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Picture Credit: [Cropped] “Raining Cats and Dogs” by David Blackwell is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

An Introduction to Idioms

An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a symbolic, metaphorical non-literal meaning attached to the phrase, which has become accepted in common usage. To confuse matters, some phrases become figurative idioms while retaining the literal meaning of the phrase. Categorized as formulaic language, an idiom’s symbolic meaning is usually different from its literal meaning.

Idioms are usually derived from local culture and customs in each individual language. Take the English language, for example; there are at least 25,000 idiomatic expressions. It’s important to know the difference between breaking a leg and pulling someone’s leg.

  • Achilles Heel: It means a weakness or vulnerable point and comes from Greek mythology – Thesis dipped her son Achilles in the Styx (a river believed to be a source of incredible power and invulnerability). However, she was holding her son by his heel, meaning it was the only part of his body that was not touched by water, making his heel vulnerable. Eventually, Achilles was killed by an arrow shot in his heel.
  • A Hot Potato:  a controversial issue or situation that is awkward or unpleasant to deal with – for example: ‘Sending bullying texts to classmates in my school is a hot potato.
  • As Right As Rain: What does it mean? Perfect, it couldn’t be better.
  • Barking Up The Wrong Tree: Meaning: Pursuing a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.  This phrase refers to hunting dogs who chased their prey up a tree. Once it climbed the tree, the dogs barked at them, but sometimes they would continue barking even if their quarry was no longer there.
  • Beat About The Bush: To discuss a matter without coming to the point or making a decision. The idiom relates to an action performed while hunting to drive birds and other animals out into the open.
  • Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: Meaning/Usage: It’s excellent, really good. It means that something is the best and most helpful innovation or development invented for a long time.
  • Bite The Bullet: Meaning: Decide to do something difficult or unpleasant that one has been putting off or hesitating over.  During battles, there was no time to administer anaesthesia while performing surgeries. Because of that, patients were made to bite down on bullets to distract themselves from the pain.
  • Blood Is Thicker Than Water: Meaning/Usage: Family relationships and loyalties are the strongest and most important ones.  Even though many think this idiom means putting family ahead of friends, it means the complete opposite. The full phrase was “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” and it referred to warriors who shared the blood they shed in battles together. These ‘blood brothers’ were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.
  • Blue Blood: Noble birth.  Saying that someone has blue blood comes from the Middle Ages, where it was believed that those with pale skin (meaning their ancestor had not inter-married with darker skin partners) were noble or aristocratic.
  • Break A Leg: What does it mean? To wish someone good luck. How do you use it? This idiom is not at all threatening. Often accompanied by a thumbs up, ‘Break a leg!’ is an encouraging cheer of good luck. It is said to have originated from when successful theatre performers would bow so many times after a show that they would break a leg.
  • Born With A Silver Spoon In Your Mouth: It means to be born into a wealthy family of high social standing.  It is an old tradition for godparents to gift a silver spoon to a christened child. However, as not everyone could afford a luxury gift, those receiving the spoon as a gift were considered wealthy and sometimes even spoiled.
  • Break The Ice: Do or say something to relieve tension or get a conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet.
  • Bury The Hatchet: Meaning/Usage:  End a quarrel or conflict and become friendly.  During negotiations between the Puritans and Native Americans, men would bury all of their weapons, making them inaccessible.
  • Butter Someone Up: To flatter or otherwise ingratiate oneself with another person so that that person will do what you want them to do. 
  • By And Large: It means the whole; everything considered. It comes from the 16th century when the word ‘large’ meant that a ship was sailing with the wind at its back. Meanwhile, ‘by’ meant the opposite, that the ship was sailing into the wind. The mariners used the phrase ‘by and large’ to refer to sailing in any and all directions, relative to the wind.
  • Cat Got Your Tongue: Usage: Said to someone who remains silent when they are expected to speak.  There are two stories on how this saying came into being. The first one says that it could have come from a whip called “Cat-o’-nine-tails”, used by the British Navy for flogging and often left the victims speechless. The second may be from ancient Egypt, where liars’ tongues were cut out as punishment and fed to the cats.
  • Caught Red-Handed: Usage: Used to indicate that a person has been discovered in or just after the act of doing something wrong or illegal.  An old law stated that if someone butchered an animal that didn’t belong to him, he would only be punished if he was caught with blood on his hands.
  • Call (or Haul) On The Carpet: It means to be severely reprimanded by someone in authority.  Like many idioms, the precise origin of this one is not certain.
  • (To Get) Cold Feet: It means a loss of nerve or confidence.  This idiom originates from a military term: warriors who had frozen feet could not rush into battle.
  • Come Rain Or Shine: What does it mean? No matter what. How do you use it? You guarantee to do something, regardless of the weather or any other situation that might arise, such as: ‘I’ll be at the football match, come rain or shine.’
  • Crocodile Tears: Meaning/Usage:  Tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere.  A 14th-century book, “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville” recounts a knight’s adventures in Asia. The book says that crocodiles shed tears while eating a man they captured. Even though it is factually inaccurate, the phrase ‘crocodile tears’ found its way into William Shakespeare’s work and became an idiom in the 16th century, symbolising insincere grief.
  • Don’t Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth: It means finding fault with something received as a gift or favour.  While buying a horse, people would determine the horse’s age and condition based on its teeth and then decide whether they want to buy it or not. People use this idiom to say it is rude to look for flaws in something gifted to you.
  • Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater: Meaning/Usage: To discard something valuable along with other things that are undesirable.  In the 16th century, most people would bathe only once a year. And even when they did that, the entire family would bathe in the same water, although not at the same time. Usually, the men of the house bathed first, followed by other males, females, and finally, babies. At the end of this yearly routine, the water would be so dirty and cloudy that mothers would have to be careful not to throw their infants out with the water.
  • Eat Humble Pie: Make a humble apology and accept humiliation. It comes from the Middle Ages – after a hunt, there would be a huge feast at which the Lord of the Manor would receive the finest piece of meat. Others of lower status would eat a pie filled with entrails and innards (also known as “umbles”).
  • Elephant In The Room:  Meaning/Usage:  An idiom for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about, but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable and is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous. Usage: an obvious truth or fact, especially one regarded
    as awkward or undesirable, but is intentionally ignored or left unaddressed.
  • Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining: It means that a negative occurrence may have a positive aspect to it. It can be traced to a piece written in 1634 by English poet John Milton called Comus: A Mask, which was presented at Ludlow Castle. He spoke of a silver lining of brightness behind a gloomy cloud, and soon afterwards, ‘Milton’s clouds’ became a staple of English Literature. The proverb ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ eventually came into being in the 1800s, a time of optimism and positivity in the upper classes of Victorian England.
  • Face the Music: it means to be confronted with the unpleasant consequences of one’s actions.
  • Get My Goat: It means to irritate someone. For example, some horses get anxious during horseracing, so owners would place goats in the stalls to calm them down. Rival horse owners would sometimes steal the goats, upsetting the horse and making it more likely to lose.
  • Give The Cold Shoulder: Reject, ignore or be deliberately unfriendly towards (ostracise/ignore). Originally, this idiom was considered an act of politeness. In medieval times in England, after everyone had finished eating, the host would give his guests a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of beef or pork to show that it was time for everyone to go home.
  • Go Bananas: It means to do something insane or extremely silly.  The expression ‘to go bananas’ has no conclusive origin, but it may be linked to ‘go ape’, which became popular in the 1950s when monkeys were being launched on rockets and were a popular subject in films and TV. The link between monkeys, bananas and crazy behaviour may have been the catalyst for the popularisation of the expression. Bananas have often been central to slapstick comedy in general, with somebody slipping on a banana peel a timeless classic.
  • Go Down In Flames: What does it mean: To fail spectacularly.  Example: ‘That exam went down in flames. It’s my fault.  I should have studied harder.’
  • Jump On The Bandwagon: It means to follow a trend. It happens when a person joins in with something popular or does something just because it’s the fad of the day.
  • Kick The Bucket: Meaning/Usage: To die. When killing a cow at slaughterhouses, people would place a bucket under the animal while positioned on a pulley. While trying to adjust the animal, the cow would kick out its legs and kick the bucket – thereby killed.
  • Let The Cat Out Of The Bag: To carelessly (or by mistake) reveal a secret. Some time ago, pig farmers would bring them wrapped up in a bag to the market. Unscrupulous ones would replace the pig with a cat, and if someone accidentally let the cat out, their fraud would be uncovered.
  • Let Your Hair Down:  To behave uninhibitedly.  For example, it was an important rule between Parisian nobles to wear elaborate hairdos while in public, and some of the looks required hours of long work—a moment of taking your hair down after a long day became associated with a relaxing ritual.
  • Love is Blind: An idiom meaning a person who is in love can see no faults or imperfections in the person whom they love.
  • More Than You Can Shake A Stick At:  Meaning:  a large amount or quantity of something.  This idiom was born when farmers, who waved sticks to herd sheep, would have more sheep than they could control.
  • My Ears Are Burning:  It means that you are subconsciously aware of being talked about or criticised. The idiom dates back to ancient Romans, who believed that burning sensations in various organs had different meanings. It was thought that if your left ear was burning, it signaled an evil intent, and if your right ear was burning, you were being praised.
  • No Spring Chicken: Someone who is no longer young – past their prime. 
  • Once In a Blue Moon: It means rarely. This idiom is used to describe something that doesn’t happen often. Example: ‘I am remiss as I remember to call my parents to invite them to dinner only once in a blue moon.’
  • One For The Road: Having a final drink before leaving for home.  During the middle ages, the condemned ones were taken through what today is known as Oxford Street in London to their execution. During this final trip, the cart would stop, allowing them to have one last drink before death.
  • Piece Of Cake: Something that is easily achieved. The saying ‘Piece of Cake’ comes from American poet Ogden Nash who, in 1930, was quoted saying, ‘Life’s a piece of cake’.
  • Pleased As Punch: It means feeling great delight or pride.  The 17th-century puppet show called ‘Punch and Judy’ featured Punch, who killed people and took great joy in doing so. He would feel pleased with himself afterwards, from which the saying ‘pleased as Punch‘ was born.
  • Pull Someone’s Leg:  It means to play a practical joke. It is the perfect phrase to learn if you’re a fan of practical jokes. ‘Pull their leg’ is similar to ‘wind someone up’. Use it in context: ‘Relax, I’m just pulling your leg!’ or ‘Wait, are you pulling my leg?’.
  • Raining Cats And Dogs: Meaning/Usage:  Raining very hard.  This idiom has two stories that try to explain its origin. The first explanation is this phrase comes from Norse mythology, where cats would symbolise heavy rains and dogs were associated with the God of storms, Odin. The second version says that in 16th century Britain, houses had thatched roofs providing one of the few places where animals could get warm. Sometimes, when it would rain heavily, roofs would get so slippery that the cats and dogs would fall off.
  • Read The Riot Act: To give someone a strong warning that they must improve their behaviour.  In 18th century England, the Riot Act was a legal document read aloud in front of a crowd larger than 12 people that were considered a threat to the peace. A public official would read a small part of the Act and order people to leave peacefully within an hour – anyone remaining after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force.
  • Rest (or Resting) on Your Laurels: The idea of resting on your laurels dates back to ancient Greece – Laurel leaves were closely allied to Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry. Apollo was usually depicted with a crown of laurel leaves, and the plant eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Victorious athletes at the ancient Pythian Games received wreaths made of laurel branches, and the Romans later adopted the practice and presented wreaths to generals who won important battles. Since the 1800s, it has been used for those who are overly satisfied with past triumphs.
  • Rule Of Thumb: It means a broadly accurate guide or principle, based on experience or practice rather than theory. It is believed that the Rule of Thumb idiom comes from England in the 17th century – Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that husbands could beat their wives with a stick if it were no wider than his thumb.
  • Run Amok: Meaning/Usage: To behave uncontrollably and disruptively. The saying comes from the Malaysian word amoq (also amuck and also spelled amuk), which describes the bizarre behaviour of tribespeople who, under the influence of opium, would become wild and attack people.
  • See Eye To Eye: It means to agree with a point or argument someone is making.
  • Sell Someone Down The River: To betray someone, especially to benefit oneself.  This idiom comes from the 19th century in the Southern States of America, in the trade of importing and selling slaves for profit.
  • Show A Leg: Get out of bed; get up. In days gone by, just before ships were about to leave port, sailors would try to sneak in a lady and hide them in their hammock. Before leaving, officers would ask anyone in a hammock to ‘show a leg.’ If a hairless leg appeared, the woman was asked to leave the ship.
  • Show Your True Colours: It means to reveal one’s real character or intentions, especially when they are disreputable or dishonourable.  To confuse their enemies, warships would use multiple flags. However, warfare rules dictated that the ships must show their actual flag before firing and hence, they would then ‘show their true colours.’
  • Sit On The Fence: What does it mean? To be undecided. How do you use it? If you’re sitting on the fence, you’ve not decided which side of an argument you agree with.
  • Sleep Tight: Meaning/Usage:  Sleep well (said to someone when parting from them at night).  It is believed that the saying comes from the time of Shakespeare when mattresses were secured by ropes. Sleeping tight meant sleeping with the ropes pulled tight, making a well-sprung bed.
  • Spill The Beans: What does it mean? To give away a secret or to confess to something. How do you use it? If you told someone about their own surprise party, you’d have ‘spilled the beans’ or even ‘let the cat out of the bag’.
  • Steal One’s Thunder: It means to win praise for oneself by pre-empting someone else’s attempt to impress. It is said to have come from the time of dramatist John Dennis early in the 18th century after he had ‘invented’ a thunder machine for his unsuccessful 1709 play Appius and Virginia and later found it used by someone else at a performance of Macbeth.
  • Take It With A Pinch (or Grain) Of Salt: What does it mean? Don’t take it too seriously, such as: ‘I heard about his stories, but as they are usually far-fetched, I take everything he says with a pinch of salt.’
  • The Ball Is In Your Court: What does it mean? It’s up to you. It’s your move now, but this idiom refers to life rather than a sport. If you’ve got the ‘ball,’ someone is waiting for you to decide.
  • The Third Degree: Meaning: A saying commonly used for long/intense interrogations.  There are several possibilities about the origin of “the third degree.” The idiom is most likely derived from Freemasonry, whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming “third-degree” members or “master masons.”
  • The Walls Have Ears: Meaning/Usage: Be careful what you say, as people may be eavesdropping.  In France, the Louvre Palace was believed to have a network of listening tubes to hear everything said in different rooms. People say that this is how Queen Catherine de’ Medici discovered political secrets and plots.
  • The Whole Nine Yards: It means to do everything possible or available. It comes from World War II, when pilots would have a 9-yard chain of ammunition. When a fighter pilot used all their ammunition on one target, they would give ‘The whole nine yards.’
  • Through Thick And Thin: It means to be loyal no matter what. It is often used to describe families – ‘through thick and thin’ means that you’re by each other’s side no matter what happens, through the bad times and the good.
  • Turn A Blind Eye: Meaning/Usage:  Pretending not to notice or see.  It is believed that this phrase originated with the British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. During the 1801’s Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships battled against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet. When his more conservative superior officer flagged him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye. He proclaimed, “I do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory.
  • Under the Weather: What does it mean? To feel ill. How do you use it? Usage: If someone says they’re feeling under the weather, your response should be ‘I hope you feel better soon,’ not ‘Would you like to borrow my umbrella?‘.
  • Waking Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed:  To start the day in a bad temper. Historically, the left side of basically anything has been considered ‘the evil side,’ so waking up on the left side was also considered a sign of bad luck. To ward off evil, house owners would push the left sides of the beds to the corner, so their guests would have no other option than to get up on the right side.
  • White Elephant: A useless or troublesome item you own, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.  White elephants were considered sacred creatures in Thailand, yet they were also very hard and costly to take care of.
  • Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing: Meaning: A person or thing that appears friendly or harmless but is really hostile. It’s a warning that you can’t necessarily trust someone who seems kind and friendly on the outside.
  • You Can Say That Again: It means, That’s true. It is generally exclaimed in agreement with something that’s been said, such as: when someone says: ‘Cameron Diaz is gorgeous, you can reply: ‘You can say that again.’

There are thousands more I’ve left out, such as Ace in the Hole, Against the Grain, Airy Fairy, All Bark and No Bite, Ants in Your Pants, Always a Bridesmaid but Never a Bride, Apple of One’s Eye, Burning a Candle at Both Ends, Grab the Bull by the Horns.

Perhaps you have a favorite idiom – if so, why not share it with me?  (

In the meanwhile, click HERE for an extensive list.

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Sources and Further Reading and Enjoyment


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