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Idol, Idle, and Idyll (Grammar Lesson)

The Quick Answer
An idol is someone or something you admire or worship. For example:
  • The actor Jimmy Nail is my idol.
Idle means lazy. (To idle is used for an engine running in a neutral state.)
  • Stop being idle.
  • The car engine will idle at 1000 rpm when the gearbox is in neutral.
An idyll is a pleasant, peaceful, or picturesque time or place. (An idyll can also be a short description of a picturesque scene or event.)
  • We're going to my idyll, a quaint rural village in the Cotswolds.

Idol, Idle, and Idyll

The words idol, idle, and idyll sound similar, but their meanings are very different.

Idol

The noun idol denotes a representation (e.g., statue, carving, figurine) of a god used as an object of worship. The word idol is often used figuratively to denote a person or object that is greatly admired, loved, or revered. For example:
  • A champion can never pay back the help that made him an idol. (Jack Dempsey)
  • A god who lets us prove his existence would just be an idol. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • I don't idolize anyone or aspire to be like anyone. (Brooke Burke)
  • (The verb to idolize comes from idol.)

Idle

The word idle is most commonly used as an adjective meaning lazy or work-shy. For example:
  • You really are an idle sod!
  • It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man. (Benjamin Franklin)
Idle can also mean worthless or pointless. For example:
  • I have no time to engage in idle gossip.
  • As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence. (Benjamin Franklin)
Idle can also be used as verb meaning to take it easy, languish, or lounge around. For example:
  • Do not idle in the coffee room.
  • I need to idle on the beach for a week with a good book.
When it refers to an engine, to idle means to run slowly while out of gear or detached from a load. For example:
  • The engine is idling faster than it should.
  • Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears. (Barbara Johnson)

Idyll

The noun idyll denotes a happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or event. It means an ideal time or an ideal place. For example:
  • Hollywood is my domestic idyll. (Rufus Sewell)
  • There's something simple and idyllic about living in a house very close to the water. (Andrea Riseborough)
  • (The adjective idyllic (meaning blissful or perfect) comes from idyll.)
Idyll is also used to denote a short piece of verse describing a picturesque scene or incident (typically a rural one). For example:
  • The poem starts with short, non-rhyming idyll.
Top Tip

An Idol Can Be a Doll

Let the dol in "idol" remind you that an idol can be a doll (i.e., a figurine that can be worshipped).

Idle Can Mean Lethargic

Let the le in "idle" remind you that an idle can mean lethargic (similar to lazy).

Idyllic Comes from Idyll

Writers tend to be clear on the meaning of idyllic. Remember that idyllic comes from idyll.
Quick Test