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"); and 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] In idioms, usually English learners would have a hard time understanding the real meaning if they did not have an English idioms dictionary.[4] English has thousands of idioms.[5] Most of English idioms are informal.[6]

As an example, an English speaker would get the phrase "kick the bucket" to mean "to die" – as well as to actually kick a bucket. They would also understand when each sense 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"); and hyperbole, which exaggerates an image beyond truthfulness (e.g., like "missed by a mile" ). Proverbs are idioms that express a universal truth based on common sense or practical experience.

Visit Wiktionary's Category for over eight thousand idioms.

Notable Idioms In English
Idiom Source Definition/Translation Notes
"A bitter pill" [7] A situation or information that is unpleasant but must be accepted.
"A dime a dozen" [8] Anything that is common, inexpensive, and easy to get or available any where.
"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.
"Actions speak louder than words" People's intentions can be judged better by what they do than by what they say.
"Add insult to injury" [11] To further a loss with mockery or indignity; to worsen an unfavorable situation.
"All ears" [12] Listening intently; fully focused or awaiting an explanation.
"All thumbs" [13] Clumsy, awkward.
"An arm and a leg" Very expensive or costly. A large amount of money.
"Apple of discord" [14] 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 your court" It is up to you to make the next decision or step.
"Barking up the wrong tree" [15] Looking in the wrong place. [note 1]
"Basket case" One made powerless or ineffective, as by nerves, panic, or stress. [note 2]
"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.
"Best of both worlds" A situation wherein someone has the privilege of enjoying two different opportunities.
"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.
"Break a leg" [16] A saying from the theatre that means "good luck".
"Burn the midnight oil" [17] To work late into the night, alluding to the time before electric lighting. [note 3]
"Bust one's chops" [18] To say things intended to harass. [note 4]
"By the seat of one's pants" [19] To achieve through instinct or do something without advance preparation.
"By the skin of one's teeth" [20] Narrowly; barely. Usually used in regard to a narrow escape from a disaster. [note 5]
"Call it a day" [21] To declare the end of a task. [note 6]
Cat nap A nap.
Chalk up [22] To attribute something to a particular cause.
"Champ at the bit" or "Chomp at the bit" [23] To show impatience or frustration when delayed.
"Chew the fat" To chat idly or generally waste time talking.
"Chink in one's armor" [24] An area of vulnerability [note 7]
"Clam up" To become silent; to stop talking.
"Cold shoulder" [25] To display aloofness and disdain.
"Couch potato" [26] A lazy person.
"Cut a rug" To dance
"Cut the cheese" To fart.
"Cut the mustard" [27] To perform well; to meet expectations.
"Don't have a cow " [28] Don't overreact.
"Drop a dime " Make a telephone call; to be an informant.
"Fit as a fiddle" [29] In good physical health.
"For a song" Almost free. Very cheap.
"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
"Get bent out of shape" To take offense; to get worked up, aggravated, or annoyed
"Have a blast" [30] 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.
"Hit the road " To leave.
"Hit the sack "/sheets/hay [31] To go to bed to sleep.
"Let the cat out of the bag " To reveal a secret.
"Kick the bucket" [32] Euphemism for dying or death.
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"
[33] Crazy, demented, out of one's mind, in a confused or befuddled state of mind, senile. [note 8]
"Off the hook" [34] To escape a situation of responsibility, obligation, or (less frequently) danger.
"Pop one's clogs" (UK) Euphemism for dying or death.
"Piece of cake " A job, task or other activity that is pleasant – or, by extension, easy or simple.
"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" [35] To create a disturbance and cause trouble.
"Right as rain" [36] Needed, appropriate, essential, or hoped-for and has come to mean perfect, well, absolutely right. [note 9]
"Screw the pooch" To screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion.
"Shoot the breeze" To chat idly or generally waste time talking.
"Sleep with the fishes" Euphemism for dying or death. [note 10]
"Spill the beans" Reveal someone's secret.
"Split the whistle" To arrive just on time.
"Take the biscuit" (UK) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious.
"Take the cake" (US) To be especially good or outstanding.
"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
"Under the weather" [37] Feel sick or poorly
"Whole nine yards" Everything. All of it.
"X Marks the spot" When someone finds something they have been looking for.
"You can say that again" That is very true; expression of wholehearted agreement

See also[edit]


  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. ^ usingenglish.com
  7. ^ "A bitter pill". The free dictionary.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  8. ^ "IdiomSite.com - Find out the meanings of common sayings". 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. ^ "Re: Adding insult to injury". The Phrase Finder. 3 March 2008. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  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. ^ "Barking up the wrong tree". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  16. ^ Urdang, Laurence; Hunsinger, Walter W.; LaRoche, Nancy (1985). Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (2 ed.). Gale Research. p. 321. ISBN 0-8103-1606-4. 
  17. ^ "Burning the midnight oil". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  18. ^ "Idioms & Axioms currently used in America". Pride UnLimited. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  19. ^ "Idiom: By the seat of your pants". www.usingenglish.com. Retrieved December 5, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Skin of your teeth". Idiom site.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  21. ^ "American-English idiom Call it a day". Quotations.me.uk. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  22. ^ "Freedictionary dot com". 
  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. ^ "Have a blast". iStudyEnglishOnline.com. Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  31. ^ "Hit the sack". funkyenglish.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14. 
  32. ^ "Kick the bucket". idiomreference.com. Retrieved 2014-05-14. 
  33. ^ Greenwald, Ken (24 June 2005). "off your rocker". wordwizard.com. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 
  34. ^ "Off the hook". Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved 2013-04-05. 
  35. ^ "Random Idiom Definition - put the cat among the pigeons". myenglishpages.com. Retrieved 2013-05-03. 
  36. ^ "Right as rain". Islandnet.com. Retrieved December 4, 2011. 
  37. ^ "Freedictionary dot com". 


  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."
  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 (page 271)[clarification needed]
  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.”."