English-language idioms

An idiom is a common word or phrase with a figurative, non-literal meaning that is understood culturally and differs from what its composite words' denotations would suggest; i.e. the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words (although some idioms do retain their literal meanings – see the example "kick the bucket" below).[1][2] By 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] 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.

To evoke the desired effect in the listener, idioms require a precise replication of the phrase: not even articles can be used interchangeably (e.g. "kick a bucket" only retains the literal meaning of the phrase but not the idiomatic meaning).

Idioms should not be confused with other figures of speech such as metaphors, which evoke an image by use of implicit comparisons (e.g., "the man of steel"); similes, which evoke an image by use of explicit comparisons (e.g., "faster than a speeding bullet"); or hyperbole, which exaggerates an image beyond truthfulness (e.g., "more powerful than a locomotive"). Idioms are also not to be confused with proverbs, which are simple sayings that express a truth based on common sense or practical experience.

Notable idioms in English edit

Idiom Definition/Translation Notes Source(s)
a bitter pill to swallow A situation or information that is unpleasant but must be accepted [4]
a dime a dozen (US) Anything that is common, inexpensive, and easy to get or available anywhere [5]
a hot potato A controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with [6]
a sandwich short of a picnic Lacking intelligence
ace in the hole A hidden or secret strength; an unrevealed advantage [7]
Achilles' heel A small but fatal weakness in spite of overall strength [8]
all ears Listening intently; fully focused or awaiting an explanation [9]
all thumbs Clumsy, awkward [10]
an arm and a leg Very expensive or costly; a large amount of money [11]
apple of discord Anything causing trouble, discord, or jealousy [12]
around the clock When something is done all day and all night without stopping [13]
as queer as a [strange object] (UK) Something particularly strange or unusual [14][15]
at the drop of a hat Without any hesitation; instantly
back to the drawing board Revising something (such as a plan) from the beginning, typically after it has failed [a] [17]
back to the grindstone To return to a hard and/or tedious task [18]
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 Looking in the wrong place [b] [19]
basket case One made powerless or ineffective, as by nerves, panic, or stress [c]
beating a dead horse To uselessly dwell on a subject far beyond its point of resolution
beat around the bush To treat a topic but omit its main points, often intentionally or to delay or avoid talking about something difficult or unpleasant [20]
bed of roses A situation or activity that is comfortable or easy [21]
the bee's knees Something or someone outstandingly good, excellent, or wonderful [d] [21]
best of both worlds A combination of two seemingly contradictory benefits
bird brain A person who is not too smart; a person who acts stupid [24]
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 A euphemism for dying or death
bought the farm A euphemism for dying or death, especially in an aviation context
break a leg A wish of good luck to theatre performers before going on stage, due to the belief amongst those in theatre that being wished "good luck" is a curse [25]
burn the midnight oil To work late into the night [e] [26]
bust one's chops To exert oneself [f] [27]
by the seat of one's pants To achieve through instinct or to do something without advance preparation [28]
by the skin of one's teeth Narrowly; barely. Usually used in regard to a narrow escape from a disaster. [g] [29]
call a spade a spade To speak the truth, even to the point of being blunt and rude
call it a day To declare the end of a task [h] [30]
champ at the bit or chomp at the bit To show impatience or frustration when delayed [31]
cheap as chips Inexpensive; a good bargain
chew the cud To meditate or ponder before answering; to be deep in thought; to ruminate
chew the fat To chat idly or generally waste time talking
chink in one's armor An area of vulnerability [i] [32]
clam up To become silent; to stop talking
clutch one's pearls To be disproportionately shocked or affronted by something one perceives to be vulgar, in bad taste, or morally wrong
cold feet Not going through with an action, particularly one which requires long term commitment, due to fear, uncertainty and doubt
cold shoulder To display aloofness and disdain [33]
couch potato A lazy person [34]
cool your jets Calm down. [35]
crocodile tears Fake tears or drama tears; fake crying.
cut off your nose to spite your face To pursue 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 pass gas
cut the mustard To perform well; to meet expectations [36]
dicking around Messing about, not making any progress
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 your 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 cry over spilled milk Don't become upset over something that has already happened and you cannot change
don't have a cow Don't overreact [37]
drop a dime (US) To make a telephone call; to be an informant; (basketball) an assist
elephant in the room An obvious, pressing issue left unaddressed due to its sensitive nature
eleventh hour At the last minute; the latest possible time before it is too late [38]
fall off the turnip truck To be naïve, inexperienced, or unsophisticated. Sometimes used in a rural sense. [39]
fish out of water refers to a person who is in unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable surroundings
fit as a fiddle In good physical health [40]
for a song Almost free; very cheap
fly in the ointment A minor drawback or imperfection, especially one that was not at first apparent, that detracts from something positive, spoils something valuable, or is a source of annoyance [41]
fly on the wall To join an otherwise private interaction, unnoticed to watch and/or listen to something [42]
from A to Z Covering a complete range; comprehensively [j]
from scratch / make from scratch To make from original ingredients; to start from the beginning with no prior preparation
get bent out of shape To take offense; to get worked up, aggravated, or annoyed
get a wiggle on To move quickly or hurry [43]
get one's ducks in a row to become well prepared for a desired outcome [44]
get one's knickers in a twist (UK) To become overwrought or unnecessarily upset over a trivial matter
get your goat To irritate someone
gone south having an unforeseen or chaotic result
grasp the nettle To tackle a problem in a bold manner, despite the difficulty or complexity of doing so; to solve a problem despite short-term adverse consequences. [45][46][47]
have a blast To have a good time; to enjoy oneself. [48]
have all your Christmases come at once To have extreme good fortune.
have eyes bigger than one's stomach To have asked for or taken more of something (especially food) than one is actually capable of handling (or eating) [21]
have eyes in the back of one's head To be able to perceive things and events that are outside of one's field of vision
head over heels Be smitten, infatuated
heard it through the grapevine To have learned something through gossip, hearsay, or a rumor
hit the ceiling/roof 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 or say exactly the right thing or to find the exact answer; 3. To do something in the most effective and efficient way; 4. To be accurate or correct about something.
hit the road To leave; start a journey [49]
hit the sack/sheets/hay To go to bed; to go to sleep. [50]
hit the spot To be particularly pleasing or appropriate; to be just right.
hold all the cards To control a situation; to be the one making the decisions.
hold your horses Wait. Slow down.
hook, line and sinker To be completely fooled by a deception [51]
in over one's head Overwhelmed or exasperated, usually by excessive responsibilities
it is what it is This challenging circumstance is simply a fact, to be accepted or dealt with. [k] [54][55]
jump ship To leave a job, organization, or activity suddenly [56]
jump the gun To start something before it is prudent or permitted; to act too hastily. [57]
jumping the shark A creative work, an idea or entity reaching a point in which it has exhausted its core intent and is introducing new ideas that are discordant with its original purpose [58]
kick the bucket A euphemism for dying or death [59]
kick the habit To 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
king's ransom A large sum of money [60]
let the cat out of the bag To reveal a secret
like pulling teeth Having difficulty in getting a person or item to act in a desired fashion; reference to a difficult task. [61]
like turkeys voting for Christmas used as a metaphor for a parody in which a choice made is clearly against one's self-interest, facing adverse consequences of their those policies and still adhere to them.
lit up like a Christmas tree Clothes that are too bright or colourful for the occasion.
look a gift horse in the mouth To find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favor
loose cannon A person who is uncontrollable and unpredictable but likely to cause damage to the group of which they are a member [62]
method to (one's) madness Despite one's seemingly random approach, there is actually orderly structure or logic to it.
my two cents (Canada and US) One's opinion on the subject [63]
never put an apple in your rabbit Don't do something you know you shouldn't be doing [64]
nip (something) in the bud To stop something at an early stage, before it can develop into something of more significance (especially an obstacle or frustration)
no horse in this race or no dog in this fight No vested interest in the outcome of a particular conflict, contest or debate
off one's trolley or
off one's rocker
Crazy, demented, out of one's mind, in a confused or befuddled state of mind, senile [l] [65]
off the hook To escape a situation of responsibility or obligation, or, less frequently, danger [66]
once in a blue moon Occurring very rarely
own goal To do something accidentally negative against yourself or your own team
part and parcel The attribute of being an integral or essential component of another object
pop one's clogs (UK) A 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 [67]
piece of cake A job, task or other activity that is pleasant – or, by extension, easy or simple
not one’s cup of tea Not the type of thing the person likes.
preaching to the choir To present a side of a discussion or argument to someone who already agrees with it; essentially, wasting your time. [68]
pull oneself together to recover control of one's emotions.
pull somebody's leg To tease or joke by telling a lie
push the envelope To approach, extend, or go beyond the limits of what is possible; to pioneer. [m] [21]
pushing up daisies A euphemism for dying or death
put a spoke in one's wheel To disrupt, foil, or cause problems to one's plan, activity, or project.


put on airs An English language idiom and a colloquial phrase meant to describe a person who acts superior, or one who behaves as if they are more important than others. [70]
put the cat among the pigeons To create a disturbance and cause trouble [71]
raining cats and dogs Raining very hard or strongly [72]
right as rain Needed, appropriate, essential, or hoped-for; also has come to mean perfect, well, or absolutely right. [n] [73]
rock the boat To do or say something that will upset people or cause problems
shoot the breeze To chat idly or casually, without any serious topic of conversation [74]
shooting fish in a barrel Frivolously performing a simple task
screw the pooch To screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion.
sleep with the fishes To be murdered and thrown into a body of water [o]
speak of the devil (and he shall appear) Used when an object of discussion unexpectedly becomes present during the conversation
spill the beans To reveal someone's secret
spin one's wheels To expel much effort for little or no gain
stay in one's lane To avoid interfering with, passing judgement on, or giving unsolicited advice about issues beyond one's purview or expertise; to mind one's own business. [75]
step up to the plate To deliver beyond expectations
stick out like a sore thumb Something that is clearly out of place


straw that broke the camel's back The last in a line of unacceptable occurrences; the final tipping point in a sensitive situation.
take a shine To develop a liking or fondness for someone or something [77]
take the biscuit (UK) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious
take (or grab) the bull by the horns To deal bravely and decisively with a difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant situation; to deal with a matter in a direct manner, especially to confront a difficulty rather than avoid it. [21]
take the cake (US) To be especially good or outstanding. Alternatively (US) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious.
take the piss (UK) To tease, ridicule, or mock someone
take with a grain of salt To not take what someone says too seriously; to treat someone's words with a degree of skepticism.
throw stones in glass houses One who is vulnerable to criticism regarding a certain issue should not criticize others about the same issue.
throw the baby out with the bathwater To discard, especially inadvertently, something valuable while in the process of removing or rejecting something unwanted
throw under the bus To betray or sacrifice someone for selfish reasons
snake in the grass unrecognizable dangeror hidden enemy
thumb one's nose To express scorn or disregard
tie one on To get drunk
to and fro or toing and froing To move from one place to another; going back and forth; here and there. [78][79]
to steal someone's thunder To preempt someone and rob them of gravitas or attention. To take credit for something someone else did.
trip the light fantastic To dance [p] [81]
two a penny Cheap or common
under my thumb Under my control [82]
under the weather Feeling sick or poorly [83]
the whole nine yards Everything; all the way
watching paint dry To describe something tedious or boring
wild goose chase A frustrating or lengthy undertaking that accomplishes little
jump ship To leave a job, organization, or activity suddenly [56]
willy-nilly An activity, situation, decision or event that happens in a disorganized manner; or it is done haphazardly, chaotically and randomly, without any sort of planning or direction. [q] [85][86]
wolf something down devour (food) greedily.
you can say that again That is very true; an expression of wholehearted agreement.

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ This expression refers to the fact that plans or blueprints are often drawn on a drawing board. It probably originated during World War II, most likely in the caption of a cartoon by Peter Arno published in The New Yorker.[16]
  2. ^ Originally a hunting term.
  3. ^ Originally a British slang term for a quadruple amputee during World War I.
  4. ^ The origin is unclear; it may simply have emerged in imitation of the numerous other animal-related nonsense phrases popular in the 1920s such as "the cat's pyjamas" or "the monkey's eyebrows",[22] or it may be a deliberate inversion of the earlier attested singular "bee's knee" used to refer to something small or insignificant.[23][21]
  5. ^ Alludes to burning oil to produce light in the time before electric lighting; originated 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."
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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 American writer Mark Twain.
  9. ^ The word "chink" here is generally used in the sense of a crack or gap.
  10. ^ As of the English alphabet, which ranges from the first letter, A, to the last letter, Z.
  11. ^ Earliest usage unknown. In 1945, Bertrand Russell wrote of a logician's irritation that "the world is what it is";[52] by 1949 the full phrase appeared in the Nebraska State Journal.[53]
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ This expression originated as aviation slang and referred to graphs of aerodynamic performance on which "the envelope" is the boundary line representing the limit of an aircraft's capabilities (especially its altitude and speed). It was popularized by Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff.[21]
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ The original text in Mario Puzo's 1969 novel The Godfather reads: "'The fish means that Luca Brasi is sleeping on the bottom of the ocean,' he said. 'It's an old Sicilian message.'"
  16. ^ The expression is generally attributed to John Milton's 1645 poem L'Allegro, which includes the lines: "Com, and trip it as ye go,
    On the light fantastick toe."[80]
  17. ^ The idiom has another meaning; "with or against one's will", which was popularized from the expression "will he, nill he", found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.[84]

References edit

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