I don’t learn idioms intuitively. I learn them through study, by rote. I have a mental list of all of them, and I’ve learned most of their etymologies because that helps me make sense of why, for example, a pot calling a kettle black is an expression for hypocrisy when most pots are the lustrous light grey of aluminium, or maybe a darker, dull grey of Teflon-coated steel. and most (electric) kettles are white. The answer: Back when they were made of cast-iron, they both were black. The expression makes a lot more sense when you know that, doesn’t it?
In fact, my difficulty with idioms was why I got interested in etymology in the first place, as a kid. I couldn’t get why having a chip on your shoulder meant that you were angry and looking for a fight, or why someone who rises quickly in something was referred to as a dark horse. Me being me, my thought process at the time went something like this: I don’t get these things! -> why would they use something that makes no sense? -> maybe people use them because everyone else does, like a code -> but then why did they start using them? -> did they made sense once upon a time? -> maybe, if I read about their history, I can make them make sense to me.
Likewise, I learned metaphors and symbolism through research and memorization, and because I had to do through careful analysis and deconstruction what most do through intuition, my answers were often off, and I was often marked down. Imprecise and figurative speech was often something I’d often misunderstand.
My difficulty with idioms came from the same place as my difficulty with figurative language: I’m literal-minded, probably to a fault. If someone says something, I take what they’re saying at face value. I have a hard time with subtext and an even harder time with inferring what someone means if what they say and what they mean don’t match up well.
Case in point: When I was a kid learning to ski, the ski instructor told me to ski into the lodge. So I did. And nearly got banned from the ski hill. I was told not to be stupid, that I knew what he meant when he told me to ski into the lodge, but no, I didn’t. My parents later made sure to tell other ski instructors that I would take their words at face value, and so if they want me to stop in front of the lodge, they should say so in those words, because if they tell me to stop in the lodge, I might just do exactly that.
Another time, I was told to roller blade into the wall and stop that way when I was learning to rollerblade. Crash. And I refused to go roller-blading with my mother for the next year. What she meant was for me to rollerblade alongside the wall and use it to stabilize myself as I stopped. But she told me to rollerblade into the wall, and being a kid without the experience to know that was a bad idea, I did as she told me.
And of course, there was the whole “books don’t talk” confusion when I was in elementary school and being told by teachers the kids might like me better if I didn’t talk like a book all the time.
And while I’m a lot better at it than I used to be, if you surprise me with a new-to-me idiom, my response will most likely be a blank stare.