Idioms topics in this lesson:
What are idioms?
Idioms are short phrases that cannot be translated literally, word for word – instead, you need to know the meaning of the entire expression. They make language more colorful, expressive, and interesting!
Idioms can be found everywhere – in books, movies, music lyrics, and everyday conversations. They can describe things like:
- weather (“it’s raining cats and dogs” meaning to rain heavily)
- actions (“spill the beans” meaning to reveal a secret or surprise)
- feelings (“over the moon” meaning extremely happy)
- situations (“in hot water” meaning in trouble)
- advice (“keep your chin up” meaning to stay positive/happy even when it’s hard)
Benefits of learning idioms
Learning idioms is essential for understanding English because they are used so frequently by native speakers. If you are not familiar with common idioms, you will be very confused when you hear expressions like:
- “Our vacation plans are up in the air.”
(meaning undecided, not confirmed)
- “I’m just pulling your leg.”
(meaning I’m just kidding/teasing)
- “He passed the test by the skin of his teeth.”
(meaning he barely passed; he almost didn’t pass)
Because it is impossible to understand these idiomatic expressions by looking at their individual words, you will not understand these sentences at all… unless you already know the idioms!
In addition to being able to understand idioms, learning to use these expressions can improve your own speaking and writing skills by giving you new ways to express yourself. When you use idiomatic expressions correctly, it can make you sound more fluent in English.
Common idioms: Meaning & Examples
Let’s look at some common idioms in English, with their definitions and some example sentences:
- Raining cats and dogs – To rain heavily.
Example: “We had to cancel our picnic because it was raining cats and dogs.”
- Once in a blue moon – Very rarely.
Example: “She visits her hometown once in a blue moon.
- Not my cup of tea – Something that is not to one’s liking or preference.
Example: “I tried sushi, but it’s not my cup of tea.”
- Under the weather – Feeling unwell or sick.
Example: “I won’t be able to come to work today; I’m feeling under the weather.”
- At the drop of a hat – Immediately or without hesitation.
Example: “He’s always ready to help at the drop of a hat.”
- In black and white – Clearly written or printed.
Example: “The rules were laid out in black and white; there was no room for interpretation.”
- A dime a dozen – Something that is very common or abundant.
Example: “Those souvenir keychains are a dime a dozen; you can find them everywhere.”
- Cold feet – Nervousness or hesitation before doing something.
Example: “He had cold feet on his wedding day and almost called it off.”
- With a grain of salt – To receive/consider information with skepticism or doubt.
Example: “I heard a rumor, but I took it with a grain of salt until I had more information.”
- Burying the hatchet – To reconcile or make peace after a conflict.
Example: “After years of feuding, they finally decided to bury the hatchet and become friends again.”
- Sitting on the fence – Being undecided or neutral about a situation.
Example: “He’s sitting on the fence and hasn’t chosen a side in the debate.”
- Blessing in disguise – Something that seems bad initially but turns out to be beneficial.
Example: “Losing my job turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I found a better opportunity.”
- Flogging a dead horse – To waste time or effort on something that is no longer useful.
Example: “Trying to convince him to change his mind is like flogging a dead horse.”
- When pigs fly – Something that is highly unlikely, almost impossible.
Example: “Sure, I’ll go skydiving when pigs fly.”
- Hold your horses – To wait or be patient.
Example: “Hold your horses; we need to make sure everything is ready before we leave.”
- Bring home the bacon – To earn a living or provide financial support for one’s family.
Example: “He works hard to bring home the bacon for his wife and children.”
- Go hand in hand – Two things that are closely associated or interconnected.
Example: “Hard work and success often go hand in hand.”
- Out of this world – Exceptional or extraordinary.
Example: “The view from the mountaintop was out of this world; it took my breath away.”
- Play it by ear – To proceed without a fixed plan; you will improvise.
Example: “We don’t have a set itinerary; let’s just play it by ear and see where we end up.”
- Bite the bullet – To face a difficult or unpleasant situation with courage.
Example: “I don’t enjoy public speaking, but I have to bite the bullet and deliver the presentation.”
- Say my piece – To express one’s opinion or viewpoint.
Example: “I’ll say my piece at the meeting and share my thoughts on the matter.”
- Chip on your shoulder – To have a grudge or a confrontational attitude.
Example: “He always has a chip on his shoulder, ready to argue with anyone who disagrees.”
- Hit the sack – To go to bed.
Example: “I’m exhausted; I think I’ll hit the sack early tonight.”
- Kick the bucket – To die (very informal).
Example: “He wants to fulfill his dreams before he kicks the bucket.”
- All ears – Fully attentive and ready to listen.
Example: “If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.”
- Keep your chin up – To remain optimistic and positive during difficult times.
Example: “Things may be tough now, but keep your chin up; it will get better.”
When to use idioms?
It’s important to know when to use idioms in English and when NOT to use them.
Idioms are frequently used in:
- casual conversations both inside and outside work (see the next section for idioms in business)
- informal writing: e-mails and texts to friends, blogs and social media, etc.
Idioms should not be used in:
- formal business or academic writing: essays, research papers, contracts, official business communication
- situations that are serious or sensitive: the use of informal idioms could make it seem like you don’t respect the seriousness of the issue
Idioms in business English
We can use idioms in certain business situations – especially when speaking.
- If your team has created a complicated plan for a project, but your supervisor does not approve of the plan, you might say, “We’ve gotta go back to the drawing board.” – This means you need to start again from the very beginning in order to create a brand-new, different plan.
- In a meeting, you could ask a co-worker, “Is the client on board with these changes to the contract?” – The expression “on board” means to be in agreement, be willing to participate.
- A manager training new customer service representatives could tell them “Remember that we always go the extra mile to help our customers.” – This means to do more than just the basic, expected standard; instead, to make extra effort to provide amazing help.
Idioms can be useful in sales and marketing as well. For example, an advertisement might say “Our product will knock your socks off!” which means our product is so excellent or impressive that you will be completely amazed.
Click here for more idioms that are often used in business English.
Our Business English Course includes both practical phrases AND idiomatic expressions that are often used in professional situations!
Origin of idioms
Learning the origins of idioms is not essential for using them; however, it can help you understand and remember their meaning. For example:
- “Bite the bullet” means to face a difficult or unpleasant situation with courage. In the past, before anesthesia existed to reduce/eliminate pain, injured soldiers would bite on a bullet help them endure the pain while undergoing surgery. Over time, the phrase “bite the bullet” came to symbolize doing something difficult and/or painful, often after hesitating or delaying for a while.
- “Break the ice” means to initiate a conversation or overcome initial awkwardness in a social setting. Its origin goes back to the practice of breaking ice to create a passage for ships in frozen waters. Breaking the ice was necessary to establish communication and facilitate trade. In social contexts, “breaking the ice” refers to the initial effort to establish a connection or start a conversation.
- “Cost an arm and a leg” describes something that is very expensive. Its origin is uncertain, but it likely reflects the idea that losing an arm or a leg would be an extreme sacrifice, just like paying a significantly high price for something.
- “Caught red-handed” means to be caught in the act of doing something wrong or illegal. This comes from a time when illegal hunters would be caught/captured with blood on their hands, proving their involvement in illegal activity. The phrase “caught red-handed” eventually came to encompass being caught in any wrong act with clear evidence of guilt.
- “The ball is in your court” means that it is someone’s turn or responsibility to take action or make a decision. The phrase originated from the game of tennis, in which the ball is hit from one player’s side of the court to the other. It signifies that the other person now has the opportunity and obligation to respond.
- “Kick the bucket” meaning “to die.” This is believed to come from an old method of slaughtering animals by kicking a bucket out from under them as they hung upside down.
If you are curious about the origins of idiomatic expressions, here are some links where you can learn more:
Idioms Recently Added to English
The English language is constantly evolving – some idioms fall out of common use, and other idioms are created and become popular. Here are a few idiomatic expressions that have become part of the language more recently:
- “Netflix and chill” – This phrase originated in the early 2010s. While its literal meaning refers to watching Netflix and relaxing, it has taken on a figurative meaning as a euphemism for casual sexual activity or spending intimate time together.
- “Throw shade” – This idiom emerged in African-American and LGBTQ+ communities in the 2000s, but it has since become more widely used. It refers to making subtle, indirect insults or criticisms towards someone, often in a public or passive-aggressive manner.
- “Hot mess” – This idiom gained popularity in the 2000s and refers to a person or situation that is chaotic, disorganized, or in a state of disarray. It conveys the idea of something being a combination of attractive or exciting (“hot”) and untidy or problematic (“mess”).
- “Swipe right” – This expression originates from dating apps and refers to the action of indicating interest or approval by swiping right on a user’s profile. It has come to symbolize a positive reaction or attraction to someone or something.
Idioms vs. slang
Many English learners wonder about the difference between “idioms” and “slang.”
It’s difficult to define slang perfectly, but here are a few of its characteristics:
- Slang is informal, less serious, often non-standard English – like the word “ain’t”
- Slang often comes from a group of people who are familiar with the terms and use them with each other
- Slang is often used for uncomfortable topics (drugs, sex, and bodily functions) or for criticisms/insults, to say these things in a more playful or less direct way – like calling a person a chicken to say they are a coward, they have no courage.
It is important to understand slang, because you may hear it often in informal conversations, movies and TV shows. However, it is also important to understand that most slang should NEVER be used in professional or academic situations, even when speaking casually in those contexts. We should also avoid slang when talking with someone in a more formal social situation (someone important or someone who you respect).
You can use slang when joking around with your good friends, but do NOT use slang when talking with a colleague, teacher, religious or political leader, or your grandmother! Some of the words can be very offensive.
Slang changes quickly – new words and expressions are invented, others go out of fashion, and some actually become an official part of the language.
Examples of slang include:
- chill – relaxed or calm
- sick – awesome
- ripped – very physically fit
- booze – alcohol
- crash – fall asleep very quickly
- salty – jealous
- jonesing for something – really want something
- bail – leave a social situation suddenly
- ghost someone – stop contacting the person and stop replying to them
Idioms are expressions that cannot be translated literally, word for word – for example:
- “that’s a piece of cake” meaning something is easy
- “drop me a line” meaning “contact me”
- “we don’t see eye to eye” meaning “we don’t agree”
- “something smells fishy” meaning something is suspicious, something seems not quite right about the situation
Idioms are used more frequently, especially in informal English. You CAN use idioms in casual conversations with co-workers and people who you respect. Don’t use idioms in very formal writing and presentation – such as an academic paper or a business report.
Idioms Dictionaries and Lists
Want to learn more idiomatic expressions? Here are lists of idioms and dictionaries to get you started!
- UsingEnglish idioms dictionary A-Z
- Oxford dictionary of idioms app
- Look up idioms in thefreedictionary
- A huge guide to English idioms with examples
- 103 English idioms from FluentU
- 100 common English idioms with meanings and examples
300+ English Idioms Course
My 300+ Idioms Course is a fun and effective way to learn idioms and start using them!
The lessons use a 4-step process to help you learn common idioms easily:
- First, you’ll see an example of the idiom in context and you’ll try to guess what it means.
- Then, you’ll learn the correct meaning of each idiom from my explanation and examples.
- Next, review & practice the idioms by taking a quiz
- Finally, use the idioms yourself by answering short questions and getting teacher feedback/correction on your sentences!