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I think I have a notion what is what but maybe you know a good definition what is what? For example "Hindsight is always 20:20" — is that a proverb or an idiom?

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Check out this question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/33677/… – Daniel Sep 29 '11 at 20:53
Just as related: Difference between "phrase", "idiom", and "expression" and this too. – Daniel Sep 29 '11 at 21:10
Possible?!? A few variants of this set text seem to be required. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 12 '13 at 8:13
I would add to the answers at the linked thread that there can be overlap; gelolopez's 'When the cat is away, the mouse will play' is obviously not to be taken at the literal level. And 'Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English. A Corpus-Based Approach.' by Rosamund Moon (which may still be accessible online) deals with the whole subject (including transparency, and overlap of the idiom/proverb categories) in admirable detail. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 12 '13 at 8:13
@EdwinAshworth What is meant by level of transparency? Is it intelligibility? Your edit has made it clearer. Thanks. Nevertheless, the difference between proverbs and idioms is pretty straightforward. – Mari-Lou A Dec 12 '13 at 9:18
up vote 4 down vote accepted

An idiom is an expression that can be understood only as a whole and not by analysing its constituent parts. For example, if you know what ‘kick’, 'the’ and ‘bucket’ mean, that won’t help you understand that ‘kick the bucket’ means ‘die’. A proverb may or may not be idiomatic, but it expresses succinctly some form of philosophy, folk wisdom or advice. 'Hindsight is always 20:20' is neither an idiom nor a proverb, but a trite expression of the obvious.

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I'd say 'Hindsight is always 20:20' is an idiomatic metaphore and a platitude. Though it is often used with the (implicit) meaning that prediction is harder than reviewing. – jiggunjer Apr 7 '15 at 16:06

Idioms are short arrangements of words that have a meaning beyond their literal. They can be completely different from their literal meaning, such as "bite the bullet", or "step up to the plate", both of which mean "begin a difficult task." Or they can mean close to their literal meaning, but carry lots of cultural baggage along with them, such as "land of the free" which means what it says, but carries lots of American patriotic baggage, or "tea and sympathy" which denotes a rendezvous with a particular goal of commiseration in mind.

A proverb is, instead, a short or pithy remark or story designed to convey a moral or practical message. It comes from the eponymous book of the Bible which, in many chapters, has pages and pages of one or two verse statements of that kind. "Better to meet a bear robbed of her cubs than a fool in his folly", "A fool and his money are soon parted." etc.

Proverbs are usually pretty literal in their meaning, and are certainly not restricted to those from the Bible, though that is the origin of the name and the form as used in English. Some non-Biblical proverbs would be "many hands make light work", "procrastination is the thief of time", etc.

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You may want to check out the wiki article for proverb; apparently the word does not actually come from the Bible, but from the Latin proverbium. There are several good examples of proverbs there too. – Daniel Sep 29 '11 at 22:27
Thanks for the heads up, but the English word comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, and it is there that the word became common in English. – Fraser Orr Sep 30 '11 at 2:58

A proverb is usually a sentence that evokes a sense of wisdom. While most of the time it can refer to a certain sense of wisdom, proverbs are mere expressions of truth based on common sense or practicality.

Ex Once bitten, twice shy.

Carpe diem!

When the cat is away, the mouse will play.

An idiom is a string of words that when taken together has a meaning different to its literal interpretation. The meaning should be taken figuratively.


To keep one's head above the water= to manage a situation

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For the second example is there something metaphorical about "keeping one's head above the water"? – James Poulson Jul 11 at 21:54

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