English-language idioms

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An idiom is a common word or phrase with a culturally understood meaning that differs from what its composite words' denotations would suggest. For example, an English speaker would understand the phrase "kick the bucket" to mean "to die" – and also to actually kick a bucket. Furthermore, they would understand when each meaning is being used in context. An idiom is not to be confused with other figures of speech such as a metaphor, which invokes an image by use of implicit comparisons (e.g., "the man of steel" ); a simile, which invokes an image by use of explicit comparisons (e.g., "faster than a speeding bullet"); or hyperbole, which exaggerates an image beyond truthfulness (e.g., like "missed by a mile" ). Idioms are also not to be confused with proverbs, which are simple sayings that express a truth based on common sense or practical experience.

An idiom is a phrase where the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words.[1][2] In another definition, an idiom is a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements.[3] English learners usually have a hard time understanding an idiom's real meaning without an idiomatic dictionary.[4] English has thousands of idioms,[5] most of which are informal.[6]

Notable idioms in English

Notable Idioms In English
Idiom Source Definition/Translation Notes
A bitter pill A situation or information that is unpleasant but must be accepted.
A hot potato [7] A controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with.
A dime a dozen [8] (US) Anything that is common, inexpensive, and easy to get or available anywhere.
Ace in the hole [9] A hidden or secret strength, or unrevealed advantage.
Achilles' heel [10] A metaphor for a fatal weakness in spite of overall strength.
All ears [11] Listening intently; fully focused or awaiting an explanation.
All thumbs [12] Clumsy, awkward.
An arm and a leg Very expensive or costly. A large amount of money.
Apple of discord [13] Anything causing trouble, discord, or jealousy.
At the drop of a hat Without any hesitation; instantly.
Back to the drawing board When an attempt fails, and it's time to start planning all over again.
Ball is in his/her/your court It is up to him/her/you to make the next decision or step.
Balls to the wall! Full throttle; at maximum speed.
Barking up the wrong tree [14] Looking in the wrong place. [a]
Basket case One made powerless or ineffective, as by nerves, panic, or stress. [b]
Beating a dead horse To uselessly dwell on a subject far beyond its point of resolution.
Beat around the bush [15] To treat a topic, but omit its main points, often intentionally or to delay or avoid talking about something difficult or unpleasant.
Bed of roses Easy and comfortable.
Bird Brain [16] a person that is not too smart; a person that acts stupid
Bite off more than one can chew To take on more responsibility than one can manage.
Bite the bullet To endure a painful or unpleasant situation that is unavoidable.
Bite the dust Euphemism for dying or death.
Bought the farm Euphemism for dying or death.
Break a leg [17] A saying from the theatre that means "good luck".
Burn the midnight oil [18] To work late into the night, alluding to the time before electric lighting. [c]
Bust one's chops [19] To exert oneself. [d]
By the seat of one's pants [20] To achieve through instinct or do something without advance preparation.
By the skin of one's teeth [21] Narrowly; barely. Usually used in regard to a narrow escape from a disaster. [e]
Call a spade a spade To speak the truth, even to the point of being blunt and rude.
Call it a day [22] To declare the end of a task. [f]
Cat nap A nap.
Champ at the bit or Chomp at the bit [23] To show impatience or frustration when delayed.
Cheap as chips Inexpensive or good value
Chew the fat To chat idly or generally waste time talking.
Chink in one's armor [24] An area of vulnerability [g]
Clam up To become silent; to stop talking.
Cold shoulder [25] To display aloofness and disdain.
Couch potato [26] A lazy person.
Crocodile tears Fake tears or drama tears. (In fake crying)
Cut off your nose to spite your face Pursuing revenge in a way that would damage oneself more than the object of one's anger
Cut a rug To dance
Cut the cheese (US) To fart.
Cut the mustard [27] To perform well; to meet expectations.
Dig one's heels in On genuine objection to some process or action or motion, actually to stop or oppose it strongly.
Don't count chickens before they hatch Don't make plans for something that may not happen; alternatively, don't make an assumption about something that does not have a definitively predetermined outcome.
Don't have a cow [28] Don't overreact.
Drop a dime (US) Make a telephone call; to be an informant.
Elephant in the room An obvious, pressing issue left unaddressed due to its sensitive nature.
Fit as a fiddle [29] In good physical health.
For a song Almost free. Very cheap.
Fly in the ointment The one tiny drawback that ruins it.
From A to Z Covering a complete range; comprehensively.
From scratch / to make from scratch Make from original ingredients; start from the beginning with no prior preparation
He/She is a sandwich short of a picnic The person is lacking intelligence
Get bent out of shape To take offense; to get worked up, aggravated, or annoyed
Get your goat To irritate someone.
Grasp the nettle [30][31][32] To tackle a problem in a bold manner, despite the difficulty or complexity of doing so; sometimes refers to solving a problem despite short-term adverse consequences.
Have a blast [33] To have a good time or to enjoy oneself.
Have eyes in the back of one's head Someone can perceive things and events that are outside of their field of vision.
Head over heels Besmitten, infatuated.
Heard it through the grapevine You learned something through means of a rumor.
Hit the ceiling To become enraged, possibly in an overreaction.
Hit The Nail On The Head 1. To describe exactly what is causing a situation or problem; 2. To do exactly the right thing; 3.To do something in the most effective and efficient way; 4. To say exactly the right thing or to find the exact answer; 5.To be accurate or correct about something. Often abbreviated as HTNOTH all over the web
Hit the road To leave.
Hit the sack /sheets/hay [34] To go to bed to sleep.
Hit the spot To be particularly pleasing or appropriate; to be just right.
Hook, line and sinker [35] To be completely fooled by a deception.
Ignorance is bliss Life is good when you're naive to the hardships happening all around
Jump ship [36] Leave a job, organization, or activity suddenly.
Just my two cents (US) Just the information I have on the subject.
Kick the bucket [37] Euphemism for dying or death.
Kick the habit Stop engaging in a habitual practice.
Kill two birds with one stone To accomplish two different tasks at the same time and/or with a single action.
Let the cat out of the bag To reveal a secret.
Look a gift horse in the mouth To find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor
Method to (one's) madness Despite someone's random approach, there is actually some structure to it.
Nip (something) in the bud To stop something at an early stage.
No horse in this race No vested interest in the outcome of a particular contest or debate
Off one's trolley or
Off one's rocker
[38] Crazy, demented, out of one's mind, in a confused or befuddled state of mind, senile. [h]
Off the hook [39] To escape a situation of responsibility, obligation, or (less frequently) danger.
Once in a blue moon Something that occurs very rarely.
Own goal To do something accidentally negative against yourself or your own team.
Pop one's clogs (UK) Euphemism for dying or death.
the pot calling the kettle black Used when someone making an accusation is equally as guilty as those being accused.
Piece of cake A job, task or other activity that is pleasant – or, by extension, easy or simple.
Preaching to the choir [40] To present a side of a discussion or argument to someone who already agrees with it; essentially, wasting your time.
Pull somebody's leg To tease or to joke by telling a lie.
Pushing up daisies Euphemism for dying or death.
Put the cat among the pigeons [41] To create a disturbance and cause trouble.
Raining cats and dogs Raining really strong or hard.
Right as rain [42] Needed, appropriate, essential, or hoped-for and has come to mean perfect, well, absolutely right. [i]
Rock the boat Do or say something that will upset people or cause problems.
Shoot the breeze To chat idly or generally waste time talking.
Shooting fish in a barrel Frivolously performing a simple task.
Step up to the plate To deliver beyond expectations.
Screw the pooch To screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion.
Sleep with the fishes Euphemism for dying or death. [j]
Spill the beans Reveal someone's secret.
Spin one's wheels Expel much effort for little or no gain.
Straw that broke the camel's back Last in a line of unacceptable occurrences.
Take the biscuit (UK) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious.
Take the cake (US) To be especially good or outstanding.
Take with a grain of salt To not take what someone says too seriously; to treat someone's words with a degree of scepticism.
Throw under the bus To betray or sacrifice someone for selfish reasons.
Through thick and thin In both good and bad times.
Thumb one's nose To express scorn or to disregard.
Tie one on To get drunk.
To steal someone's thunder To take credit for something someone else did.
Trip the light fantastic To dance
Two a penny Cheap or common
Under my thumb [43] Under my control
Under the weather [44] Feel sick or poorly
The whole nine yards Everything. All of it.
Wild goose chase A frustrating or lengthy undertaking that accomplishes little.
He/She/They hold(s) the cards He/She/They controls the situation.
You can say that again That is very true; expression of wholehearted agreement

horn of a dilemma :to be unable to decide which of the two things to do because either could have bad results

See also


  1. ^ Originally a hunting term
  2. ^ Originally a British slang term for a quadruple amputee during World War I.
  3. ^ Originating with the English writer Francis Quarles who wrote: "Wee spend our mid-day sweat, or mid-night oyle; :Wee tyre the night in thought; the day in toyle."
  4. ^ At the turn of the century, wearing very long sideburns – called mutton chops was common. A bust in the chops was to get hit in the face.
  5. ^ The phrase first appears in English in the Geneva Bible (1560), in Job 19:20, which provides a literal translation of the original Hebrew, "I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe." The original Hebrew בְּעוֹר שִׁנָּי (b'3or shinai) is a phono-semantic match of the Hebrew word בְּקוֹשִׁי (b'qoshi) which means "barely, hardly, with difficulty." It may never be known if this phrase became an idiom before the biblical book of Job was written, or if the word b'qoshi was mis-heard by a scribe.
  6. ^ Its 19th-century predecessor is seen in the line "It would have been best for Merlin... to quit and call it half a day", from the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889) by Mark Twain
  7. ^ Chink here is generally used in the sense of fissure; it may also be used as a derogatory racial slur.
  8. ^ Since both "off one's trolley" and "off one's rocker" became popular in the late 1890s about the same time streetcars were installed in major American cities, and since "rocker", like "trolley", means the wheel or runner that makes contact with an overhead electric cable, it is likely that the "rocker" of the expression carries the same meaning as "trolley". "Off your trolley" may refer to the fact that when the wires are "off the trolley", the vehicle no longer receives an electric current and is, therefore, rendered inoperative.
  9. ^ The life of an agrarian community depends on the success of the local crops, which in turn depends on rain. In pre-industrial times, rain was widely appreciated as essential for survival.
  10. ^ The original text in Mario Puzo's book The Godfather (1969) read: "The fish means that Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean," he said. "It's an old Sicilian message."


  1. ^ usingenglish.com
  2. ^ idiomconnection
  3. ^ "id·i·om". The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. 2014. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
  4. ^ englishclub.com
  5. ^ myenglishpages.com
  6. ^ British English Idioms
  7. ^ "A hot potato". TheIdioms.com. Retrieved 2017-11-13.
  8. ^ "The Idioms". Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  9. ^ "Ace in the hole". The free dictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  10. ^ "Achilles' heel". phrases.org.uk free.
  11. ^ "All ears". The free dictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  12. ^ "Idioms = "All Thumbs" = Today's English Idioms & Phrases". Goenglish.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  13. ^ "Idioms.in - Idioms and Phrases". Retrieved 2013-11-24.
  14. ^ "Barking up the wrong tree". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  15. ^ "Bizarre English Phrases You Need To Know". Preply blog.
  16. ^ "Bird Brain - English Idioms". English The Easy Way.
  17. ^ Urdang, Laurence; Hunsinger, Walter W.; LaRoche, Nancy (1985). Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (2 ed.). Gale Research. p. 321. ISBN 0-8103-1606-4.
  18. ^ "Burning the midnight oil". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  19. ^ "Idioms & Axioms currently used in America". Pride UnLimited. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  20. ^ "Idiom: By the seat of your pants". www.usingenglish.com. Retrieved December 5, 2011.
  21. ^ "Skin of your teeth". Idiom site.com. Archived from the original on 2012-05-29. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  22. ^ "American-English idiom Call it a day". Quotations.me.uk. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  23. ^ "Chomp at the bit". onlineslangdictionary.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  24. ^ "Chink in one's armor | Define Chink in one's armor at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  25. ^ "The Phrase Finder".
  26. ^ "My English Pages".
  27. ^ Ammer, Christine (May 7, 2013). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 106. ISBN 0-547-67753-7.
  28. ^ "Idiom: Don't have a cow". idiomsphrases.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  29. ^ "Idiom: Fit as a fiddle". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  30. ^ "Collins Dictionary Definition of 'grasp the nettle'".
  31. ^ "Macmillan Dictionary'grasp the nettle' definition and synonyms".
  32. ^ "The Phrase Finder: The meaning and origin of the expression: Grasp the nettle".
  33. ^ "Have a blast". iStudyEnglishOnline.com. Archived from the original on 2013-06-19. Retrieved 2013-03-24.
  34. ^ "Hit the sack". funkyenglish.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  35. ^ "Hook, Line and Sinker". Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  36. ^ "Jump Ship".
  37. ^ "Kick the bucket". idiomreference.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  38. ^ Greenwald, Ken (24 June 2005). "off your rocker". wordwizard.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  39. ^ "Off the hook". Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved 2013-04-05.
  40. ^ "Preaching to the Choir".
  41. ^ "Random Idiom Definition - put the cat among the pigeons". myenglishpages.com. Retrieved 2013-05-03.
  42. ^ "Right as rain". Islandnet.com. Retrieved December 4, 2011.
  43. ^ Evans, Andrew (19 January 2017). "How Irish falconry changed language". BBC Travel. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  44. ^ "Freedictionary dot com".
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