



back of Bourke



not to have a bar of something



 Older speakers were generally more familiar with the idioms in the survey than younger speakers. For example, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak was familiar to 94% of those aged over 41, but only 21% of the 16-22 age group. The only idiom which seemed to be used more by the younger group was  the elicited expression whatever floats your boat, suggested by seven people in the 16-22 group and two in the over 41 group.

Older participants had heard the surveyed idioms from a variety of sources. The most popular places for the 16-22 group were conversation, literature, parents and television. Music and films also featured. For example, all that glitters is not gold was first heard in Led Zeppelin’s song Stairway to heaven by at least one and possibly four younger participants, though it appears there in the positive form, all that glitters is gold.  Full steam ahead was first encountered by at least one younger person in Thomas the tank engine.  The youngest group were most likely to use the idioms when talking to older people, while those aged 23 and above were most likely to use them when talking to friends.

I had hoped that the survey would give me a portrait of emerging expressions, especially from the younger group, but this was not the case. However, there were some interesting suggestions which I will include here: no jam for the wicked; never judge a wolf by its cover; the albatross ate my baby; and feed pearls to pigs and their meat will sparkle.  These were all from the 16-22 group, in both locations. The main innovation across ages and countries was sheep in wolf’s clothing, suggested by 32 people. It occurred so frequently that I’m beginning to wonder if it is developing into an idiom in its own right.

The survey indicates that there is indeed a variation in idiom use between younger and older age groups in the UK and Australia. Collating and discussing all the findings will take some time, but I shall inform readers when the novel, movie and tee-shirt are available.




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