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30 English Idioms

Updated on April 2, 2013

An idiom is a group of words that convey a meaning. This meaning would not, without frequent usage and collective understanding, be deducible from the words themselves. The origins of idioms are often hazy, rendering them even more baffling than they might ordinarily be, whilst their meanings, seemingly independent of the meanings of the words themselves, are quite reasonably a source of confusion to both native and non-native English speakers alike, especially if the idiom has never before been encountered. Strange, contradictory, and yet nevertheless an everyday part of speech, below is a list of some common English idioms and their explanations:

  • 'Have a riot': If you hear this, don't panic. Your partner isn't about to head out on a rampage burning buildings and throwing looted materials through shop windows, which would be the more logical explanation, but (at least if they're speaking idiomatically and not literally) simply isn't their intention. If someone says that they had a riot or are going to have a riot,they mean that they had, or are intending to have, a very good time. Quite different from grabbing the batons and pitchforks.

  • 'Steal your thunder': No, you're not being called Zeus. If someone tells you that you stole their thunder, they mean that you voiced their ideas and took the credit.

How can you set someone's teeth on edge?
How can you set someone's teeth on edge? | Source

  • 'Take up the reins': But no horse is around, you say, slightly puzzled. That's because this idiom refers to assuming control of something, albeit usually not a horse. If you take control of a new company, for example, you might be asked to take up the reins or to don the mantle, which is yet another idiom for assuming authority.

  • 'Set your teeth on edge': 'That noise that you're making really sets my teeth on edge.' You're getting someone so excited that their teeth are literally forming into a smile of their own accord? Alas, not quite, and you should probably stop your action, as someone's teeth being on edge highlights their extreme displeasure at whatever it is that you're doing.

  • 'Keep a straight face': Compared to most idioms, this one actually makes a lot of sense. If someone tells you to keep a straight face during the practical joke, for example, they're telling you not to laugh despite any desire you might feel to do so.

  • 'Teach you the ropes': Or, more accurately, they'll teach you the details of the task.

  • 'I have the weight of the world on my shoulders': This expression is also a fairly obvious one, meaning to be so stressed and troubled that it feels as though you're burdened with an extremely great weight.

Will you strike while the iron is hot?
Will you strike while the iron is hot? | Source

  • 'Strike while the iron is hot': Don't worry, you're not being told to touch a hot iron. On the contrary, this idiom is actually quite a good piece of advice, referring to taking an opportunity before it passes and you lose your chance.

  • 'Send shivers down my spine': This one is difficult in that it largely depends on context. If someone tells you that you send shivers down their spine, they either mean that you make them excited or that you frighten them. Hopefully you'll be able to figure that one out after the meaning of the idiom itself has become clear.

  • 'Raining cats and dogs': If (and it's a fairly large 'if') you've just received news of a midair collision between two airlines exclusively carrying cats and dogs, the person telling you this might actually be speaking literally. It's much more likely, however, that they're simply referring to extremely heavy rainfall.

  • 'Play it by ear': This one definitely isn't as exciting as it sounds. You're probably not about to see a fancy party trick in which an electric guitar is played with an ear lobe. Rather, if someone tells you to play it by ear, they're asking you to take things as they come, rather than to map out a plan of action.

Is it a piece of cake?
Is it a piece of cake? | Source

  • 'Piece of cake': If you hear someone tell you that travelling to both parties on the same night will be a piece of cake, you don't need to question their sanity. Effectively they're telling you that it will be an extremely simple action to undertake.

  • 'You can't have your cake and eat it': This one is a little more difficult, describing the impossibility of both eating a cake and still having it after consumption. It basically means that you can't have something both ways.

  • 'The cold shoulder': If you give someone the cold shoulder, you're disregarding them, remaining aloof and detached.

  • 'A chip on your shoulder': Unfortunately it's not one that you can eat. Carrying a chip on your shoulder means that you're still upset about something that's occurred in the past.

  • 'That's the icing on the cake': It seems like a few idioms have been built around the concept of cake ... understandably. This one, like the others, unfortunately merely only taunts us with the idea of the delicious dessert, as it actually refers to having something good happen in addition to an already favourable event. For example, one might say, 'I can't believe that promotion came with such a large pay rise, and getting the corner office was the icing on the cake!'

  • 'Costs an arm and a leg': I'm guessing you wouldn't be willing to part with your arm and leg for just any mundane item. Similarly, this idiom describes something that is extremely expensive, and therefore unlikely to be purchased.

Are you beating around the bush?
Are you beating around the bush? | Source

  • 'Beating around the bush': If you're told to stop doing this, it means you need to start talking about the main issue, instead of dwelling on unimportant details.

  • 'Back to the drawing board': You might use this expression when you fail at something and need to start over from the beginning. It's essentially the same as heading back to square one.

  • 'You've hit the nail on the head': This one is literal! Only kidding, it means to do or say something that is precisely correct.

  • 'Close but no cigar': But you didn't even ask for a cigar, you say in confusion. It's okay, you're not really having an offer of one rescinded. Instead, you're being told that you came close to accomplishing something, but just fell short of your goal.

There's no use crying over it if it spills.
There's no use crying over it if it spills. | Source

  • 'No use crying over spilt milk': This one also makes sense, and simply means that there's no point in getting worked up over something that has happened and cannot be changed.

  • 'Drive me up the wall': Don't worry, you're not being asked to find a tiny vehicle and drive it up a vertical slope. You can seek solace in the realisation that you're merely being told that your current actions are deeply irritating.

  • 'Finding your feet': This means that you're becoming comfortable in whatever it is that you're doing. You have essentially found your feet and learned to walk.

  • 'No room to swing a cat': This refers to a confined space and makes perfect sense, it's just odd to think of someone as using cats as a measuring device and then moulding their attempts into a popular phrase.

  • 'Hold your horses': Be patient!

Put a sock in it!
Put a sock in it! | Source

  • 'Put a sock in it': The 'it' refers to a mouth. If you say this to someone, you're asking them to shut up and stop talking.

  • 'Give him the slip': No, not a slip of paper. This means to deliberately lose someone as a method of escape.

  • 'Last straw': When you've finally had enough of a situation and are at the end of your tether, you might say that your current circumstances are the final or the last straw. In other words, the last burden that you can shoulder.

  • 'Lost his head': It's okay, he's still alive. If someone loses their head in the world of idioms, it means that their emotions have temporarily overrun their sanity.

Hope you had fun recognising or learning these strange, yet much used, English idioms. I'm sure many of you a familiar with a variety of others that failed to make this list. If you're interested in words and language you might also enjoy the following Hubs:


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    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 3 years ago from India

      Sam, though I was aware of some of these idioms as I frequented them while reading magazines or novels but the way you have explained these idioms, I'm now clear and confident of trying some of them in my writing. A useful hub and I admire your teaching style. Thank you. :-)