Don't be an idiot. Know your idioms.
I've been a huge fan of thefreedictionary.com since it launched in 2003. Not for its dictionary or thesaurus power - for that see powerthesaurus.com. It's the amazing database of idioms it has on the website. theidioms.com is pretty good too.
Idioms, if you didn't know, are phrases and expressions that describe something metaphorically. Some can be figurative and literal at the same time, but often they don't mean specifically what they say. In other words, they're common sayings or figures of speech.
Classic British idioms include:
Actions speak louder than words.
An arm and a leg.
Back to the drawing board.
The ball is in your court.
The word idiom, comes from the 16th-century French word idiome, from the original Latin idioma, meaning a 'peculiarity in language'. Idioms occur in most languages. English is said to have over 25,000 of them.
If you still need some more clarity on what an idiom is, check out the great song 'That's An Idiom' (below) - a highly catchy tune by online educational tool CramJams. Caution: this may cause an earworm.
Some idioms translate well, some don't. Saying 'that costs an arm and a leg' won't get you dismembered at some store checkout in a faraway land. But nevertheless, be mindful when using idioms in communications for a multi-language audience. That said, some do have their equivalents in other languages.Kick the bucket becomes kick the calendar in Polish (kopnąć w kalendarz). But it's still best to check with a native speaker of the language first before using. There are some great examples on this TED blog here.
Using idioms as a way to spark ideas is where they come into their own though. They help switch your brain into story mode.
Say you have a creative problem around the theme of 'fruit'. Take the word 'fruit' and stick it in The Free Dictionary search engine, click the Idioms tab and you'll get nearly 20 idioms with the word 'fruit' in them.
Then let's take an idiom like 'low-hanging fruit'. We know it describes things that are easier to obtain, that require less effort.
Now take the metaphor and go on a different tangent. Picture the tree. What fruit tree is it? Whereabouts is it growing? What does that make you imagine? Do you eat the fruit? (you ought to, it’s low hanging) How does its texture make you feel? What does the taste make you think? What memories does it conjure? What flights of fancy do you go on?
Maybe there's no fruit on your tree. Maybe you imagine picking objects from its branches that represent your problem. Maybe you think about other things in trees. Like birds' nests, or a great view from the top. I could go on.
Point is, all these thoughts can lead to other ideas. There are dozens of roads you could go down. But maybe the first road is down to the shops, to buy some bananas.
He that would eat the fruit must climb the tree.
Translation: Want the juicy stuff? You’ve got to work at it.