Idioms

Idioms

An idiom is an expression with a special meaning that is different from the meaning of the individual words in the expression. For example, it’s raining cats and dogs does not mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky like rain. Check below to learn the real meaning.

Click a letter to see idioms with a key word beginning with that letter. You may need to check more than one letter.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A

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B

to beat around the bush

Definition: to avoid talking about something
Example: Every time I ask her what happened, she just beats around the bush.
Explanation: Every time I ask her what happened, she talks about something else and she does not directly answer my question. She is trying to avoid answering my question.

to bend over backwards

Definition: to try very hard to do something, usually to help someone; to do more than is commonly done and more than is expected
Example: Amy bent over backwards to help us clean the mess from the storm.
Explanation: Amy worked very hard to help us clean the mess from the storm. She did more work than most people do and more work than we expect a friend to do.

to be too big for one’s britches

Definition: to be overconfident, cocky, self-important
Example: He’s getting too big for his britches just because he won the contest.
Explanation: He’s behaving as if he is very important and very great because he won the contest.

to bite off more than one can chew

Definition: to decide or agree to do something (or many things) by overestimating one’s ability to accomplish everything
Example: She agreed to manage the charity project but she also works full-time and attends classes at night. I think she bit off more than she can chew.
Explanation: I believe that she won’t have enough time to do everything. She must manage the project, do her regular work well, attend her classes and do all her schoolwork. I think that she has agreed to do more than she can actually accomplish.

to bury one’s head in the sand

Definition: to refuse to see, know, understand, or acknowledge something unpleasant
Example: Look at the facts. You’re just burying your head in the sand.
Explanation: Look at the facts. You’re refusing to acknowledge this difficult situation that we’re involved in.

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C

to call it a day

Definition: to stop working for the rest of the day – often used when one has been working for a long time and is tired.
Example: I’ve been working in the garden long enough. I think I’ll call it a day.
Explanation: I’ve been working in the garden long enough. I think I’ll stop working now.

This idiom can be used at one’s job and also after other activities that require tedious or hard effort.

a clean bill of health

Definition: a statement that one is healthy or that a situation is okay
Example: The doctor gave me a clean bill of health.
Explanation: The doctor examined me and said I was healthy.

to be clear as mud

Definition: to be obscure, confusing, very unclear
Example: Your explanation is clear as mud.
Explanation: Your explanation is very confusing. I don’t understand it at all.

to cross your fingers

Definition: to hope for good luck or success in a situation
Example: I have my job interview today. Cross your fingers for me.
Explanation: I have my job interview today. Wish me good luck so that I will get the job.

to not cut the mustard

Definition: to not perform as required, to not be well enough qualified for something
Example: Jane got fired from her job. She just couldn’t cut the mustard.
Explanation: Jane got fired from her job because she was not able to perform all the requirements of the job.

to cut to the chase

Definition: to tell the main idea of a story or explanation
Example: Cut to the chase!
Explanation: Tell me the main idea and eliminate all the extra details of the story!

Note: In this example, the speaker of the idiom is an impatient listener who only wants to hear the main idea of a story.

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D

dot your i’s and cross your t’s

Definition: pay attention to the details
Example: Don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Explanation: Don’t forget to look closely at and take care of all the details of the situation.

down the road

Definition: in the future
Example: We may move into a new house down the road.
Explanation: We may move into a new house in the future.

to draw a line (in the sand)

Definition: to set a limit beyond which things will be unacceptable
Example: This is where I draw a line in the sand.
I draw the line here.
Explanation: I will not accept or tolerate any more of the current circumstances.

a drop in the bucket

Definition: a very small amount (as compared to the amount that is needed or available)
Example: My $10.00 donation is just a drop in the bucket. The charity is trying to collect $100,000.
Explanation: My $10.00 donation is a very small amount compared to the $100,000 that the charity needs.

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E

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F

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G

to get a move on

Definition: to hurry, to take action
Example: Let’s get a move on. We’re going to be late.
Explanation: Let’s hurry and leave. We’re going to be late.

to get it in gear

Definition: to start or to hurry moving, working, or doing something
Example: He needs to get it in gear if he wants to finish before 12:00.
Explanation: He needs to hurry and do his task in order to finish before 12:00.

to get something off the ground

Definition: to get a new project or idea started successfully
Example 1: The project never got off the ground.
Explanation: The project never got started.
Or –
The project was started but was not successful in the beginning stages so we did not continue with it.
Example 2: We finally got this new marketing plan off the ground. We’ve been working on it for months.
Explanation: We’ve finally begun using our new marketing plan and it is working successfully.

to go for broke

Definition: to risk everything on one chance to win or succeed
Example: He went for broke and bought the restaurant.
Explanation: He spent every dollar he had to buy the restaurant. He is determined to make it succeed.

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H

to have a heart-to-heart

Definition: to have an honest, sincere, serious, and intimate conversation
Example: My friend has been troubled about something lately. I want to have a heart-to-heart with her and find out what’s wrong.
Explanation: I want to have a serious discussion with my friend to discover what is troubling her.

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I

to have many irons in the fire

Definition: to be involved in many undertakings at one time
Example: Peter asked me to help him but I can’t. I already have too many irons in the fire.
Explanation: Peter asked me to help him but I can’t. I am too busy because I am involved in many other activities.

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J

to jump the gun

Definition: to do something too soon
Example: He jumped the gun and told her about our plans before we had finalized them.
Explanation: He told her about our plans before we were ready. He should have waited until the plans were final to be sure the plans would not change.

to jump through hoops

Definition: to make great effort and sacrifice, to be required to go through many steps to accomplish something
Example: We had to jump through hoops to get the application approved.
Explanation: We had to do many difficult tasks in order to have the application approved.

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K

to keep up with the Joneses

Definition: to buy the same things as one’s neighbors (often as a way of showing that you have as much money as your neighbors have)
Example: I bought a new car last week to keep up with the Joneses.
Explanation: I bought a new car last week because my neighbors bought a new car. (And I want to show them that I have enough money to buy a car just as they do.)

Note: Jones is a common surname in the United States so it is likely that one has a neighbor with the name Jones.

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L

to learn the ropes

Definition: to learn how to do a particular job or activity and to learn general procedures at a place
Example: It will take Jim a few weeks to learn the ropes at his new job.
Explanation: It will take Jim a few weeks to learn how to perform his new job and to learn the usual procedures at his workplace.

to live from paycheck to paycheck

Definition: to get paid just enough to pay bills but to not have any extra money to save or to spend on extra things
Example: I’m tired of living paycheck to paycheck. I need a new job.
Explanation: I’m tired of having only enough money to pay my bills. I need a new job which will pay me more money.

a long shot

Definition: unlikely to happen
Example 1: I know it’s a long shot but I applied for the manager position at that new restaurant.
Explanation: I know I am unlikely to be hired as manager of the new restaurant but I applied for the job anyway.
Example 2: She’ll never win that contest, not by a long shot.
Explanation: She will not win that contest unless something very unusual happens, for example, she is the only contestant.

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M

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N

no matter what

Definition: regardless of the circumstances
Example 1: I’m going to finish this project today, no matter what.
Explanation: I’m going to finish this project today, regardless of what else happens during the day.
Example 2: No matter what the weather is, she goes walking every day.
Explanation: Regardless of the weather conditions, she walks every day.

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O

to be on a roll

Definition: to be experiencing a period of success or good luck
Example: We’re on a roll. This is the fifth game we have won in a row.
Explanation: We are in a successful period. This is the fifth game we have won without losing any games.

on a shoestring

Definition: to do something with very little money, inexpensively
Example: I’m tired of living on a shoestring. I need to get a job with better pay.
Explanation: I’m tired of living with very little money. I need to get a job with better pay.

on the dot

Definition: exactly on time
Example: Hurry! We have to be at the gate at 9:00 on the dot!
Explanation: Hurry! We have to be at the gate at exactly 9:00!

to be on top of the world

Definition: to feel wonderful
Example: I just got engaged to be married! I feel on top of the world!
Explanation: I just got engaged to be married! I feel great! I am extremely happy!

to be out of line (also ‘to step out of line’)

Definition: to not behave as expected or told
Example: Mr. Abram stepped out of line when he accused Ms. Smith of stealing.
Explanation: Mr. Abram said something he should not have said. It was not his position to accuse someone of stealing. He had no proof and no reason to accuse.

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P

to pay your dues

Definition: to work hard for a long time before reaching a goal
Example: I’ve paid my dues but now I can finally retire.
Explanation: I’ve worked hard for many years but now I can enjoy the rewards of my retirement.

to be a piece of cake

Definition: to be easy
Example: The exam was a piece of cake. I got 100%.
Explanation: The exam was easy. I received a score of 100% correct.

to pull the wool over someone’s eyes

Definition: to deceive someone
Example: Don’t let that salesman pull the wool over your eyes. The car he wants to sell to you is not as good as he says.
Explanation: Don’t let that salesman deceive you. The car he wants to sell to you is not as good as he says. It probably has some problems that the salesman is not telling you.

to be like pulling teeth

Definition: to be very difficult
Example: Trying to get our children to do their homework is like pulling teeth.
Explanation: Trying to get our children to do their homework is very difficult.

to put one’s cards on the table

Definition: to be forthright, honest, open
Example: Okay, I’ll put my cards on the table. We need to decrease costs by 20% in order to remain competitive.
Explanation: Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. We need to decrease costs by 20% in order to remain competitive.
(The speaker is speaking about his company. Next he will probably talk about serious and difficult ways to reduce costs.)

to put one’s foot in one’s mouth

Definition: to say something inappropriate, embarrassing, or rude at the wrong time
Example: Just as I was telling my colleague that our supervisor’s new haircut looked silly, our supervisor walked into the room. I really put my foot in my mouth this time.
Explanation: I said the wrong thing (my supervisor’s new haircut looks silly) at the wrong time (as he was walking into the room). My supervisor heard me say it and so I embarrassed both of us.

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Q

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R

to rain cats and dogs

Definition: to rain heavily
Example: I don’t want to go outside now because it’s raining cats and dogs.
Explanation: I don’t want to go outside now because it’s raining very heavily.

to rain on someone’s parade

Definition: to spoil someone’s plans, fun, or special occasion
Example: I hate to rain on your parade, but the school rules prohibit parties in the classroom.
(This could be said to someone who is planning a special party in the classroom and is very excited about it.)
Explanation: I hate to disappoint you and ruin your plans, but the school rules prohibit parties in the classroom.

right off the bat

Definition: from the very beginning, the very first thing, immediately
Example: John just became president of our club. Right off the bat, he started telling people what to do.
Explanation: As soon as John became president of our club, he immediately began telling people what to do.

to rock the boat

Definition: to do or say something which may cause upset or trouble in a currently calm situation
Example: After much discussion, everyone finally agreed about how to divide the project. I don’t want to rock the boat by reminding them of this additional part.
Explanation: I don’t want to remind everyone of the additional part because that will upset them and they will need to discuss everything again.

to run around in circles

Definition: to be very busy doing different things, but to accomplish little
Example: I’ve been running around in circles all day but I haven’t finished anything.
Explanation: I’ve been very busy all day, but I have not accomplished anything.

to run in the family

Definition: to be a family characteristic which is passed from one generation to the next
Example: Sally’s beautiful red hair and freckles run in the family.
Explanation: Sally’s beautiful red hair and freckles are characteristics that many of her relatives share.

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S

the school of hard knocks

Definition: learning obtained from (often difficult) life experiences as opposed to learning received in a formal school environment
Example: I learned how to run my successful business from the school of hard knocks.
Explanation: I learned how to run my successful business from hard work and experience, not from attending a university.

to shake a leg

Definition: to hurry, to get up and start moving
Example: Come on! Shake a leg! We have to be there in ten minutes.
Explanation: Hurry and get ready to leave! We have to be there in ten minutes.

to slip through the cracks

Definition: to be lost or forgotten, especially within a system or organization
Example: Too many people with mental health problems slip through the cracks of the county healthcare agency.
Explanation: Too many people with mental health problems are forgotten by the county healthcare agency. As a result, they don’t get the care and attention they need.

from soup to nuts

Definition: everything, all inclusive
Example: He explained the new process from soup to nuts.
Explanation: He explained the new process completely. He included every detail in the explanation.

at this stage of the game

Definition: at this time
Example: At this stage of the game, we should offer them an extra incentive to agree to the contract.
Explanation: At this time in the negotiations, we should offer them something extra so they will agree to the terms of the contract.

straight from the horse’s mouth

Definition: directly from the source
Example: No, it’s not a rumor. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Explanation: No, it’s not an untrue story. I heard about this directly from the person involved.

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T

to be a team player

Definition: to cooperate and work well with the group so that the group is successful, to do one’s share of the work
Example: Martha’s not a team player. She doesn’t do the work assigned to her by our group. Instead, she works on her personal projects.
Explanation: Martha doesn’t cooperate with the group. She doesn’t help the group achieve its goals.

to be on thin ice (also ‘skating on thin ice’ and ‘walking on thin ice’)

Definition: to be in a risky situation
Example: She’s walking on thin ice by arguing with the boss again. If she continues to do that, she might be fired.
Explanation: She’s in a risky situation because she is arguing with the boss again. If she continues to do that, she might lose her job.

to throw in the towel

Definition: to quit, to stop trying to do something that you’ve been trying hard to accomplish
Example: I’m having too much trouble fixing this old car. I’m going to throw in the towel.
Explanation: I’m having too much trouble fixing this old car. I’m going to stop trying to fix it.

the tip of the iceberg

Definition: a small part of a problem that can be seen, while much larger problems are still hidden
Example: The company’s unbalanced bank account is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many accounting problems that need to be investigated.
Explanation: The company’s unbalanced bank account is just one small problem. There are many other accounting problems that are due to some very serious problems.

from top to bottom

Definition: thoroughly
Example: We are going to clean this house from top to bottom.
Explanation: We are going to thoroughly clean this house.

to touch base with someone

Definition: to talk to someone about something
Example: I need to touch base with my partner before I decide.
Explanation: I need to talk with my partner before I decide.

(to put in one’s) two cents worth

Definition: to give one’s opinion in a conversation
Example: He always puts in his two cents worth even when no one asks him.
Explanation: He always gives his opinion even when nobody asks him for his opinion.

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U

to be under the weather

Definition: to not feel well
Example: I didn’t go to the party yesterday because I’ve been under the weather for the last few days.
Explanation: I didn’t go to the party yesterday because I have been sick for a few days. I didn’t feel well enough to go to the party.

This idiom is used for mild illnesses such as a cold, not for serious illnesses.

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V

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W

water under the bridge.

Definition: A negative experience is in the past. It’s finished. It’s history. We can’t change it now so we should just forget about it.
Example: That argument I had with Jim is water under the bridge. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Explanation: That argument I had with Jim is finished. It is time to forget it and to talk about other things.

What goes around comes around.

Definition: The things you do to other people will eventually be done to you.
Example: Person 1: You spent a lot of time helping me after the storm. I don’t know if I can repay you.
Person 2: Don’t worry about it. What goes around comes around.
Explanation: Person 1: You spent a lot of time helping me after the storm. I don’t know if I can repay you.
Person 2: Don’t worry about it. Somebody will help me when I need help in the future.

When it rains, it pours.

Definition: When things go wrong, a lot of things go wrong at the same time.
Example: My computer broke, my refrigerator broke, and I lost my watch! When it rains, it pours!
Explanation: My computer broke, my refrigerator broke, and I lost my watch! When one bad thing happens to me, a lot of bad things happen at the same time!

when one’s ship comes in

Definition: when one becomes rich and successful
Example: When my ship comes in, I’m going to buy a new house.
Explanation: When I become rich, I’m going to buy a new house.

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X

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Y

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Z

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