- What makes idioms different from other common phrases, is that usually, you cannot understand the given expression by its literal meaning. Imagine you're learning a new language and hear someone saying 'it's raining cats or dogs' or tells you to 'break a leg,' this would be very confusing! And on top of it all, even if you ask a native speaker what that phrase means, he might just be able to.
- Idioms and Phrases www.wordoful.com [email protected] List of idioms and Phrases An idiom is a phrase where the words together have a meaning that is different from the dictionary definitions of the individual words. A A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush.
This article lists direct English translations of common Latin phrases. Some of the phrases are themselves translations of Greek phrases, as Greek rhetoric and literature reached its peak centuries before that of ancient Rome. This list is a combination of the twenty divided 'List of Latin phrases' pages. An idiom is a phrase whose meaning isn’t obvious from looking at the individual words. They have developed over time and so they might seem random to you. Idioms often rely on analogies and metaphors. Because they’re used so often in everyday English, if you don’t know them, it’s almost impossible to understand the context.
Although English idioms don’t make sense at first, these unique expressions (together with proverbs) add substance and humor to our conversations. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “idiom” as a: “group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).”
This means that English idioms should not be taken literally, because their meaning is metaphorical. You don’t really wish someone would “break a leg,” do you? And it’s not actually “raining cats and dogs,” is it?
On the other hand, proverbs – which are equally important to learn in English – are “short, well-known pithy sayings, stating a general truth or piece of advice.” Proverbs like, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” have neither a metaphorical meaning nor a literal one. Still, their meaning is greater than the meaning of the individual words put together.
List of English Idioms, Proverbs & Expressions
English idioms aren’t easy to understand at first, especially if you’re speaking English as a second language. But learning their meanings is crucial if you want to sound more like a native. So let’s get started with our complete list of English expressions and proverbs!
Check out the infographic below to preview some of the most common idioms that made it on our list.
English Idioms About People
- To be on cloud nine – To be extremely happy
- One-trick pony – A person with only one talent or area of expertise
- Wouldn’t hurt a fly – A person that is inoffensive and harmless
- Like a fish out of the water – Very uncomfortable
- Fit as a fiddle – Very healthy and strong
- To have your head in the clouds – To be daydreaming and/or lacking concentration
- To be under the weather – To feel sick
- To be as right as rain – To feel healthy or well again
English Idioms About Relationships
- Like two peas in a pod – Two people who are always together
- To give someone the cold shoulder – To intentionally ignore someone
- To cut somebody some slack – To stop being so critical of them
- To give someone the benefit of the doubt – To justify or excuse someone’s actions, and not assume malice
- To let someone off the hook – To not hold someone responsible for something he/she has done wrong
- To rain on someone’s parade – To ruin one’s plans or temper one’s excitement
English Idioms About Communication
- To break the ice – To get the conversation going
- To let the cat out of the bag – To reveal a secret
- To spill the beans – To reveal a secret
- To beat around the bush – To avoid talking about what is important
- To pull someone’s leg – To say something that is not true as a way of joking
- To get wind of something – To hear a rumor about something
- To wrap your head around something – To understand something complicated
- A penny for your thoughts – Tell me what you are thinking
- To play the devil’s advocate – To argue against an idea for the sake of debate
- To see which way the wind is blowing – To try to discover information about a situation before taking action
- To hear something straight from the horse’s mouth – To hear from someone who personally observed a certain event
- The elephant in the room – An obvious problem that people do not want to talk about
- Comparing apples to oranges – Comparing two things that cannot be compared
English Idioms About Scenarios
- A blessing in disguise – A good thing that seemed bad at first
- The best of both worlds – Benefiting from two different opportunities at once
- A perfect storm – The worst possible situation
- To be on thin ice – To be in a risky situation
- A snowball effect – A situation that becomes more serious and potentially dangerous over time
- When it rains it pours – Everything is going wrong at once
- To get out of hand – To loose control in a situation
- To get a taste of your own medicine – To be treated the way you’ve treated others
- To throw caution to the wind – To do something without worrying about the risk
- To bite the bullet – To force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult
- Barking up the wrong tree – To pursue the wrong course of action
- To go down in flames – To fail miserably at something
English Idioms About Time
- Hold your horses – Wait a moment; slow down
- To do something at the drop of a hat – To do something at once, without any delay
- Once in a blue moon – Rarely
- To take a rain check – To postpone a plan
- To have bigger fish to fry – To have more important things to do with your time
- To miss the boat – To miss an opportunity
- Call it a day – It’s time to stop working on something
Miscellaneous Idioms in English
- It’s raining cats and dogs – It’s raining very hard
- A dime a dozen – Something is very common, or of no particular value
- By the skin of one’s teeth – Narrowly or barely escaping a disaster
- Come rain or shine – No matter the circumstances, something will get done
- It costs an arm and a leg – It’s very expensive
- It went to the dogs – Something is no longer as good as it was in the past
- To run like the wind – To run very fast
- Go on a wild goose chase – Go on a futile search or pursuit
- A cloud on the horizon – Something that threatens to cause problems in the future
Need to hear the above idioms in example sentences before using them in conversation? Check out the video below to learn how to pronounce many of these common idioms.
Common English Proverbs
- Better late than never – It is better to be late than never to arrive or complete a task
- Time flies when you’re having fun – Time seems to move faster when you’re enjoying something
- Actions speak louder than words – What someone does means more than what they say they will do
- Don’t count your chickens before they hatch – Don’t make plans that depend on something good happening before you know that it has actually happened
- Every cloud has a silver lining – Difficult situations usually have at least one positive aspect
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Don’t risk everything on the success of one venture
- Good things come to those who wait – Be patient
- Kill two birds with one stone – Achieve two goals at once
- There are other fish in the sea – There will be other opportunities for romance
- You can’t judge a book by its cover – You shouldn’t determine the value of something by its outward appearance
- Curiosity killed the cat – Being inquisitive may get you into trouble
- Birds of a feather flock together – Similar people usually become friends
- Absence makes the heart grow fonder – When the people we love are not with us, we grow even more in love
- It takes two to tango – Both parties involved in a situation are equally responsible for it
- The ship has sailed – It’s too late
- Two wrongs don’t make a right – If someone has done something bad to you, there’s no justification to act in a similar way
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do – When you are visiting another place, you should follow the customs of the people in that place
- The early bird catches the worm – The one who takes the earliest opportunity to do something will have an advantage over others
- Save up for a rainy day – Put some money aside for whenever it may be needed
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away – Apples are good for your health
- Your guess is as good as mine – I’m unsure of the answer or solution to a problem
- It takes one to know one – Someone must have a bad quality themselves if they can recognize it in other people
- Look before you leap – Take calculated risks
- Don’t cry over spilled milk – Stop worrying about things in the past because they cannot be changed
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink – You can’t force someone to make the right decision, even after guidance is given
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – The things you already have are more valuable than those you hope to get
- You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar – You can get what you want by being nice
We hope you enjoyed this complete list of the most common proverbs and idioms in English. Can you think of any English idioms we missed? Leave a comment and let us know! And if you’d like to improve your English skills even more, try the free online English classes at TakeLessons Live.
Guest Author: Diana Lăpușneanu is a movie geek, story lover, and language learner at Mondly. She is passionate about creative writing, classical mythology, and English literature. You can follow Mondly on Instagram here.
As native speakers, we use them without even thinking about where they come from; but to a student trying to learn English, they can be deeply confusing. Knowing a bit about the origins of these sayings is helpful in cementing these language nuggets in the mind. In this article, we’ll look at a number of these interesting idioms and teach you where the expressions came from – and more importantly, how to use them.
Meaning: Playing something by ear means that rather than sticking to a defined plan, you will see how things go and decide on a course of action as you go along.
Example: “What time shall we go shopping?” “Let’s see how the weather looks and play it by ear.”
Origins: This saying has its origins in music, as “playing something by ear” means to play music without reference to the notes on a page. This sense of the phrase dates back to the 16th century, but the present use only came into being in mid-20th century America, primarily referring to sports. These days, the expression has lost this focus on sports and can be used in any context.
Meaning: We Brits are known for our obsession with the weather, so we couldn’t omit a rain-related idiom from this list. It’s “raining cats and dogs” when it’s raining particularly heavily.
Example: “Listen to that rain!” “It’s raining cats and dogs!”
Origins: The origins of this bizarre phrase are obscure, though it was first recorded in 1651 in the poet Henry Vaughan’s collection Olor Iscanus. Speculation as to its origins ranges from medieval superstition to Norse mythology, but it may even be a reference to dead animals being washed through the streets by floods.
Meaning: “Can’t do something to save your life” is a hyperbolic way of saying that you’re completely inept at something. It’s typically used in a self-deprecating manner or to indicate reluctance to carry out a task requested of one.
Example: “Don’t pick me – I can’t draw to save my life.”
Origins: Anthony Trollope first used this expression, in 1848 in Kellys and O’Kellys, writing, “If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”
Meaning: To “turn a blind eye” to something means to pretend not to have noticed it.
Example: “She took one of the cookies, but I turned a blind eye.”
Origins: Interestingly, this expression is said to have arisen as a result of the famous English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is alleged to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye, thus ensuring that he would not see any signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.
Meaning: We use the expression “fat chance” to refer to something that is incredibly unlikely. Bizarrely, and contrary to what one might expect, the related expression “slim chance” means the same thing.
Example: “We might win the Lottery.” “Fat chance.”
Origins: The origins of this expression are unclear, but the use of the word “fat” is likely to be a sarcastic version of saying “slim chance”. A similar expression is “Chance would be a fine thing”, which refers to something that one would like to happen, but that is very unlikely.
Meaning: We use this expression to refer to someone who criticises someone else, for something they they themselves are guilty of.
Example: “You’re greedy.” “Pot calling the kettle black?”
Origins: First used in the literature of the 1600s – notably Don Quixote by Cervantes – this expression has its origins in the Medieval kitchen, when both pots and kettles were made from sturdy cast iron and both would get black with soot from the open fire.
Meaning: The phrase refers to something that happens very infrequently.
Example: “I only see him once in a blue moon.”
Origins: Confusingly, a blue moon doesn’t refer to the actual colour of the moon; it refers to when we see a full moon twice in one month. This happens every two to three years. It’s thought that the word “blue” may have come from the now obsolete word “belewe”, which meant “to betray”; the “betrayer moon” was an additional spring full moon that would mean people would have to fast for an extra month during Lent. The saying in its present meaning is first recorded in 1821.
Meaning: Used to describe someone who is not being realistic, the expression “head in the clouds” suggests that the person isn’t grounded in reality and is prone to flights of fancy. The opposite expression would be something like “down to earth”, meaning someone who is practical and realistic.
Example: “He’s not right for this role, he has his head in the clouds.”
Origins: In use since the mid-1600s, the origins of this expression are unclear beyond the obvious imagery of someone who is a bit of a fantasist (having one’s head in the clouds is clearly impossible – or at least it was in the days before aviation!).
Meaning: “Mad as a hatter” refers to someone who is completely crazy. A similar expression is “mad as a March hare”.
Example: “You could ask him, but he’s mad as a hatter.”
Origins: This is an interesting one. While “hatter” refers to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in Alice in Wonderland, the expression has its origins in the effects of the chronic mercury poisoning commonly experienced by 18th and 19th century hat manufacturers owing to the use of mercurous nitrate in felt hats. “Mad as a March hare” comes from the behaviour of hares during the breeding season, when they run and leap about the fields.
Meaning: This expression is used when something (or someone) is causing extreme exasperation and annoyance. A similar expression meaning the same thing is “driving me round the bend”.
Example: “That constant drilling noise is driving me up the wall.”
Origins: The saying evokes someone trying desperately to escape something by climbing up the walls. However, it’s unknown when it was first used.
Meaning: This means to stop doing something for the day, for example work, either temporarily or to give it up completely.
Example: “I can’t concentrate – let’s call it a day.”
Origins: The expression was originally “call it half a day”, first recorded in 1838 in a context meaning to leave one’s place of work before the working day was over. “Call it a day” came later, in 1919.
Meaning: A knight in shining armour is a heroic, idealised male who typically comes to the rescue of a female.
Example: “He saved me from humiliation – he’s my knight in shining armour.”
Origins: The phrase harks back to the days of Old England, when popular imagination conjures up images of chivalry and knights coming to the rescue of damsels in distress. Much of this is likely to be Victorian fantasy, as this was a period when interest in the legend of King Arthur and the Court of Camelot was high. The earliest use of the expression was in a poem by Henry Pye in 1790, which referred to “No more the knight, in shining armour dress’d”.
Meaning: Someone who “knows the ropes” is experienced at what they are doing. “Showing someone the ropes” means to explain to them how something is done.
Example: “Ask John, he knows the ropes around here.”
Origins: This phrase has its origins in the golden age of sailing, when understanding how to handle the ropes necessary to operate a ship and its sails was an essential maritime skill. By the mid-19th century it was a common slang expression, and it survives to this day.
Meaning: The phrase “larger than life” refers to a flamboyant, gregarious person whose mannerisms or appearance are considered more outlandish than those of other people.
Example: “His colourful waistcoats and unusual taste for hats made him a larger-than-life character in the local community.”
Origins: First recorded in the mid-20th century, the phrase was famously used by The New Yorker to describe wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
Meaning: To extend the olive branch is to take steps towards achieving peace with an enemy (or simply someone with whom you have fallen out).
Example: “I thought it was about time I went over there and extended the olive branch.”
Origins: This expression has biblical origins, and was seen as an emblem of peace. In Genesis, a dove brings an olive branch to Noah to indicate that God’s anger had died down and the flood waters had abated.
Meaning: Often used in the context of television detective shows, a red herring refers to something designed to distract or throw someone off a trail. Hence in a detective show, a clue that appears vital to solving a mystery is often added to heighten suspense, but may turn out to have been irrelevant; it was a red herring.
Example: “It seemed important, but it turned out to be a red herring.”
Origins: A herring is a fish that is often smoked, a process that turns it red and gives it a strong smell. Because of their pungent aroma, smoked herrings were used to teach hunting hounds how to follow a trail, and they would be drawn across the path of a trail as a distraction that the dog must overcome.
Meaning: If someone is “barking up the wrong tree”, they are pursuing a line of thought or course of action that is misguided.
Example: “I’m certain that he was responsible.” “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. He was elsewhere at the time.”
Origins: The saying refers to a dog barking at the bottom of a tree under the mistaken impression that its quarry is up it, suggesting that the phrase has its origins in hunting. The earliest known uses of the phrase date back to the early 19th century.
Meaning: If you “bite off more than you can chew”, you have taken on a project or task that is beyond what you are capable of.
Example: “I bit off more than I could chew by taking on that extra class.”
Origins: This saying dates back to 1800s America, when people often chewed tobacco. Sometimes the chewer would put into their mouth more than they could fit; it’s quite self-explanatory!
Meaning: “Blowing one’s own trumpet” means to boast about one’s own achievements.
Example: “Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, I came top of the class.”
Origins: Though phrases meaning the same thing had been in use for centuries, the actual expression is first recorded by Anthony Trollope in his 1873 work Australia and New Zealand.
Idioms And Their Meanings
Meaning: If you’re “in stitches”, you’re laughing so hard that your sides hurt.
Example: “He was so funny – he had me in stitches all evening.”
Origins: Presumably comparing the physical pain of intense laughter with the prick of a needle, “in stitches” was first used in 1602 by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. After this, the expression isn’t recorded again until the 20th century, but it’s now commonplace.
Meaningful Idioms And Phrases Examples
Though they make it harder to learn, expressions such as those we’ve covered in this article are also what make English so much fun. There are many, many more, and if you choose to attend one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses, you can look forward to adding even more English idioms to your ever-expanding vocabulary.
Meaningful Idioms And Phrases
Image credits: piano player, launcelot painting, trumpet girl
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