When spoken, “idle” and “idol” sound very similar. But these words differ in spelling and meaning, so you won’t want to get them mixed up. To make sure your writing is always error free, then, check out our advice below on how to use these words.
Idle (Doing Nothing or Purposeless)
“Idle” is usually an adjective and has a few meanings. One of its most common meanings is “not working” or “not being used.” For instance, we could say:
A sure sign of a failing economy is an idle workforce.
The machines stood idle after the factory closed.
A related meaning is “without purpose” or “in vain”:
He made an idle attempt to intimidate them, but it didn’t work.
They spend all their time lost in idle chatter.
“Idle” can also mean “lazy” or “unwilling to work,” such as in the phrase “bone idle.”
As a verb, meanwhile, “idle” typically refers to a machine or engine running slowly:
The engine idled while the car sat at the crossroads.
This draws on the first sense of “idle” above (i.e., “doing nothing”).
Idol (An Object of Devotion)
Traditionally, the noun “idol” referred to a religious object of worship:
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The temple was full of idols to the gods.
More recently, this has been extended to cover any object of devotion or admiration, particularly people like Hollywood celebrities and pop stars:
Madonna will always be a pop idol.
Humphrey Bogart was an idol of the silver screen.
In some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, “idol” refers specifically to heavily marketed entertainment figures (e.g., manufactured pop groups).
However you use this word, though, “idol” is always a noun.
Summary: Idle or Idol?
While these words sound similar, they have different meanings:
Idle is typically an adjective meaning “doing nothing,” “purposeless,” or “lazy.”
Idol is always a noun and refers to an object of devotion (e.g., a religious idol) or a person who inspires devotion (e.g., a movie idol).
The fact these words play different grammatical roles in a sentence makes it easier to tell them apart. In particular, if you need a noun (i.e., a word that names a person or thing), you will always need the spelling “idol,” since “idle” is never used this way.