What is an idiom – “Red Flag”?

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Many languages have idioms. Chinese and English are well known for these colorful phrases. So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a group of words for which the meaning can’t be deduced through logic.

An idiom’s meaning can’t be found in a dictionary. Interestingly, the meaning of these phrases has been established by usage rather than the words within them. So, if you were to look up the words one by one in a dictionary, you wouldn’t gain any clarity on the meaning of the sentence. You may even encounter a native speaker using an idiom to describe the above situation. They might say, “I searched the dictionary, but it didn’t shed any light on my confusion.”

Again, idioms are imaginative but not necessarily logical. Moreover, they can be amusing and demonstrate a culture’s view of an idea or behavior. Here are a couple of examples:

in a pickle
in the dark

Can you guess what the above idioms mean? They have nothing to do with pickles or the dark.

Often, the English language uses idioms that invoke color imagery, like, I feel blue. These figures of speech are used because colors have a strong association with emotions. For example, “Bulls (male cows) are color blind, but a matador (bullfighter), uses a red flag to provoke the animal”. Why use a red rag to anger a colorblind bull?

An image representing the idiom “Red Flag”

The color red, symbolically, always represents love, anger, urgency, or a warning, among English speaking nations. Originally, during the 1600s, red flags were used to signify that an army was on the verge of war. History and symbology aside, “red flag, ” the idiom, can be either a Noun or a Verb.

“Red flag,” as a Noun, is a warning of danger. For example, “His actions raised a red flag”. By saying this, the speaker is telling the listener that the man in question was doing something suspicious, troubles could arise from his actions.

As a Verb, the phrase also signals danger. When used in Verb form, you may encounter the gerund or past tense of the word, such as:


Additionally, when the phrase is a Verb, a hyphen is used. Here is an example, “The foreman red-flagged building the ship”. By saying this, the speaker is telling the listener that there’s some kind of danger in building the ship, the plans are unsound.

Examples of idiom “red flag”

Fever is the body’s red flag.
Teachers always check for red flags such as tardiness and absences.

Let’s practice

Q1: Try and make your own sentence.
Q2: What should you do if someone raised a red flag while you were at school/work?
Q3: What are some common red flags to be aware of when shopping online?

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