English idioms are a vital part of the language, adding color and flavor to everyday conversations. But for those learning English, especially as a second language, idioms can be a major source of confusion and frustration. And idiom is defined as a phrase that has a meaning DIFFERENT than the literal words on the page. For example, the idiom “It’s raining cats and dogs” doesn’t mean that actual cats and dogs are falling from the sky, but rather that it is raining very heavily. Confusing? Of course! But this post will help to explain idioms in detail, and give you dozens of phrases you can start using in everyday life. To start with an idiom, break a leg!
“Break a leg”
This idiom is commonly used to wish someone good luck before a performance or big event. Despite its ominous-sounding name, it is actually a positive expression, derived from the belief that in order to have a great performance, one must “break” or surpass the expectations of the audience.
“Cost an arm and a leg”
This idiom is used to describe something that is very expensive. It comes from the idea that if something is worth a lot of money, it must be worth a body part as well.
“Get cold feet”
This idiom means to become nervous or hesitant about something. Example: “I was going to ask her to marry me, but I got cold feet at the last minute.”
“Pull someone’s leg”
This idiom means to tease or joke with someone. Example: “I can’t believe you thought I was serious about moving to Mars – I was just pulling your leg.”
“Hit the nail on the head”
This idiom is used to describe when someone accurately identifies the correct solution to a problem or the correct answer to a question. It comes from the literal act of hitting a nail with a hammer in order to secure it in place.
“In the nick of time”
This idiom is used to describe when something happens just in time to avoid a negative outcome. It comes from the phrase “in the nick,” meaning the exact moment, and the word “time,” indicating that the action was completed before it was too late.
“Jump on the bandwagon”
This idiom is used to describe when someone joins a popular trend or movement. It comes from the practice of bands using a large wagon to transport their instruments and equipment, with fans following along and jumping onto the wagon to join the celebration.
“Butter someone up”
This idiom means to flatter or praise someone in order to gain their favor or make them more willing to do something for you. Example: “I was trying to butter up my boss so that he would give me the day off tomorrow.”
“Let the cat out of the bag”
This idiom is used to describe when someone accidentally reveals a secret. It comes from the practice of selling live pigs at market, with buyers inspecting the animal before purchasing it. If the seller was trying to pass off a cat as a pig, the secret would be revealed when the cat escaped from the bag it was being carried in.
“Kill two birds with one stone”
This idiom means to accomplish two things with a single action. Example: “By going to the grocery store on the way home from work, I was able to kill two birds with one stone.”
“Piece of cake”
This idiom is used to describe when something is very easy to do. It comes from the idea that cake is a sweet and enjoyable treat, making it a metaphor for something that is easy and pleasurable.
“Bite off more than you can chew”
This idiom means to take on more than you can handle. Example: “I signed up for five classes this semester, but I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew.”
“In a pickle”
This idiom means to be in a difficult situation. Example: “I’m in a pickle – I have to choose between two job offers and I only have two days to decide.
“Rain on someone’s parade”
This idiom is used to describe when someone spoils someone else’s plans or enjoyment. It comes from the idea of actual rain falling on a parade, disrupting the festivities and dampening the mood.
“Under the weather”
This idiom is used to describe when someone is feeling sick or unwell. It comes from the idea of being outside on a rainy or stormy day, with the weather causing discomfort and illness.
“To have the high ground”
This idiom is used to describe when someone has an advantage or superiority over someone else. It comes from the idea of being physically higher than someone else in a fight, giving the person on top the ability to control or dominate the situation.
“To have the upper hand”
This idiom means to have an advantage over someone else. Example: “I thought I was going to lose the argument, but then I remembered a piece of evidence that gave me the upper hand.”
“To be in the same boat”
This idiom means to be in a similar situation as someone else. Example: “I know you’re feeling stressed about the exam, but don’t worry – we’re all in the same boat.”
“To be a couch potato”
This idiom means to be lazy and inactive. Example: “I used to be a couch potato, but then I started going to the gym and now I feel so much better.”
“To be a penny-pincher”
This idiom means to be very careful with money and not willing to spend much. Example: “I don’t like to go shopping with my friend – she’s such a penny-pincher that she never wants to buy anything.”
“To pull someone’s hair out”
This idiom means to make someone very frustrated or angry. Example: “I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to use this new computer program.”
“To be the apple of someone’s eye”
This idiom means to be someone’s favorite person. Example: “My little sister is the apple of my mom’s eye – she can do no wrong in her eyes.”
“To beat around the bush”
This idiom means to avoid saying what you really mean, or to talk about something without getting to the point. Example: “Can you please stop beating around the bush and just tell me what you want?”
“To bend over backwards”
This idiom means to go to great lengths or to make a lot of effort to do something. Example: “I bent over backwards to help my friend with her project, but she didn’t even say thank you.”
“To jump on the bandwagon”
This idiom means to join a popular trend or group. Example: “I didn’t really like the new artist at first, but then everyone started jumping on the bandwagon and now I like her too.”
“To have a chip on your shoulder”
This idiom means to be angry or resentful about something from the past. Example: “I used to have a chip on my shoulder about my ex-boyfriend, but now I’m over it.”
“To be a pain in the neck”
This idiom means to be very annoying or bothersome. Example: “My little brother is such a pain in the neck – he never leaves me alone.”
“To be in the doghouse”
This idiom means to be in trouble or out of favor with someone. Example: “I forgot my wife’s birthday, so now I’m in the doghouse.”
“To be in seventh heaven”
This idiom means to be very happy or satisfied. Example: “I just got a promotion and a raise, so I’m in seventh heaven.”
“To be in hot water”
This idiom means to be in trouble or in a difficult situation. Example: “I didn’t finish the project on time, so now I’m in hot water with my boss.”
“To be a wild card”
This idiom means to be unpredictable or difficult to know what will happen. Example: Tom always makes the most random comments in those meetings. He’s such a wild card!”
“To be a breath of fresh air”
This idiom means to be refreshing or new. Example: “I was getting bored with my job, but then my new co-worker arrived and she was like a breath of fresh air.”
“To be a dime a dozen”
This idiom means that something is very common or easily found. Example: “I used to think my car was special, but now I see that they’re a dime a dozen.”
“To be a thorn in someone’s side”
This idiom means to be a source of annoyance or trouble for someone. Example: “My neighbor’s dog is always barking and it’s a real thorn in my side.”
“To be a sight for sore eyes”
This idiom means to be very welcome or pleasing to see. Example: “I was so happy to see my friend after not seeing her for so long – she was a sight for sore eyes.”
“To be a cut above”
This idiom means to be better than others in some way. Example: “My favorite restaurant is a cut above the others – the food is always delicious and the service is excellent.”
“To have a bee in your bonnet”
This idiom means to have a fixed idea or obsession. Example: “My friend has a bee in her bonnet about going to Australia – she’s been talking about it non-stop for weeks.”
“To be a fish out of water”
This idiom means to feel out of place or uncomfortable in a new situation. Example: “I’m a fish out of water at this fancy party – I don’t know anyone and I feel awkward in my suit.”
“To be a stick in the mud”
This idiom means to be boring and unadventurous. Example: “My sister is such a stick in the mud – she never wants to try anything new or go anywhere interesting.”
“To be in hot pursuit”
This idiom means to be chasing after someone or something. Example: “The police were in hot pursuit of the robbers, but they managed to escape.”
“To be a stickler for details”
This idiom means to be very particular and meticulous about things. Example: “My boss is a stickler for details – he always checks my work multiple times to make sure it’s perfect.”
“To be caught red-handed”
This idiom means to be caught in the act of doing something wrong. Example: “The thief was caught red-handed trying to steal a purse from the store.”
“To be a fly on the wall”
This idiom means to be an unseen observer. Example: “I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during the meeting – I bet it was interesting.”
Here are a few tips for learning how to use English idioms:
- Listen to native English speakers and pay attention to how they use idioms in conversation.
- Practice using idioms in your own speech, but be careful not to overuse them.
- Read books, articles, and other texts in English to see how idioms are used in writing.
- Use online resources, such as dictionaries and phrase books, to learn the meanings and usage of idioms.
Learning and using English idioms can help you to improve your fluency in the language, and can also make your speech and writing more interesting and engaging. It’s important to remember, however, that idioms are informal expressions, and may not be appropriate in certain situations, such as in formal writing or in a professional setting. And as always keep coming back to JustLearnEnglish.com as often as you can. Our mission is to help you reach your fluency goals and become a master of the English language! Which idiom is your favorite? Share on Instagram, or comment below. “Break a leg” on your English learning journey!