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.
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
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
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
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.'
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
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
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
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
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
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!'
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'
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