List of idioms in the English language

From Academic Kids

A list of idioms can be useful, since the meaning of an idiom cannot be deduced by knowing the meaning of its constituent words.

For example, someone might know perfectly well what a bucket is and also understand the meaning of the verb "to kick," completely; however, unless they had already encountered the meaning of the phrase or were able to tell from the context the phrase appears in, they would not know that to kick the bucket is one of the many colorful idioms in the English language meaning to die.

The phrase, "enough money to choke a horse," would not be an idiom because the meaning of the phrase can readily be deduced from knowing the meaning of the individual words that make it up.

Note that idioms are not the same as aphorisms or proverbs, such as, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" or sagacious recommendations like, "don't count your chickens before they hatch".

English has a tremendous stock of idioms. They can be a source of confusion and frustration to non-native users of the langauge. When speaking to people who have recently learned English it might aid their ability to comprehend if one avoids idioms. However, most native English speakers have internalized a large repertoire of idioms which they use often and without thinking much about them so it can be very difficult to censor all idioms from one's speech.

Other meanings for the word idiom include its use as a synonym for dialect. This article concerns itself only with the meaning of the term as defined above however.

The following is a list of idioms in the English language along with their meanings:

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Idiom Meaning
A black look Giving someone a look of malice; "a dirty look"
A dirty look A look of disapproval or malice.
A tempest in a teapot (or: a storm in a teacup) A fuss being made about an insignificant matter.
All mouth and trousers Said of someone who boasts in a macho way but cannot be trusted to achieve what he is clearly fond of talking about.
Arm and a leg (to pay) An extremely high price.
At the end of the day x will happen. A fatalistic phrase suggesting that whatever criticisms or uncertainties arise, the most probable outcome is likely to be x, where x is what has usually happened in the past. Slightly more obscure than "all things considered" and often a tactical way of terminating a discussion or sustained criticism.


Idiom Meaning
Bad Very good.
Baker's dozen Thirteen of a particular item.
Ball and chain
  1. An unhelpful burden that cannot be abandoned.
  2. Husband or wife (pejorative, or sometimes satirically affectionate).
Bat out of Hell (like a) Very quickly (also implies haphazardly, frenetically or in a panic).
To bear fruit To come to profitable conclusion or to produce some worthwhile thing.
Beat a dead horse Beating a dead horse is to engage in pointless and repetitive discussion. Beating is more common in American idiom, while Flogging a dead horse is more common in Britain.
Beat around the bush Procrastinate or hesitate, mainly when one does not want to say something (circumlocution).
Being from Missouri Skeptical; requiring proof. (The state's unofficial slogan: "Show me" appears on their license plates).
Between a rock and a hard place When you are "between a rock and a hard place" you are in a very difficult jam, any forseeable resolution of which will not be pleasant. Another common form of this idiom is "between the Devil and the deep blue sea."
Black-hearted Someone with evil intentions.
Black sheep An ostracized or ill-fitting member of a family or group. ("Uncle Ned is the black sheep of the family.")
Boot out To eject a person from a group or society against their wishes.
Born in a barn Said to someone who fails to close an external door behind them on entering a building, thus causing a discomforting draught. There are regional variations, in Lincolnshire for instance, one will hear "Do you come from Bardney?" a reference to a windswept fenland village in that English county.
Break a leg Good luck, especially used to wish luck to stage performers before an opening.
Broken his/her duck (British), "scored for the first time," or more generally to have avoided complete failure. In British sports slang a "duck's egg" refers to a score of "zero" or "nought". (Similarly "goose eggs" can also mean "00" in American slang.) In the British game of Cricket scoring naught is getting a "duck" and a batter's first run scored is, therefore, "breaking his duck." Generally intended hopefully, as a harbinger of more success to follow. "He's out of his rut and starting to make progress."
Bull in a china shop A tactless person who upsets others or upsets plans; a very clumsy person.
Burning the candle at both ends Someone trying to do too much at once, wearing themselves out.
Burning the midnight oil Studying or working late into, or through, the night.
Bury the hatchet Make peace with. To end hostilities.
Buy/Bought the farm To die (possibly a cynical reference to the effect of a life insurance benefits to the beneficiaries; as in "his demise bought the farm").
Buying a pig in a poke To purchase something without inspection, thereby creating an opportunity for fraud. Canonical: unethical farmer places a barn-yard cat in a burlap bag (poke) and sells it sight-unseen to another, claiming it contains a piglet. Related to "the cat's out of the bag", below.
By the numbers To do things precisely as instructed, or as perceived to be instructed.


Idiom Meaning
Call the badger a bishop This term derives from the practice of badger-baiting, in which a badger is put into a pit and made to fight dogs. To call the badger a bishop is to imply that the badger's overwhelmed condition somehow makes it virtuous, when it is, in fact, just a badger. So, the term means committing the fallacy of projecting virtue on to the oppressed or disadvantaged.
Can of worms A situation that is hard to deal with, especially one that comes about unexpectedly and intractably. To "open a can of worms" is to get involved with something that is discomforting, hard to resolve, or not easily escaped (closing a container of worms, used as bait by fishermen, generally involves some tricky handling of the wriggling occupants)
Can't see the forest (or wood) for the trees Losing sight of the big picture by getting mired down in details
Can't see your nose in front of your face Being oblivious to something in plain view
Cat amongst the pidgeons Putting a cat amongst the pidgeons involves some, usually premeditated, disruption. Such an act might simply be verbal, cutting across an apparent consensus, but will certainly disturb the equilibrium.
Cat got your tongue? Asked of someone rendered speechless to emphasize their inability to speak
Cat nap A short sleep taken during the day. However, this may not necessarily qualify as an "idiom", as the meaning is apparent to some; cats tend to sleep for short intervals (naps) at various times throughout a twenty-four hour period, whereas humans generally sleep for a solid one-third fraction of each day and do not typically "nap" in a catlike manner. Thus, sleeping in this manner is to "nap like a cat", or to take a "cat nap"
Catch 22 A situation from which there is no escape; a problem in which any course of action is likely to result in undesirable consequences. Similar to a "no-win situation" and Hobson's Choice.
Change horses in midstream Make new plans or choose a new leader in the middle of an important activity. Connotes an unwise, or at best risky, activity
Close the barn door after the horse gets out Refers to not taking action until after a problem has already occurred, usually when it's too late and should have been done sooner. "Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted" is the common British variant
Curiosity killed the cat As cats are naturally curious, the expression suggests excessive curiosity is not necessarily a good thing, especially where it is not their business.
Cut off your nose to spite your face To take rash or single-minded action that hurts your own cause in the end. Similar to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater"


Idiom Meaning
Dark horse A surprise candidate, or competitor; someone who hides their talents or interests. From the metaphor: "He rode in as if on a dark horse in the night" or "No one saw him coming."
Dead and buried A settled issue. Something no longer needing consideration.
Dead as a doornail Useless, very distinctly dead. A doornail is the strikeplate for most door knockers. To hold it in place, after it was driven through the door, the pointed end was bent over and buried in the door, to prevent movement. This nail was unrecoverable, so was considered dead to future reclamation, which was apparently common before modern time.
Devil's advocate To argue a point of view that is not necessarily one's own, but for the sake of fairness. To play "the devil's advocate" in a debate is to ensure that some attempt was made to hear a side that might otherwise have gone unrepresented
dime [for] a dozen very common and easy to get; very cheap
Dog and pony show A presentation which aims to persuade, generally a marketing presentation, especially one with lots of splashy glitz and little or no real informational content
Dotting the I's and Crossing the T's Paying much attention to detail


Idiom Meaning
Egg on To provoke or encourage, sometimes in a sarcastic or derisive manner.
Egg on one's face To be embarrassed
Elephant in the room The problem or situation immediately obvious to all but spoken of by none. Usually the topic in question is emotionally charged and so felt by most involved to be best ignored


Idiom Meaning
Fall on (one's) sword
  1. To take responsibility or blame for a negative outcome, especially if one's own idea
  2. To sacrifice oneself
Feel[ing] blue Feeling sad, down, or depressed
A few X short of a Y Not possessing all of one's mental faculties; i.e., crazy or stupid. These phrases take the form "A few X short of a Y" where X is a common component of Y. In these phrases, Y represents full mental capacity, and the lack of a few X implies a lack of full mental capacity.
  1. A few fries short of a Happy Meal
  2. A few sandwiches short of a picnic
  3. Two bricks short of a load
  4. A few syllables short of a Haiku
  5. A couple of cans short of a six-pack.

Whimsically derived from "A few lawnchairs short of a picnic", with special emphasis on the dearness of syllables (17 altogether) in a Haiku and the sensitivity of the form to nonconformance.

Not the X-est Y in Z Having comparatively diminished capacities. Similar to "A few X short of a Y", but describing quality rather than quantity and often used for mock-humility.
  1. Not the sharpest pencil in the cup.
  2. Not the brightest crayon in the box.
First-come, first-served Indicates a policy of serving clients or customers in the order they arrived without other preferences.
(On a) fishing expedition Trying to find some evidence of something, often through improper methods. Sometimes used in court
Five finger discount To take without paying, to steal, also known as shoplifting
Full fathoms five (From Shakespeare, The Tempest) Lost deep in the sea


Idiom Meaning
(bird in a) Gilded cage In a pleasant situation, but trapped. For example, celebrities that fear the paparazzi are "prisoners in gilded cages," because despite their wealth and fame their every action is under intense scrutiny
Go with the flow to conform or go along with whatever happens
Take it with a grain of salt to approach a claim with appropriate skepticism
Graveyard dead Certainly dead. Emphatically dead.
Gravy Train An easy or comfortable endeavor.


Idiom Meaning
Have a dog in the fight To have a stake in, or be exposed to the risks associated with, the outcome of some problem or dispute. Conversely, "I don't have a dog in that fight" is frequently used as a way to beg off and opt out of being expected to assist.
Have one's cake and eat it too To attempt to get all the positive aspects of something while avoiding any negative but usually occurring aspects
Herding cats Trying to elicit coordinated action from a group not inclined to do so. Doing something that is very difficult
Hit the hay To go to bed
Hobson's Choice A situation from which there is no escape; a problem in which any course of action is likely to result in undesirable consequences. Similar to a "no-win situation" and Catch 22.


Idiom Meaning
In for a penny, in for a pound Said by someone realising that risks of failure are increasing, but still prepared to press onwards, maintaining their earlier efforts. Similar to the expression "no turning back"
In (out of) the loop Kept informed (not informed), given feedback.


Idiom Meaning
Juggling picked onions (or frogs) Carrying out a hazardous or difficult task. Both onions and frogs are slippery and so likely to be hard to juggle with ease.


Idiom Meaning
Keep a stiff upper lip To exercise self-restraint in the expression of emotion, especially fear or grief
Kick the bucket To die. Derived from the slaughter of pigs, the wooden block a pig was hung from during slaughter was referred to as a buque. Thus in the process of killing the pig, it would inevitably kick it.
Killing two birds with one stone Completing two tasks with one process or action
Knock on wood (Knocking on wood) Knock on something made of wood to keep from having bad luck


Idiom Meaning
Last straw A problem or obstacle that may be trivial in itself, but causes cataclysmic failure because it pushes the total array of problems or obstacles to an intolerable level. Also referred to as the Straw that broke the camel's back, after the original proverb: a straw by itself has an insignificant weight, but enough of them together can be a crushing weight.
(the) Lights are on, but no one's home Said of a person that is lacking intellect and/or sanity, even if they may appear at first to possess full mental faculties. Like "two bricks short of a load", there are endless variations, based around the metaphor of a machine or a system that is not operating as it should ("His elevator doesn't stop at all floors.")
Loan shark A predatory lender, usually one that charges inordinately high interest


Idiom Meaning
Make hay To take advatage of a favorable opportunity. To work diligently toward a goal. Sometimes this idiom appears as "to make hay while the sun shines"
Mind one's p's and q's Be very careful to behave correctly
More than one way to kill (or skin) a cat (there is) Something can be achieved in several different ways


Idiom Meaning
Nod off To fall asleep gradually, perhaps reflecting the boredom of a lecture or presentation
Not playing with a full deck Someone who is eccentric, mad or wildly unconventional, bordering on crazy. See Two bricks short of a load on this page.


Idiom Meaning
Off (or below) the radar Beyond popular consciousness, less obvious or less mainstream
Off one's rocker Crazy
Off the X Fairly recent slang expression, in which X is replaced by various nouns to make an expression with the general meaning of "great" or "wonderful". (e.g. Off the chains, Off the wall, etc.)
On the ball To be prepared, especially in regards to anticipated future requests or instructions.
On the nose Exactly correct or correctly
Out of Sorts Feeling poorly.
Out of touch To be unaware of current trends, news, or fashions, especially because of actual physical distance from others.
Over the hill To be past one's prime, old, a senior citizen. A person has reached his/her peak of physical or employment capabilities and is starting the downhill slide
Over the moon To be very happy


Idiom Meaning
Pay through the nose (for something) pay too much or a lot of money for something
Penny wise, pound foolish Cautious with small amounts of money, but wasteful with large amounts of money.
Pissing in the wind continuing with an ineffective action, having no impact on the outcome
Pissing against the wind self-defeat by going against the natural flow of things, against reality
Pot calling the kettle black Where person A accuses person B of something that person A is guilty of. The idiom is usually used to imply or accuse someone of hypocrisy
Pouring cats and dogs Raining very heavily.
Pulling strings A reference to those really in power limiting the discretion of those who appear to make decisions, an analogy to those who operate stringed puppets
Pulling one's leg Being facetious, or kidding around. Playfully lying.
Pushing up daisies To be dead. (example: He's pushing up daisies.) This comes from the Western cultural practice of burying the deceased in a cemetery or "memorial park" often with flowers or grass growing at the gravesite.



Idiom Meaning
Reading between the lines Inferring additional information or nuances not explicitly stated, perhaps revealing a hidden agenda or true motive
Red light district An area of town where with a concentration of prostitutes, strip bars, pornography and sex toy shops, and the like
Red tape Bureaucratic paperwork, usually in large amounts and being difficult to finish yet seemingly pointless in nature
Reinvent the wheel Duplicate a basic method or concept (usually in lieu of pursuing a more original, presumably more worthwhile, goal)
Right under your nose Something so obvious that it is easily overlooked
Rob Peter to pay Paul Solving a problem in a way that leads to a new problem; a quick solution with an obvious drawback
Rock the boat Breaking with tradition or going against custom or an apparent consensus, possibly with entirely benign motives - but perhaps out of selfishness
Rooted to the spot One that has not moved out of the place where the person has been for a long time. Both in physical, and in mental situations


Idiom Meaning
Set the Thames on fire Perform an astonishing feat. This phrase is almost invariably used in the negative: "He'll never set the Thames on fire." Latin and German have similar idioms regarding the Tiber and the Rhine, respectively
To travel by Shank's Pony To walk
Six feet under Dead and buried (from a traditional depth for human graves)
Six of one, half a dozen of another Two things that are essentially the same and so there is no real choice to be made
Slow as molasses To work or act in a slow manner
Soup to nuts From beginning to end; etymologically, from the first course of a meal (soup) to the last course (nuts)
Sour grapes To decide that the attainment of something you have been thwarted from getting is not worth it after all and probably inferior in quality anyway. (Aesop's Fables: The Fox and the Grapes)
To spin a yarn To tell a story, especially one with distorted truths or exaggerations
Spirit of the law To interpret something as it is meant, not as explicitly stated
Squaring the circle Trying to do something which is impossible
Stalking horse A political candidate unlikely to succeed against an incumbent, standing to generate an election and to reveal disquiet with the incumbent's recent performance — possibly inducing other competitors for that post to declare their interest
Start with a clean slate/sheet (of paper) To contemplate solving a problem without preconceptions
Steal someone's thunder Taking the credit for something positive occasioned largely by someone else
Stem the tide To stop or control the growth or increase of something, usually unpleasant
Stick in the mud An old fashioned idea or concept, or someone who moves or adapts slowly. Also used to describe a person who does not want to participate in activities suggested by one or more people
Straw that broke the camel's back From a proverb about loading up a camel beyond its capacity to move. This is a reference to any process by which cataclysmic failure (a broken back) is achieved by a seemingly inconsequential addition (a single straw). This also gives rise to the phrase "the last straw"
Swan song A final appearance; a theatrical or dramatic farewell (from a legendary belief that a mute swan would sing its own dirge as it died)
Swim with the fishes To die, especially to be murdered and have your body disposed of, often in a body of water. (See also "sleep with the fishes"). It's presumed to be a bit of Mafia jargon
Sword of Damocles The Sword of Damocles is a frequently used symbolic allusion to this myth, referring to the insecurity felt by those with great power due to the possibility of that power being taken away suddenly, or, more generally, any feeling of impending doom


Idiom Meaning
Take a flyer To take a chance or risk
Take a seat A command or request to sit down
Taken to the cleaners Defrauded, robbed, cheated, conned
Tall tale A (sometimes boastful) unrealistic story, often told in a humorous way
That was then, and this is now To denote a change between the situation in the past and the current one
The cat's out of the bag To let the cat out of the bag A secret or hidden thing has been discovered. Related to "buying a pig in a poke", above
The Powers That Be Generic term for people who are in charge of something. Often used either derisively or when the actual people are not known. Usually capitalized
((The) tail that) wag(s) the dog To note or have an out of porportion impact or influence. "He is addicted to Wikipedia, it's the tail that wags the dog." To note reversal of a typical or expected causality chain, usually in exclamation. "That bird frightened the cat! Doesn't that just wag the dog!"
Three sheets to the wind Drunk. Usually heavily inebriated.
Throw down the gauntlet To challenge
To be catty To be antagonistic, usually applied to women
To pocket To attempt to steal by slipping something unnoticed into a concealed place (pocket, purse, jacket, etc.)
To the letter To interpret and follow instructions or rules in as literal a manner as possible, doing nothing that one is not explicitly instructed or told to do, often deliberately ignoring the implicit meaning of those instructions or rules.
To turn turtle To capsize
Toot your own horn/blow your own trumpet To brag about oneself, often downplaying the contributions of others
Toe the line To follow rules and regulations faithfully. To be careful to never commit any transgressions. To conform, particularly to conform to onerous or odious demands through loyalty
Treading water Making no progress
Two bricks short of a load Not possessing all of one's mental faculties; i.e., crazy or stupid. AKA "two bricks shy of a load". The general form "N Xs short of a Y", where N is a small number and X is an item in a set Y, provides endless recognizable variations. Examples: "two chairs short of a set" (Gilmore Girls, "Emily in Wonderland"); "One Can Short of a 6 Pack" (Da Yoopers album); "two deuces shy of a deck" (playing cards) (see "Not playing with a full deck")


Idiom Meaning
Under the weather To be feeling ill.
Up a creek (sometimes, up shit's creek) without a paddle To be in an untenable position. To have no recourse or satisfactory course of action



Idiom Meaning
Wake up on the wrong side of the bed To be very grumpy. Usually used in response to discovering someone is very grumpy. "Whoa! Looks like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed today!
Water under the bridge Something that has happened in the past and is no longer worth agonizing over. A dismissal of prior offenses or transgressions. Generally said after emotional conflicts
When the gloves are off After the polite negotiations have failed, when false posturing is no longer plausible. Similar to "when the chips are down" or "when push comes to shove"
Whole nine yards The entire amount, everything. Comes from the 9 yard machine gun belts used in some military aircraft during WWII etc. Gunners would say "I gave them (the enemy) the whole nine yards.
Wrestling blancmange Attempting to grapple with an amorphous (hard to grasp) or almost insoluble issue




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