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How To Use "Idle," "Idol," & "Idyll"

In this post, I show how to use the commonly confused words idle and idol, as well as the less common word idyll. These homophones are commonly mixed up, even by some English speakers. To help you distinguish among them, I focus on their origins and provide some quick mnemonics. As usual, I also provide lots of example sentences to help you understand how these words are used.

How to Use "Idle," "Idol," and "Idyll" (Commonly Confused Words)

Idle

The word idle has many meanings, but they are all related, so they're not too tough to keep track of. The original meaning was "vain, empty, or useless", from the Old English word idel. The Proto-Germanic root of this word is also the source of cognate words in other languages (such as the German word eidel and the Dutch word ijdel, both of which mean "vain" or "idle"). The original meaning of idle is preserved in usages such as "idle threats" (i.e., threats that are baseless or empty).


Over time, idle took on the English-specific sense of "inactive or not working," by extension from the original meaning of "useless." This was originally applied to tools (e.g., an idle plow), then to machines (e.g., an idle computer), and eventually, to people (e.g., an idle worker). When referring to a person, idle may be neutral (simply indicating that a person is not working) or negative (implying that the person is lazy), depending on the context.


Idle is also a verb; it can mean "to make idle" or "to be idle," fairly obviously (as in idle the day away). It most commonly, however, has the slightly different meaning of "to run at low power" (as in an idling engine). Here are various examples of idle used in sentences:

During the construction workers' strike, dozens of cranes stood idle in an empty lot. Idle thoughts are not always useless; they can sometimes spark creative solutions. Do not pay attention to idle chatter, as it rarely contains truthful information. Michelle accused her husband of sitting idle and not trying to find a new job. I use the idle periods between assignments to take care of non-work-related tasks. Rather than idle her car while waiting for the train, Jeanine turned off the engine.

Idol

Idol has its origins in the Greek word eidolon, which usually refers to a mental image or a ghost, but which can also (especially in religious uses) refer to a physical image. This influenced the Latin word idolum, which had similar meanings but added a religious meaning in which it referred to an image of false god (or the false god itself). When English adopted idol, all of these meanings were retained. You can thus refer to a church that bans idols (images of other gods) for being sacrilegious; you can also more generically use idol to refer to a mental image of something or to a phantom (though these uses are fairly rare).


The most common usage today, however, is an extension of the religious meanings given above. Over time, idol came to refer to anything that was an object of devotion, regardless of context. For instance, we have many "movie idols" (famous actors), "teen idols" (entertainers who are popular among teenagers), and the TV franchise that started with American Idol (which aimed to find singers worthy of fans' devotion).


Here are some example sentences:

Due to the Bible's prohibition of idols, Christians should not own, say, statues of Buddha. By keeping an idol of your late father in your mind, you can keep part of him alive. With her beauty, bubbly personality, and funky sense of style, Rhonda was a natural idol.

Idyll

Finally, we have the less common word idyll, which comes from the Greek word eidyllion, which means "a short, descriptive poem about a rustic or pastoral scene." If that looks familiar, it should: It shares the same root as eidolon, the origin for idol. The shared root means "image or form"; in the case of eidyllion, it became the name for a type of poem whose purpose was to convey imagery (by contrast with most other poems of the time, which were focused on telling a story or presenting a moral or theme).


The English word idyll was created in the early 17th century to refer to this same kind of pastoral poem; this usage is still intact, and it has been extended to other art forms as well, especially paintings. An example of a poetic idyll is William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," in which a lone fieldworker simply listens to a woman sing in the distance and wonders what she is singing about. An example of a painted idyll is The Shepherdess, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau:

These artistic works share a sense of serenity and romance. As a result, the word idyll has come to refer to any period of time that is peaceful, relaxing, and/or romantic, particularly in reference to rural settings. This usage is now probably more common than the artistic one.

The English poet A.E. Housman wrote both idylls (based on his childhood) and more cynical poems (based on his experiences in World War I). Your honeymoon should be an idyll—free of stressors related to scheduling and expenses.

To distinguish among these words, think about the distinct vowels in each: "e" in idle, "o" in idol, and "y" in idyll. I remember these vowels by thinking of an idle engine, the (terrible) teen idol singing group O-Town, and the imagery-obsessed poet W.B. Yeats, who produced many idylls in his early years.


That's all for this post! Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions of particularly difficult homonyms that I can help with. You can leave a comment below or email me at info@elevationediting.com. Thank you for reading, and please visit ElevationEditing.com the next time you need high-quality editing services.

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