Learn Your Proverbs From Your Idioms to Avoid a Cliché

2 min read

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away." "One in the hand is worth two in the bush." These well-known expressions are part of everyday vernacular, with histories that date back centuries. But what exactly differentiates a proverb from an idiom? Or a saying from a catchphrase? Here's an official guide to those catchy bits of wisdom and how to properly apply them.


"Proverb" comes from two Latin words: pro (which has a few meanings, including "for" and "on behalf of") and verbum (which means "word"). Together, they form the word proverbium, which is a short, well-known, pithy saying that states a general truth or piece of advice. That last part — imparting a bit of truth or guidance — is the most distinguishing feature of a proverb. For example, the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right” suggests that seeking revenge against someone who treated you poorly doesn’t justify your wrongdoing. Other famous proverbs include:

  • "Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones."
  • "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
  • "All that glitters is not gold."
  • "It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all."

Proverbs can also be called "aphorisms," "adages," "maxims," or "axioms."


Proverbs are well known for their somewhat universal truths. Idioms, however, stem from a more personal experience, as the etymology suggests. Several words linked to the word "idiom" have meanings related to ownership or privateness.  In Latin, idioma means "a peculiarity in language" and in Greek, idioumai means "to appropriate to oneself," from idios, meaning "personal, private."

The primary difference between an idiom and a proverb is that idioms use common language to apply new meaning. For example, the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” (an idiom) cannot be literally true in the same way that “don’t cry over spilled milk” (a proverb) can. Although the latter has some hidden advice tied to it (what’s done is done and crying won’t fix it), it's still commonly understood.

However, idioms aren't necessarily understood until they’re taught. “It’s raining cats and dogs” imparts no immediate meaning toward its intention (that it’s raining heavily). Of course, there are a few exceptions. “Lay your cards on the table” is an idiom that means disclosing something. The actual action of laying cards on a table in a game of poker has the same meaning, but such examples are much less frequent.

Other well-known idioms include:

  • "Kick the bucket"
  • "By the skin of your teeth"
  • "Moonlighting"
  • "It’ll cost an arm and a leg."

Idioms may also be referred to as "expressions," "figures of speech," or "turns of phrase."


Clichés, which are derived from the French word clicher, meaning "to stereotype," are a bit closer to idioms, but are viewed in a more negative light. A cliché is a turn of phrase that has been so overused that it’s considered unoriginal. Seeing them  in writing, in particular, is considered a sign of an unskilled writer. Some examples of clichés are:

  • "They lived happily ever after."
  • "Beauty is only skin deep."
  • "It’s only a matter of time."

Clichés can be, and often are, idioms, but not every idiom is a cliché. The synonyms for "cliché" are less than flattering and include "platitude," "banality," and "commonplace."

Photo credit: prim91/ iStock

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