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; i.e. the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words.[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.

Idioms should not be confused with other figures of speech such as metaphors, which invoke an image by use of implicit comparisons (e.g., "the man of steel"); similes, which invoke an image by use of explicit comparisons (e.g., "faster than a speeding bullet"); or hyperbole, which exaggerates an image beyond truthfulness (e.g., "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.

The English language has thousands of idioms,[4] most of which are informal.[5] English learners usually have a hard time understanding an idiom's real meaning without referring to an idiomatic dictionary.[6]

Notable idioms in English[edit]

Idiom Definition/Translation Notes Source(s)
a bitter pill A situation or information that is unpleasant but must be accepted. [7]
a dime a dozen (US) Anything that is common, inexpensive, and easy to get or available anywhere. [8]
a hot potato A controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with. [9]
a sandwich short of a picnic Lacking intelligence.
ace in the hole A hidden or secret strength, or unrevealed advantage. [10]
Achilles' heel A metaphor for a small but fatal weakness in spite of overall strength. [11]
all ears Listening intently; fully focused or awaiting an explanation. [12]
all thumbs Clumsy, awkward. [13]
an arm and a leg Very expensive or costly; a large amount of money.
apple of discord Anything causing trouble, discord, or jealousy. [14]
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] [16]
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] [17]
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. [18]
bed of roses A situation or activity that is comfortable or easy. [19]
the bee's knees Something or someone outstandingly good, excellent, or wonderful. [d] [19]
bird brain A person who is not too smart; a person who acts stupid. [22]
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 An euphemism for dying or death.
bought the farm An euphemism for dying or death.
break a leg A saying from the theatre that means "good luck". [23]
burn the midnight oil To work late into the night. [e] [24]
bust one's chops To exert oneself. [f] [25]
by the seat of one's pants To achieve through instinct or to do something without advance preparation. [26]
by the skin of one's teeth Narrowly; barely. Usually used in regard to a narrow escape from a disaster. [g] [27]
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] [28]
cat nap A nap.
champ at the bit or chomp at the bit To show impatience or frustration when delayed. [29]
cheap as chips Inexpensive; a good bargain.
chew the fat To chat idly or generally waste time talking.
chink in one's armor An area of vulnerability. [i] [30]
clam up To become silent; to stop talking.
cold shoulder To display aloofness and disdain. [31]
couch potato A lazy person. [32]
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 fart.
cut the mustard To perform well; to meet expectations. [33]
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 Don't overreact. [34]
drop a dime (US) To 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 In good physical health. [35]
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. [36]
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 your goat To irritate someone.
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. [37][38][39]
have a blast To have a good time; to enjoy oneself. [40]
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). [19]
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 Besmitten, infatuated.
heard it through the grapevine To have learned something through gossip, hearsay, or 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 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.
hit the sack/sheets/hay To go to bed; to go to sleep. [41]
hit the spot To be particularly pleasing or appropriate; to be just right.
hold the cards To control a situation; to be the one making the decisions.
hook, line and sinker To be completely fooled by a deception. [42]
jump ship To leave a job, organization, or activity suddenly. [43]
just (one's) two cents (US) Just the information one has on the subject.
kick the bucket An euphemism for dying or death. [44]
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.
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 one's random approach, there is actually some orderly structure or logic to it.
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 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. [k] [45]
off the hook To escape a situation of responsibility or obligation, or, less frequently, danger. [46]
once in a blue moon Occurring very rarely.
own goal To do something accidentally negative against yourself or your own team.
pop one's clogs (UK) An 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 To present a side of a discussion or argument to someone who already agrees with it; essentially, wasting your time. [47]
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. [l] [19]
pushing up daisies An euphemism for dying or death.
put the cat among the pigeons To create a disturbance and cause trouble. [48]
raining cats and dogs Raining very hard or strongly. [49]
right as rain Needed, appropriate, essential, or hoped-for; also has come to mean perfect, well, or absolutely right. [m] [50]
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. [51]
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 An euphemism for dying or death. [n]
spill the beans To reveal someone's secret.
spin one's wheels To expel much effort for little or no gain.
straw that broke the camel's back The last in a line of unacceptable occurrences; the final tipping point in a sensitive situation.
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. [19]
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 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. [o] [53]
two a penny Cheap or common.
under my thumb Under my control. [54]
under the weather Feeling sick or poorly. [55]
the whole nine yards Everything; all the way.
wild goose chase A frustrating or lengthy undertaking that accomplishes little.
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.[15]
  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",[20] or it may be a deliberate inversion of the earlier attested singular "bee's knee" used to refer to something small or insignificant.[21][19]
  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 fissure; it may also be used as a derogatory racial slur.
  10. ^ As of the English alphabet, which ranges from the first letter, A, to the last letter, Z.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.[19]
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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.'"
  15. ^ 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."[52]

References[edit]

  1. ^ usingenglish.com
  2. ^ idiomconnection
  3. ^ "id·i·om". The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. 2014. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
  4. ^ myenglishpages.com
  5. ^ British English Idioms
  6. ^ englishclub.com
  7. ^ "A bitter pill to swallow - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  8. ^ "The Idioms". Retrieved 2012-12-29.
  9. ^ "A hot potato". TheIdioms.com. Retrieved 2017-11-13.
  10. ^ "Ace in the hole". The free dictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  11. ^ "Achilles' heel". phrases.org.uk free.
  12. ^ "All ears". The free dictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  13. ^ "Idioms = "All Thumbs" = Today's English Idioms & Phrases". Goenglish.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  14. ^ "Idioms.in - Idioms and Phrases". Retrieved 2013-11-24.
  15. ^ back to the drawing board. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. (2003, 1997).
  16. ^ "Back to the drawing board - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  17. ^ "Barking up the wrong tree". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  18. ^ "Bizarre English Phrases You Need To Know". Preply blog.
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Siefring, Judith, ed. (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861055-6.
  20. ^ Harry Oliver, Bees' Knees and Barmy Armies: Origins of the Words and Phrases We Use Every Day, John Blake Publishing Ltd, 2011 ISBN 1857829441
  21. ^ Robert Allen, Allen's Dictionary of English Phrases, Penguin UK, 2008 ISBN 0140515119.
  22. ^ "Bird Brain - English Idioms". English The Easy Way.
  23. ^ Urdang, Laurence; Hunsinger, Walter W.; LaRoche, Nancy (1985). Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (2 ed.). Gale Research. p. 321. ISBN 0-8103-1606-4.
  24. ^ "Burning the midnight oil". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  25. ^ "Idioms & Axioms currently used in America". Pride UnLimited. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  26. ^ "Idiom: By the seat of your pants". www.usingenglish.com. Retrieved December 5, 2011.
  27. ^ "Skin of your teeth". Idiom site.com. Archived from the original on 2012-05-29. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  28. ^ "American-English idiom Call it a day". Quotations.me.uk. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  29. ^ "Chomp at the bit". onlineslangdictionary.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  30. ^ "Chink in one's armor | Define Chink in one's armor at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2012-07-17.
  31. ^ "The Phrase Finder".
  32. ^ "My English Pages".
  33. ^ Ammer, Christine (May 7, 2013). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 106. ISBN 0-547-67753-7.
  34. ^ "Idiom: Don't have a cow". idiomsphrases.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  35. ^ "Idiom: Fit as a fiddle". UsingEnglish.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  36. ^ "Fly in the ointment - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  37. ^ "Collins Dictionary Definition of 'grasp the nettle'".
  38. ^ "Macmillan Dictionary'grasp the nettle' definition and synonyms".
  39. ^ "The Phrase Finder: The meaning and origin of the expression: Grasp the nettle".
  40. ^ "Have a blast". iStudyEnglishOnline.com. Archived from the original on 2013-06-19. Retrieved 2013-03-24.
  41. ^ "Hit the sack". funkyenglish.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  42. ^ "Hook, Line and Sinker". Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  43. ^ "Jump Ship".
  44. ^ "Kick the bucket". idiomreference.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14.
  45. ^ Greenwald, Ken (24 June 2005). "off your rocker". wordwizard.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  46. ^ "Off the hook". Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved 2013-04-05.
  47. ^ "Preaching to the Choir".
  48. ^ "Random Idiom Definition - put the cat among the pigeons". myenglishpages.com. Retrieved 2013-05-03.
  49. ^ "Raining cats and dogs - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  50. ^ "Right as rain". Islandnet.com. Retrieved December 4, 2011.
  51. ^ "Shoot the breeze - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  52. ^ Kirkpatrick, Betty and Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth McLaren (1999) "light fantastic" Clichés: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained Macmillan, New York, page 115, ISBN 978-0-312-19844-2
  53. ^ "Trip the light fantastic - Idioms by The Free Dictionary".
  54. ^ Evans, Andrew (19 January 2017). "How Irish falconry changed language". BBC Travel. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  55. ^ "Freedictionary dot com".