Are phrases such as "storm in a teacup" and "making mountains out of molehills" best described by one of these terms:

  • anecdote
  • proverb
  • saying
  • expression
  • metaphor

If not, which term is the right term? If more than one term applies (I know expression and saying are pretty general), which is the narrowest term that covers them?

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    – JoseK
    Jul 11 '11 at 12:41
  • The only word that kept coming into my head was "proverb" since these examples have some kind of similarity to "look before you leap" and "too many cooks spoil the broth" but they also lacked something so I knew that was not the right term. The other terms were the result of straining to think of alternate labels... Jul 11 '11 at 13:05
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    "storm in a teacup" is a malapropism, as the correct saying is "tempest in a teacup".
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Jul 11 '11 at 19:05
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    @Jay: I thought it was "tempest in a teapot". But according to this Ngram "storm in a teacup" is nearly as common. For some reason you don't often find storms in teapots or tempests in teacups. It appears that one is American and the other British. Jul 12 '11 at 1:32
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    +1 for "tempest in a teapot". Alliteration is almost as satisfying as ablaut-motivated compounding.
    – nohat
    Aug 4 '11 at 23:44

Those are generally called idioms.

Many idioms, including those you used as examples, are also metaphors, which you can learn about by clicking on the link. However, not all metaphors are idioms, so metaphor would not be a good word to describe all such sayings.

Expression and saying are also used of such idioms, but, as you pointed out, those terms are more general - too general, in fact.

Proverb is also not an appropriate term to use for these idioms. A proverb is usually a complete sentence, and it always expresses general wisdom on a situation. It is not a term, as an idiom is.

Anecdote is probably the furthest off from what you want here. It basically means "a short story or historical account".

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    Also, 'turn of phrase'.
    – Jez
    Jul 11 '11 at 13:29
  • Hmm I'm not sure that "most idioms are metaphors". Certainly many. I'm leaning back to this edited version of this answer though. There seem to be tons of idioms in this list which are not metaphors, though there seems to be plenty which are arguably not idioms at all either: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:English_idioms Jul 11 '11 at 13:29
  • I concede to that; that wasn't one of the major points of my answer. I think you're right - to be safe, I changed it to many.
    – Daniel
    Jul 11 '11 at 13:31
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    +1 for a succinct explanation of these oft-confused terms
    – simchona
    Aug 26 '11 at 2:28

These are clichés, and they are best avoided except for ironic effect.

They are also idioms, which might be the word you're looking for.

I prefer to think of them as tired and hollow, since their meaning and certainly their impact has been long since beaten out of them through years of abuse.

  • 2
    Hmm they seem to be "idiomatic clichés" or "clichéd idioms". Idiom is the narrower term so the better answer but other idioms such as "red herring" and "kick the bucket" lack something in common that the two examples have in common and I'm sure there are clichés which are not so idiomatic or lack some other characteristic of the two examples. Jul 11 '11 at 13:03
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    @drm65 at the end of the day, when all is said and done, the bottom line is, there might be a grain of truth in what you say.
    – Ed Guiness
    Jul 11 '11 at 13:10
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    I wasn't actually thinking about their potentially clichéd aspect when I started wondering this though it's obviously valid. Jul 11 '11 at 13:12
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    @hippietrail: Just to wade in before EL&U sends you guys off into chat... I think many of these expressions somehow 'transcend' the term 'cliche' by virtue of having survived so long. The original freshness of the imagery is long gone for most of us - but mostly so has the imagery itself. To me it's only a 'cliche' if you're conciously aware of the imagery, while simultaneously recognising it as 'stale'. With many of these expressions we barely even register the explicit meaning of the words any more. Jul 11 '11 at 17:23
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    Whether phrases like this are clichés is a value judgment - a matter of opinion. That they're idioms, on the other hand, is a fact.
    – Marthaª
    Oct 4 '11 at 1:24

Such, assuming I understand the examples, phrases match the following terms that you suggest

  • saying; saying is a quite wide term, "a well-known statement about what often happens in life", this might be the closest term
  • expression; expression is, on average, shorter than a saying but even for the longer of your two examples is could be said that it is an expression. This is also a quite wide term which alone could not explain your idea.
  • metaphor; the words that compose these sayings are used metaphorically and the saying itself are metaphors, again metaphor is has a wider sense, since metaphors do not need to be well known
  • idiom; an idiom has a few definitions; one of the is 'a saying specific to a language', and in this sense your examples qualify. Another definition of an idiom is that the meaning of it is different from the meaning that can be composed from the meaning of its individual words; here the examples would not qualify since both expressions work as metaphors through nominal meanings of the words that compose it

Some people have suggested that these are examples of a cliché - "an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel." However do note that overuse is a subjective term and that finally the use determines a cliché; using it at the right place or changing the way it is used might make it effective.

It is not an anecdote because it is just a too short, a fragment and it is not a proverb because these do not try to offer advice.

  • 1
    I think they are metaphors.
    – GEdgar
    Jul 11 '11 at 14:23
  • @GEdgar, yes they are (in more than one sense as I said), but the terms are not equivalent - "the wine dark sea" is also a metaphor, but I would not say it falls into the same category as OP's examples.
    – Unreason
    Jul 11 '11 at 14:27

Those could also be considered colloquialisms.


Apothegm is the name you're looking for. A phrase which cuts straight to the point. eg. "The cat's got your tongue."


If anything, I'd say they are clichés.

  • 2
    I don't think the OP was referring to the cliche aspect of an idiom. Given the options he presented, I think he was asking what those sorts of traditional sayings are called. The two he picked may happen to be cliches (arguably), but that's not his point. You should at least describe cliche for him, so he knows it's not just another term for idiom.
    – Daniel
    Jul 11 '11 at 13:02
  • "You've hit the nail on the head" drm65 - and is that another one by the way? Jul 11 '11 at 13:13
  • @hippie: Now I'm confused. Who were you talking to when you said "You hit the nail on the head"? @Daniel thought you were referring to his answer. Were you?
    – Daniel
    Jul 11 '11 at 13:43
  • @drm65: I was saying that you hit the nail on the head and I used your nick/handle/name to make it clear (-: Jul 12 '11 at 6:04

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