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Idioms are used in all areas of the English language, but can be considered especially important when it comes to learning English through the act of speaking.

An idiom is a short phrase with its own specific meaning, and learning English idioms can help you to understand and become more like a native speaker.

English Idioms

A knee-jerk reaction

Meaning: An automatic response to something

Apple of my eye

Meaning: Often daughters or sons are referred to as the "apple" of their parent's eye

Origin: This phrase originates from King David, who wrote in Psalm 17 to ask God to remember and love David as His child: "Keep me as the apple of Your eye, hide me in the shadow of Your wings."

As busy as a bee

Meaning: To be extremely busy

At the drop of a hat

Meaning: immediately

Back to basics

Meaning: Simplifying things

Origin: The UK Prime Minister John Major was quoted as saying, 'It is time to get back to basics.’ He was referring to the idea that the UK should try to revert back to a simpler time

Back to square one

Meaning: Go back to the beginning

Origin: In order to make football easily understandable to the listeners, a system of division was created. The field was separated into numbered squares with number one as the centre. Hence, after a goal, the ball went back to square one and they started again

Break a Leg

Meaning: Wishing someone good luck

Origin: In the theatre, if your performance was liked the crowd, they might ask for an ‘encore,’ which means a curtain call. The stick that is used to raise and lower the curtain was called a leg, so ‘break a leg,’ means to get so many curtain calls that the leg breaks in two. It’s worth noting that wishing ‘good luck’ in the theatre is considered bad luck, so an alternative had to be found

Chip on his shoulder

Meaning: Carry a grudge

Origin: It dates back to the 19th century when fighters would put a chip on their shoulder and challenge others to hit it off

Close but no cigar

Meaning: Coming close to achieving success, but reaching a disappointment due to failure

Origin: Many years ago slot machines gave out cigars as prizes. Also, early carnival games also gave out cigars as prizes

Cut to the chase

Meaning: Get to the point

Origin: This comes from Hollywood in the 1920's and meant to move from a dramatic scene to an action scene

Dead Ringer

Meaning: Identical to something or someone

Origin: In England people who were afraid of being buried alive would attach a string to their finger that ran up to a bell. If they were alive they would ring the bell and be later dug up.

Example: 'He's a dead ringer for Hu Jintao'

Dog eat dog

Meaning: situation in which people act ruthlessly in order to be successful

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Meaning: When you are given something you shouldn’t be ungrateful

Origin: If you count the teeth of a horse you can tell its age, but this would be rude if that horse were a present because you are finding fault

Double whammy

Meaning: A double setback from being able to do something

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry

Meaning: This refers to everybody and excludes no one. It might come from the fact that the names Tom, Dick and Harry were very common years ago and so would seem to include every person possible.

Example: ‘Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to borrow my bike!'

Excuse My French

Meaning: An apology before or after swearing

Face the Music

Meaning: Having to confront the awkward situation

Origin: This comes from the theatre, where musicians were seated in front of the stage. Hence, facing the music meant turning towards the audience, or whatever problem you had.

Fly on the wall

Meaning: A fly on the wall refers to someone who over sees something without the watched noticing him/her.

From top to bottom

Meaning: Completely, thoroughly, totally

Get cold feet

Meaning: Become frightened or nervous about something that you have to do

Get out of the wrong side of the bed

Meaning: In a bad mood

Origin: It is unlucky to put your left foot on the floor first when getting out of bed, and this can affect your mood for the rest of the day

Get the run-around

Meaning: Receive a series of excuses, delays, etc. This means that you have been treated in a way that causes you to do much more than you really should, by not giving you the answer you seek. This is also called a 'wild goose chase.'

Example: A. 'Hi, I would like to know my bank balance.'
B. 'Sorry that's not our department, try 1234567'
A. 'Hi 1234567, I would like to know my bank balance.'
C. 'Sorry that's not our department, try 4567890'
A. 'Hi 4567890, I would like to know my bank balance.'
B. 'Sorry that's not our department, try 1234567'
A. 'Wow, I am getting the run-around'

Get the short end of the stick

Meaning: Getting the smallest share or worst position

Graveyard Shift

Meaning: Working the night-shift, working at night

Origin: This has a very spooky meaning and comes from the fact that in old England people were sometimes buried alive by mistake (think unconscious). Years later the graves were moved to a new location and signs of attempted escape such as finger scrapes inside the coffin were discovered. In order to make sure this never happened again, an employee was used to stay in the graveyard at night and listen for any sounds, hence the working the night-shift.

Hit the hay

Meaning: Go to bed

Origin: Before mattresses used to be stuffed with hay or straw, so when one was hitting the hay they were on their way to bed, thus that’s where the meaning 'hit the hay' or go to bed comes from.

In full swing

Meaning: Currently happening at full speed

In nothing flat

Meaning: Immediately, straight away

In the bag

Meaning: Secured / guaranteed outcome

Origin: This idiom originated in Great Britain when a bag was placed under the Speaker's chair (parliament). If there was a petition that was 'put in the bag' then it must be raised on that day.

In the long run

Meaning: Eventually

In the doghouse

Meaning: Being in trouble with someone


Meaning: Bad luck

Origin: This is a 17th century word for a spell. In the early 1900's, sportswriters used the term to mean bad luck

Keep a straight face

Meaning: You should try not to laugh even though you find something really funny. You should use this when you are trying not to laugh at someone directly, usually from fear of being rude.

Example: 'Did you see that lady fall down the hole? I was trying to keep a straight face'

Kick the Bucket

Meaning: To die

Origin: Refers to people who committed suicide by putting a noose around their neck and standing on a bucket. It was the act of kicking it away that would kill them

Late in the day

Meaning: Something that has happened at a very late stage

Level playing field

Meaning: This is a term which refers to an equal and fair competition

Example: ‘Now we are on a level playing field'

Like a headless chicken

Meaning: In a frenzied and uncontrollable manner

Make a mountain out of a molehill

Meaning: Make something minor into a major issue

Mum's the word

Meaning: Keep a secret and don't say anything

Origin: This comes from the works of Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part 2.He wrote that a character should 'seal up your lips and give no words but mum,' because mum is the sound of a hum you can only make with your mouth closed

Example: ‘Mum's the word, let’s keep this secret'

Not playing with a full deck

Meaning: If your 'not playing with a full deck' then you are either stupid or crazy

Origin: This comes from lacking the required intelligence, as a card game being played with a missing card

Off The Cuff

Meaning: An unprepared/adlib action

Origin: This is to do with public speakers in the 1930's writing notes on their shirt cuffs, in case they forgot their speeches

Open secret

Meaning: Something that is supposedly a secret, but that everyone knows

Over the top

Meaning: Exaggerated or excessive

Origin: In WW1 the trenches were cut into the earth, and you had to go over them and onto the battlefield when it was time to attack. Subsequently it means doing more than is usually required of you. Some now refer to it has just 'OTT' in abbreviations

Pull the Wool Over His Eyes

Meaning: To deceive someone

Origin: Pulling a woollen jumper over someone’s eyes would block out their sight, and might allow you to cheat them

Put a sock in it

Meaning: Be quiet!

Origin: When people used to listen to music they used gramophones, but since they didn't have any volume control the only way to turn down the volume was by stuffing something into it. This may well have been a sock and so people now use the term, 'put a sock in it" when they want you to be quiet. Remember though, this is a rude way of asking.
A. 'I LOVE JESUS!!!!!'
B. 'Put a sock in it!'

Put on airs

Meaning: To act superior

Quality Time

Meaning: Important time a parent spends with a child

Origin: In the 1980's the government published the fact that parents could work hard and still have a good family life

Raining Cats and Dogs

Meaning: A heavy rain

Origin: Historical England’s houses had hay roofs and these were very slippery when wet. When it rained, the roofs became oily and any animals that were sleeping there would slide off


Meaning: You are guilty of doing something and people know it

Origin: This term for guilt dates back to the 1400's when it meant having blood on one's hands. Use this with the action of catching someone in the act of doing something. It usually refers to a guilty person being found out.
'Stop that now, you have been caught red-handed'

Rule of thumb

Meaning: A rule of thumb is a basic rule that is usually but not always correct

Origin: The term comes from medieval times when the diameter of your thumb was thought to be the largest diameter of a stick which was legally allowed to beat your wife. How nice.

Example: 'As a rule of thumb, I like to wash my hands before I eat'

Send someone packing

Meaning: Send someone away, get rid of someone

Shake a leg

Meaning: To get you active in the morning and out of bed.

Origin: This was originally a naval term which was used to get new sailors out of their beds. The officer in charge would come in to the sleeping area and shout ‘shake a leg,’ and the sailors had to do so to prove they were awake. It can be used to get someone out of bed, but can also be applied when trying to ask someone to do something faster than they are currently doing. It might be what a parent might say to a child who was walking slowly behind them

Small potatoes

Meaning: An insignificant amount of money, not worth doing something for

Example: 'You want me to bet £1? That's small potatoes, let's bet £50!'

Smooth sailing

Meaning: Easy to be in control of

Spill the beans

Meaning: Reveal a secret you have know

The penny dropped

Meaning: To finally understand something

Example: 'I wasn't sure how he did that magic trick, and then the penny dropped'

Tickle someone's fancy

Meaning: To interest someone in something

Tie the knot

Meaning: To get married

Three strikes and you are out

Meaning: You have only three chances to do something

Origin: You should recognise this from baseball, as a player has three chances to hit the ball before their turn is over. Thus it can now be used to talk about having three chances to complete a task.

A. 'Guess which number I am thinking of'
B. '10?'
A. 'No'
B. '20?'
A. 'No'
B. '30?'
A. 'Three strikes and you are out!'

To be with it

Meaning: To be up-to-date


Meaning: Looking for good luck

Origin: This is most likely due to the old religious idea that trees have spirits, which traditionally bring good luck

Turn A Blind Eye

Meaning: To look the other way, to pretend not to notice something

Under the Weather

Meaning: To feel ill

Origin: Traditionally when it rained on a boat, people went down into the main part to get away from the weather. And also traditionally, because people feel ill on a boat, this was much worse when the weather was bad and the boat was rocking

Use your loaf

Meaning: To think, to figure something out

'Q. How can I open that door?'
'A. Use your loaf! Turn the handle'

Where there's muck there's brass

Meaning: There's money to be made with dirty jobs

Origin: Brass = money and muck = dirt

X Marks The Spot

Meaning: The exact location

Origin: A pirate’s map of buried treasure marks the location with an X

You can't take it with you

Meaning: When you are dead, materials are worthless

Origin: This comes from the Bible and the idea that heaven doesn’t accept material goods

Your name is mud

Meaning: Your reputation is ruined