In the English language alone it’s estimated that there are at least twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions. Some of the popular ones are listed below:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush– What you have is worth more than what you might have later
A bitter pill– A situation or information that is unpleasant but must be accepted.
A blessing in disguise– a good thing that seemed bad at first
A dime a dozen– Something common
A hot potato– A controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with.
A little learning is a dangerous thing– People who don’t understand something fully are prone to make mistakes
A penny for your thoughts– Tell me what you’re thinking
A penny saved is a penny earned– Money you save today you can spend later
A perfect storm– the worst possible situation
A picture is worth a thousand words– Better to show than tell
A poor workman blames his tools– If you can’t do the job, don’t blame it on others
A sandwich short of a picnic– something lacking to make something complete
A snowball effect– Something that builds upon itself with additions from outside
A stitch in time saves nine– Resolving an issue at the right time creates no problems later on
A storm in a teacup– A big fuss about a small problem. A similar idiom is “Much ado about nothing” or “Making a mountain out of a molehill”.
A work well begun is half done– A good start is advantageous
Ace in the hole– A hidden or secret strength
Achilles’ heel– A metaphor for a small but fatal weakness in spite of overall strength.
Actions speak louder than words– what people do shows more than what they say
Add insult to injury– To make a bad situation worse
All ears– Listening intently; fully focused or awaiting an explanation.
All thumbs– Clumsy, awkward.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away– Doing an activity regularly that produces beneficial results
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure– You can prevent a problem with little effort. Fixing it later is harder. Similar idiom: A stitch in time saves nine.
Apple of discord– Anything causing trouble, discord, or jealousy.
At the drop of a hat– Without any hesitation; instantly.
Back to the drawing board– Revising something (such as a plan) from the beginning, typically after it has failed.
Ball is in his/her/your court– It is up to him/her/you to make the next decision or step.
Barking up the wrong tree– To be mistaken, to look for solutions in the wrong place
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.
Beating a dead horse– To uselessly dwell on a subject far beyond its point of resolution.
Bed of roses– A situation or activity that is comfortable or easy.
Better late than never– Better to arrive late than not to come at all
Bird brain– A person who is not too smart; a person who acts stupid.
Birds of a feather flock together– People who are alike are often friends (this idiom is generally used in a negative sense. It came as no surprise that both the criminals shared a strong bond; after all, birds of a feather flock together.)
Bite off more than one can chew– To take on more responsibility than one can manage. Take on a project that you cannot finish.
Bite the bullet– To endure a painful or unpleasant situation that is unavoidable.
Bite the dust– An euphemism for dying or death.
Bolt from the blue– A surprise. Something that happened without warning
Break a leg– A saying from the theatre that means “good luck”. To wish Good Luck to a performer.
Break the ice– Make people feel more comfortable
Burn bridges– Destroy relationships/options
Burn the midnight oil– To work late into the night.
By the seat of one’s pants– To achieve through instinct or to do something without advance preparation.
By the skin of one’s teeth– Narrowly; barely. Usually used in regard to a narrow escape from a disaster.
Call a spade a spade– To speak the truth, even to the point of being blunt and rude.
Call it a day– To declare the end of a task. Stop working on something
Cat nap– A nap.
Cheap as chips– Inexpensive; a good bargain.
Chink in one’s armour– An area of vulnerability.
Clam up– To become silent; to stop talking; to shut up.
Come rain or shine– No matter what
Comparing apples to oranges– Comparing two things that cannot be compared
Costs an arm and a leg– Very expensive
Couch potato– A lazy person.
Crocodile tears– Fake tears or drama tears; fake crying.
Curiosity killed the cat– Asking too many questions may be dangerous
Cutting corners– Doing something poorly in order to save time or money
Dig one’s heels in– to oppose, to resist, to stop, to oppose
Do something at the drop of a hat– Do something without having planned beforehand
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you– Treat people fairly. Also known as “The Golden Rule”
Don’t beat a dead horse– Going on doing something that is no longer required.
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch– Don’t count on something good happening until it’s happened.
Don’t cry over spilt milk– There’s no reason to complain about something that can’t be fixed
Don’t give up your day job– You’re not very good at this (a negative sense; nonetheless, a polite way of saying that since you are not good at this, you should not quit your present job, so that if you are sacked then you can continue in your present job)
Don’t judge a book by its cover– The ‘exterior’ may not give a true picture of the ‘interior’.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth– not to find fault with something that has been received as a gift or favour.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket– Putting everything one has at a single place. A way of saying that the risk is maximised.
Easy does it– Slow down
Elephant in the room– An obvious, pressing issue left unaddressed due to its sensitive nature.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining– Even in bad times, there is always a glimmer of a good time.
Every dog has his day– Everyone gets a chance
Familiarity breeds contempt– The better you know someone the less you like him
Fit as a fiddle– In good health
For a song– Almost free; very cheap.
Fortune favours the brave– taking risks. Generally used with entrepreneurs.
From A to Z– Covering everything, the complete range; doing comprehensively.
From scratch / make from scratch– To make from original ingredients; to start from the beginning with no prior preparation.
Get a taste of your own medicine– Being treated the way you’ve been treating others (used in a negative sense)
Get out of hand– Get out of control
Get something out of your system– Do the thing you’ve been wanting to do so you can move on
Get wind of something– Hear news of something secret
Get your act together– Work better or leave
Give a cold shoulder– To display aloofness and disdain. To ignore someone.
Give an arm and a leg– Very expensive or costly; a large amount of money.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt– temporarily trusting someone, assuming that the doubt is positive rather than negative
Go back to the drawing board– Start over again
Go down in flames– Fail spectacularly
Go on a wild goose chase– To do something pointless
Good things come to those who wait– Being patient
Hang in there– Don’t give up
Haste makes waste– You’ll make mistakes if you rush through something
Have a blast– To have a good time; to enjoy oneself.
Have eyes in the back of one’s head– To be able to perceive things and events that are outside of one’s field of vision.
He has bigger fish to fry– He has bigger things to take care of than what we are talking about now
He who laughs last, laughs loudest– getting even with someone in a satisfying way
He’s a chip off the old block– The son is like the father.
He’s sitting on the fence- He can’t make up his mind
Head over heels– smitten, infatuated, in love.
Hear something straight from the horse’s mouth– Hear something from the person involved
Heard it through the grapevine– To have learned something through gossip, hearsay, or a rumour.
Hit the ceiling– To become enraged, possibly in an overreaction.
Hit the nail on the head– 1. To describe exactly what is causing a situation or problem; 2. To do or say exactly the right thing or to find the exact answer; 3. To do something in the most effective and efficient way; 4. To be accurate or correct about something.
Hit the sack– Go to sleep (colloquial)
Hold the cards– To control a situation; to be the one making the decisions.
Hook, line and sinker– To be completely fooled by a deception.
Ignorance is bliss– You’re better off not knowing
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings– This isn’t over yet (colloquial)
It is always the darkest before the dawn– Things will get better. Used in a positive sense to encourage.
It takes one to know one– You’re just as bad as I am
It takes two to tango– One person alone isn’t responsible.
It’s a piece of cake– It’s easy
It’s not rocket science– It’s not complicated (colloquial)
It’s raining cats and dogs– It’s raining hard
Jump on the bandwagon– Follow a trend, do what everyone else is doing
Jump ship– To leave a job, organization, or activity suddenly.
Kick the bucket– An euphemism for dying or death.
Kick the habit– To stop engaging in a habitual practice.
Kill two birds with one stone– Get two things done at the same time with a single action
Know which way the wind is blowing– Understand the situation. Similar idiom, “Look before you leap”.
Leave no stone unturned/ upturned– Look everywhere, do everything.
Let sleeping dogs lie– Not reopening an issue that has already been closed/ resolved.
Let someone off the hook– To not hold someone responsible for something
Let the cat out of the bag– To reveal a secret.
Like riding a bicycle– Something you never forget how to do
Like two peas in a pod– Being always together, inseparable
Live and learn– learning from a mistake (colloquial)
Look before you leap– Take only calculated risks
Make a long story short– Tell something briefly
Make hay while the sun shines– Taking advantage of a good situation
Miss the boat– It’s too late
Nip in the bud- To stop something at an early stage, before it can develop into something of more significance (especially an obstacle or frustration).
No pain, no gain– You have to work for what you want
Off the hook– To escape a situation of responsibility or obligation or danger
On cloud nine– Very happy
On thin ice– On delicate ground. If you make another mistake, there may be trouble.
Once bitten, twice shy– Being more cautious after being hurt
Once in a blue moon– Occurring very rarely.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire– Things are going from bad to worse
Piece of cake– A job, task or other activity that is easy or simple.
Play the devil’s advocate– To argue the opposite (colloquial)
Preaching to the choir– To present a side of a discussion or argument to someone who already agrees with it; essentially, wasting your time.
Pull somebody’s / someone’s leg– To tease or joke by telling a lie.
Pull yourself together– Calm down
Put something on ice– Put a project on hold
Rain on someone’s parade– To spoil something
Raining cats and dogs– Raining very hard or strongly.
Rock the boat– To do or say something that will upset people or cause problems.
Run like the wind– Run very fast
Saving for a rainy day– Saving money for later
Seeing eye to eye– agreeing
Shape up or ship out– Work better or leave (colloquial)
Slow and steady wins the race– Consistency is more important than intensity (in most cases)
Snowed under– being very busy (colloquial)
So far so good– Things are going well so far
Spill the beans– reveal a secret
Take the bull by the horns– To deal bravely and decisively with a difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant situation; to deal with a matter in a direct manner, especially to confront a difficulty rather than avoid it.
Take it with a grain of salt– To not take what someone says too seriously; to treat someone’s words with a degree of scepticism.
That ship has sailed– It’s too late
That’s the last straw– My patience has run out
The ball is in your court– It’s your decision
The best of both worlds– gaining the maximum from two circumstances or events
The best thing that ever happened to me– Some happening that you consider as the best.
The calm before the storm– Something bad is coming, but right now it’s calm. Used to give a sense if imposing danger.
The devil is in the details– It looks good from a distance, but when you look closer, there are problems
The early bird gets the worm– The first people to arrive gets the best
The elephant in the room– A big issue or problem that people are avoiding
The pot is calling the kettle black– Used when someone making an accusation is equally as guilty as those being accused.
The whole nine yards– Everything, all the way. A similar idiom is “to leave no stone unturned or upturned”.
There are other fish in the sea– There are other opportunities also
There’s a method to his madness– He seems crazy but actually he’s methodical
There’s no such thing as a free lunch– Nothing is entirely free
Think of the devil and the devil appears– The person who was thought or spoken about, appears at that time.
Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones– People who are morally questionable shouldn’t criticize others
Through thick and thin– staying together, in good times and in bad times
Throw caution to the wind– Take a risk
Thumb one’s nose– To express scorn or disregard.
Tie one on– To get drunk.
Time flies when you’re having fun– You don’t notice how long something lasts when it’s fun
Time is money– to equate the value of time with the value of money
To get bent out of shape– To get upset
To make matters worse– Make a problem worse
To steal someone’s thunder- To take credit for something someone else did.
Under the weather– feeling not good, or sick
Waste not, want not– Don’t waste things and you’ll always have enough
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it– Let’s not talk about that problem right now, we’ll handle it when it comes
Weather the storm– Going through something difficult
When it rains it pours– When everything goes wrong simultaneously
Wild goose chase– A frustrating or lengthy undertaking that accomplishes little.
Wrap your head around something– Understand something complicated
You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar– used for opportunists who employ flattery to gain opportunities
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink– You can’t force someone to make a decision, or to take any action
You can say that again– an expression of wholehearted agreement. Affirming that something is true.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too– You can’t have everything
Your guess is as good as mine– Having no idea at all about something
1. Crystal, A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics, 4th edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
2. Jackendoff, R. 1997. The architecture of the language faculty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
3. Leaney, C. 2005. In the know: Understanding and using idioms. New York: Cambridge University Press.
4. Mel’čuk, I. 1995. “Phrasemes in language and phraseology in linguistics”. In M. Everaert, E.-J. van der Linden, A. Schenk and R. Schreuder (eds.), Idioms: Structural and psychological perspectives, 167–232. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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