Idioms and idiomatic expressions in English
An idiom is a group of words in current usage having a meaning that is not deducible from those of the individual words. For example, “to rain cats and dogs” – which means “to rain very heavily” – is an idiom; and “over the moon” – which means “extremely happy” – is another idiom. In both cases, you would have a hard time understanding the real meaning if you did not already know these idioms!
Idioms are fun and useful expressions that usually cannot be understood by defining the separate words. For example, if your host mother says, “I think it’s time to hit the hay”, she means, “I think it’s bed-time”! You would not be able to understand her by looking up the words hit and hay. Like phrasal verbs, these expressions need to be memorized as a whole. Try visualizing them or drawing pictures when you study them. For example, draw a picture of a cow sleeping in some hay. The idiom out of the blue means “unexpectedly”. Your teacher or homestay family will call you one smart cookie if you come up with an idiomatic expression like that when they least expect it!
Most idioms don’t seem to make any sense because their origins are so old. Some of them come from ancient literature or even classic films. Learning the background of idioms can help you to remember them. Try checking your dictionary or asking a teacher or native speaker if they know the origin. Remember, not all idioms are considered standard English. Some English-speaking regions use specific idioms that other native English speakers have never heard before. You can find information about most expressions by looking them up online.
Try studying these idioms by learning one list at a time. Or, use these lists to help you when you come across an idiom you don’t understand. One important thing to remember is that the subject of the idiom doesn’t usually relate to the meaning.
* Animal Idioms
* Body Idioms
* Colour Idioms
* Clothing Idioms
* Food Idioms
* Geography and Weather Idioms
* Sports Idioms
After you study the idioms, try writing your own sentences with them. If you have studied hard enough, you will find that the quizzes are a piece of cake!
Idiom of the Day Idioms Quizzes: Have fun and test your knowledge of English Idioms by doing some of our 480 English Idioms Quiz Questions
Idioms Forum: Ask questions about and discuss English idioms and sayings
There are two features that identify an idiom: firstly, we cannot deduce the meaning of the idiom from the individual words; and secondly, both the grammar and the vocabulary of the idiom are fixed, and if we change them we lose the meaning of the idiom. Thus the idiom “pull your socks up” means “improve the way you are behaving” (or it can have a literal meaning); if we change it grammatically to “pull your sock up” or we change its vocabulary to “pull your stockings up”, then we must interpret the phrase literally – it has lost its idiomatic meaning.
How should one index an idioms reference? Do we list the idiom “kick the bucket” under K for “kick” or B for “bucket”? Given that Internet users have the option of searching for individual words with the search function, the approach we have taken is to list all idioms in strict alphabetical order, omitting the indefinite and definite articles (a, an, the) and some pronouns if they occur at the beginning of the idiom. Thus, for example, the idiom “kick the bucket” is indexed under K, while the idiom “a ballpark figure” is indexed under B.
Many idioms originated as quotations from well-known writers such as Shakespeare. For example, “at one fell swoop” comes from Macbeth and “cold comfort” from King John. Sometimes such idioms today have a meaning that has been altered from the original quotation.
Some idioms are typically used in one version of English rather than another. For example, the idiom “yellow journalism” originated and is used in American English. Other idioms may be used in a slightly different form in different varieties of English. Thus the idiom “a drop in the ocean” in British and Australian English becomes “a drop in the bucket” in American English. However, in general, globalization and the effects of film, television and the Internet mean that there is less and less distinction between idioms of different varieties of English. In this reference we have tagged an idiom with one variety of English or another only when the idiom really is restricted to a particular variety of English or to indicate that the idiom originated in that particular variety of English.
No way! American English Informal
You can say “No way!” when you want to strongly reject an offer, a request, or a suggestion.
call it a day Informal
If you call it a day, you stop doing something that’s usually related to work.
behind the eight ball American English Informal
If you’re behind the eight ball, you’re in a difficult or dangerous position.
get away from it all Informal
If you get away from it all, you go somewhere to escape from your usual daily routine.
give it a shot | give it a whirl Informal
If you give something a shot, or give it a whirl, you try doing something for the first time, usually for fun.
Mind your own business! Informal
If you say “Mind your own business!” to someone, you’re telling them to stop interfering in things that don’t concern them, or to stop asking personal questions.
over the moon Informal
If you’re over the moon about something, you’re extremely happy and excited about it.
par for the course Informal
If something is par for the course, it’s what you’d expect it to be.
pay through the nose Informal
If you pay through the nose for something, you pay more than the usual price for it.
a quick fix Informal
If something is a quick fix, it’s a quick and easy, but usually short-term, solution to a problem.
rock the boat Informal
If you rock the boat, you do or say something that will upset people by changing a situation that they don’t want changed.
ring a bell Informal
If something rings a bell, it sounds familiar or you think you’ve heard it before.
rub it in Informal
If you rub it in, you keep talking about something that embarrasses or upsets someone.
up to no good Informal
If someone is up to no good, they are doing something bad, or something wrong.
verbal diarrhoea Informal
If someone has verbal diarrhoea, they can’t stop talking.
wet behind the ears Informal
If someone is wet behind the ears, they don’t have much experience of life.
Your guess is as good as mine. Informal
You can say “your guess is as good as mine” when you don’t know the answer to a question.
You can say that again! Informal
If someone says “You can say that again!”, it shows they strongly agree with what was just said.
Zip it! Informal
If someone says “Zip it!”, they’re telling you to shut up or stop talking about something.
a bad hair day Informal
If you’re having a bad hair day, everything seems to be going wrong for you.
bark up the wrong tree Informal
If you’re barking up the wrong tree, you’re looking for something in the wrong place or going about something in the wrong way.
beat the rap American English Informal
If someone beats the rap, they avoid being found guilty of a crime.
can of worms Informal
If you say a situation or an issue is a can of worms, you think that getting involved in it could lead to problems.
cut to the chase Informal
If you tell someone to cut to the chase, you want them to get straight to the main point of what they are saying.
dead to the world Informal
If you’re dead to the world, you are sound asleep.
Easy does it! Informal
You can say “Easy does it!” when you want someone to do something more carefully or more slowly.
grease someone’s palm Informal
If you grease someone’s palm, you pay them a bribe.
just what the doctor ordered Informal
You can say something was just what the doctor ordered when it was exactly what was needed.
jump out of your skin Informal
You jump out of your skin when something suddenly shocks you and your whole body jumps.
a knuckle sandwich Informal
If you give someone a knuckle sandwich, you punch them.
kick the bucket Informal
If someone kicks the bucket, they die.
live it up Informal
If you live it up, you enjoy yourself by doing things that cost a lot of money.
pass the buck Informal
If you pass the buck, you shift the responsibility for something to someone else in order to take the pressure off yourself.
so far, so good Informal
You can say “so far, so good” when you’re in the middle of doing something, and everything has been going well.
you bet | you bet your boots | you bet your life Informal
You can say “you bet”, “you bet your boots” or “you bet your life” when you strongly agree with a statement or a suggestion, or to emphasise what you’re saying.
You asked for it! Informal
You can say “You asked for it!” when you think someone deserves the punishment they’re getting or the trouble they’re in.
all hell broke loose Informal
You can say “all hell broke loose” if a situation suddenly became violent or chaotic.
come in handy Informal
You can say something might come in handy if you think it might be useful.
dressed (up) to the nines Informal
If you are dressed to the nines, or dressed up to the nines, you are wearing very smart clothes for a special occasion.
drink like a fish Informal
If someone drinks like a fish, they drink a lot of alcohol.
draw a blank Informal
If you draw a blank, you get no response when you ask for something, or get no results when you search for something.
down in the dumps | down in the mouth Informal
If you’re down in the dumps, or down in the mouth, you’re feeling sad.
(have) egg on your face Informal
You have egg on your face if you’ve said or done something wrong, and it’s made you feel embarrassed or stupid.
ear to the ground Informal
If you have your ear to the ground, you know what’s really going on in a situation.
If something is half-baked, it hasn’t been properly thought out or planned.
I owe you one! Informal
You can say “I owe you one!” when someone has done something for you and you’d be happy to return the favour one day.
itchy feet British English Informal
If you have itchy feet, you feel the need to go somewhere different or do something different.
(someone’s) name is mud Informal
If someone’s name is mud, other people are angry with them, or they’re no longer popular, because they’ve done something wrong.
neck of the woods Informal
A neck of the woods is a neighbourhood or a district, usually rural.
on your last legs | on its last legs Informal
If you say you’re on your last legs, it can mean you’re close to exhaustion, or it can mean you’re close to death. If a thing is on its last legs, it’s close to breaking or wearing out.
pull your socks up Informal
You can say “pull your socks up” to someone if you think they should improve the way they are behaving or the way they are doing something.
put all your eggs in the one basket Informal
If you put all your eggs in the one basket, you put all your efforts or resources into one person, one thing or one plan, and if things don’t work out, you lose everything.
put someone’s nose out of joint Informal
If you put someone’s nose out of joint, you upset them by not treating them with as much respect or consideration as they think they deserve.
a sight for sore eyes Informal
If something or someone is a sight for sore eyes, you are glad to see them.
come a cropper British English Informal
If you come a cropper, you fall over, or you make a mistake which has serious consequences for you.
a done deal American English Informal
A done deal is an agreement or a decision that is final.
easy come, easy go Informal
You can say “easy come, easy go” to express the idea that if something comes to someone easily, such as money they get without working hard for it, they can lose it just as easily and it won’t matter to them much.
fly off the handle Informal
If you fly off the handle, you are so angry about something that you lose control of yourself and start screaming and shouting.
forty winks Informal
If you have forty winks, you have a short sleep, or a nap.
hang in there | hang on in there Informal
You can tell someone to hang in there, or hang on in there, if they’re in a difficult situation and you want to encourage them, or tell them not to give up.
in someone’s bad books Informal
If you’re in someone’s bad books, they are not pleased with you.
in someone’s good books Informal
If you’re in someone’s good books, they are pleased with you.
couldn’t care less Informal
You can say “I couldn’t care less” when you don’t care about something, or it doesn’t matter to you.
in a nutshell Informal
You can say “in a nutshell” if you’re about to describe something as briefly as possible, or you’re going to sum something up.
just shy of Informal
You can say something is just shy of an amount if it’s just short of that amount.
going down American English Informal
If you know what’s going down, you know what’s happening in a situation.
much of a muchness Informal
If two or more things are much of a muchness, they are very similar to each other.
No sweat! Informal
You can say “No sweat!” if someone asks you if you can do something, and you’re sure you can do it.
the new kid on the block American English Informal
If you are the new kid on the block, you are the newest person in a workplace or in an educational institute, or any other place or organization.
a pain in the neck Informal
You can say someone is a pain in the neck if they annoy you, or something is a pain in the neck if you don’t like doing it.
a shot in the arm Informal
You can say something is a shot in the arm if it gives a person or an organisation renewed energy or enthusiasm.
take the mickey | mick out of someone British English Informal
If you’re taking the mickey out of someone, or taking the mick out of them, you’re making fun of them or copying their behaviour for a laugh.
up for grabs Informal
If something is up for grabs, it’s available for anyone who wants to try to get it.
all the rage Informal
If something is all the rage, it’s very popular or it’s in fashion at the moment.
Get cracking! Informal
You can say “Get cracking!” if you want someone to hurry up and do something faster.
off the top of your head Informal
If you give someone information off the top of your head, you do so from memory, without checking beforehand.
on the ball Informal
If you’re on the ball, you’re alert and you know what’s going on around you.
pick up the tab | pick up the bill Informal
If you pick up the tab, or pick up the bill, you pay for yourself and your friends in a restaurant or a bar.
pop the question Informal
If you pop the question, you ask someone to marry you.
pull someone’s leg Informal
If you pull someone’s leg, you play a joke on them by saying something that isn’t true.
up to scratch | up to snuff Informal
You can say something is up to scratch, or up to snuff, if it’s as good as it should be, or as good as it needs to be.