Difference between Idioms and Proverbs

Key difference: According to definition, a ‘proverb’ is a traditional saying which carries some moral or practical social message, whereas an ‘idiom’ is an expression made by a combination of words, whose meaning is different than the literal meaning of the individual words.

Often, the terms ‘idiom’ and ‘proverb’, are considered similar to each other. This is based on their same short sentence nature and the usage in expressions. Also, like an idiom, a proverb has a meaning that is greater than the meaning of its individual words. Similarly, idioms, like proverbs are considered as common sayings, but the former are simple expressions as compared to the wise sayings of the latter.  

The term ‘Idiom’ is defined as a small collection of words, whose meaning is completely different than the meaning of the used words. They are generally words, phrases or expressions that cannot be taken literally. It is a figure of speech, which have a figurative meaning. Also, this figurative meaning is quite different than the literal meaning of the words used in an idiom.

For example:

  • Break a leg
  • A little bird told me

Now, in the first example, the literal meaning would be to actually pick up a stick and break a person’s leg, but the idiomatic meaning is wishing a person good luck before any performance, or exam or an event. Similarly, in the second example, a bird is compared to a person figuratively, who is said to have told another person a secret.

A ‘Proverb’, on the other hand, is defined as a short, well known saying, which states the truth or a piece of advice. It is a short sentence, in which the meaning of the words is literal, and they are frozen (tense cannot be changed) in the saying. It usually tells us about the bearing of the worlds and imparts wisdom through its meaning. For example:

  • The pen is mightier than the sword
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away
  • A friend in need is a friend indeed
  • Empty vessels make much noise

As one can understand, all the above sentences have a deeper meaning and reflect a way of life in their saying.

Based on the above definitions, the terms ‘idioms’ and ‘proverbs’, can be easily differentiated. The basic difference between is based on their usage and purpose, wherein the idiom is a figurative expression, and a proverb is a brief piece of wisdom. Another difference is in their meaning, the idioms have different meanings based on the culture, while proverb is based on practical or common knowledge. Also, further differences between the two can be read in the table below.

The exact origins of the terms ‘idioms’ and ‘proverbs’ are not known, as they are said to be rooted in creative stories, literature, poetry, music or real life events. Also, they are said to be borrowed or inherited from many languages, and then modified overt time. They do widely occur frequently in all languages. Which is why, they are also termed as colloquial metaphors and short sentences, respectively.

Comparison between Idioms and Proverbs:





It is defined as an expression made by a combination of words, whose meaning is different than the literal meaning of the individual words.

It is defined as a traditional saying which carries some moral or practical social message.


They are just a form of expression.

They are short stories with a moral message.


They are used to express things or actions.

They are used to give advice.

Considered as

They are considered as colloquial metaphors.

They are considered as short sentences.

Word meaning

They do not reflect the actual meaning of the words.

The words are often literal and they mean what they define.


They may be short phrases or complete sentences.

They are usually short sentences.

Image Courtesy: quotescover.com, idiom-magic.com

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Aren't the definitions in the chart switched?

Hi JB, you're right. Thank you for pointing it out. It's been fixed now.

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