25 Arm, Finger, and Hand Idioms Explained to English as a Second Language Learners
Idioms or idiomatic expressions are word combinations that have symbolic, and not literal, meanings.
Because they do have symbolic meanings, they can be quite difficult for English as a Second Language or ESL learners to master.
Also, unlike native English speakers, many ESL learners do not usually use idioms in everyday language, making it even more difficult for them to learn these expressions.
Just the same, there is a way to go around the difficulty of learning idioms and that is to simply learn as many examples of idioms as possible.
Below are just 25 examples of idioms in the category of arms, fingers, and hands.
1. Bite the Hand that Feeds (Someone)
To bite the hand that feeds (someone) is an idiomatic expression that means to hurt or harm a person who actually does kind acts for us.
She bites the hand that feeds her when she says bad words about the person who helps pay for her education.
2. Catch (Someone) Red-Handed
To catch someone red-handed is to see someone performing an action that is bad or wrong.
The woman caught her husband red-handed when he went out on a date with his female co-worker.
3. Caught with One’s Hands in the Cookie Jar
The idiom caught with one’s hands in the cookie jar has the same meaning as the idiom catch someone red-handed. The former also means to be seen in the act of doing something bad or wrong.
The husband was caught with his hands in the cookie jar when he was seen on a date with his female co-worker.
4. Cost an Arm and Leg
Something may cost an arm and leg if it is very expensive.
Her collections of high-end makeup and pricey watches cost an arm and leg.
5. Cross One’s Fingers OR Keep One’s Fingers Crossed
The idiomatic expressions cross one’s fingers and keep one’s fingers crossed have the same meanings. They both mean to wish for good luck.
She crossed her fingers that she would land the high-paying job.
6. Fall into the Wrong Hands
Fall into the wrong hands is an idiom that means that something sensitive, classified as a secret, or considered to be dangerous may be seized by a person who might use that thing in a harmful way.
The secret document fell into the wrong hands. Now, gangsters are using the document to extort the government official.
7. First Hand
People experience something first hand if they see, hear, feel, taste, or smell it personally or directly.
I had to see the place first hand to be convinced that it was really a good property to buy.
8. Gain/Get the Upper Hand on (Someone or Something)
To gain/get the upper hand on (someone or something) means to be in a position that is more advantageous than the position of other people.
The Russian athlete gained the upper hand on his American rivals when he was able to dive into the pool quicker.
9. Get out of Hand
Something may get out of hand if it becomes tough to manage.
The celebrations got out of hand when the bull went loose and people started running in all directions.
10. Give a Big Hand to/for (Someone)
To give a big hand to/for (someone) is to clap for a person after and/or before a performance.
Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big hand for Millie, the music prodigy!
11. Go Away Empty-Handed
Go away empty-handed is an idiom that means to leave without carrying or having anything.
The beggar went away empty-handed after the wealthy people in the house refused to give her a penny.
12. Go Hand in Hand with (Something)
A thing may go hand in hand with (something) if it is related or relevant.
They say that perseverance and hope go hand in hand with success. You can’t be successful just by being lazy and not dreaming of big things in life.
13. Green Thumb
A person has a green thumb if he or she can grow plants well or has exceptional skills in gardening.
Sofia has a green thumb. She grows all the vegetables that her family eats.
14. Hands Down
Hands down is an idiom that means effortlessly or clearly.
The Romanian gymnast won the games hands down. The judges gave her a perfect score.
15. Have One’s Fingers in Too Many Pies
To have one’s fingers in too many pies is to be involved in many activities or to be doing many things.
He has his fingers in too many pies and cannot seem get enough rest.
16. Have One’s Hands Full with (Someone or Something)
To have one’s hands full with (someone or something) means to be busy doing something.
She has her hands full with taking care of her newborn twins and her preschooler.
17. Know (Something/Someone) Like the Back/Palm of Someone’s Hands
To know (something/someone) like the back/palm of someone’s hands is to know something or someone so well.
The mother knows her daughter like the palm of her hands. She knows when she’s feeling down or when she needs a hug.
18. Live from Hand to Mouth
To live from hand to mouth is to subsist marginally or live with very little money.
They had lived from hand to mouth so they know how important it is to earn, grow, and save money.
19. Long Arm of the Law
Long arm of the law is an idiomatic expression that means that authorities are powerful that they are able to track down and punish offenders.
The long arm of the law was able to hunt down the billionaire who went missing after being accused of tax evasion.
20. Read the Handwriting on the Wall
To read the handwriting on the wall is to observe small signs or symbols and be able to guess what will happen in the future based on them.
You have to read the handwriting on the wall and realize that you may soon have no source of income.
21. The Right Hand Does Not Know What the Left Hand is Doing
The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing is an idiomatic expression that means there are no effective ways of communicating within a group, so some people do not know what others are doing.
In this company, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. We have to improve our communications so we can complete projects fast.
22. Rule of Thumb
A rule of thumb is an accepted method.
It is a rule of thumb to always check our sentences for errors before passing our essays to our English teachers.
23. Rule with an Iron Fist
To rule with an iron fist is to harshly control a person or people.
The dictator ruled with an iron fist and imprisoned anyone who criticized him.
24. A Shot in the Arm
A shot in the arm is an idiom that means to experience something that is inspirational or stimulating.
Reading the stories of ordinary people who became successful is a shot in the arm for the aspiring entrepreneur.
25. A Slap on the Wrist
A slap on the wrist is an idiomatic expression that refers to a light punishment given to offenders.
The punishment for the company is a slap on the wrist. It is so light that the company can afford to commit the offense again.
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