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Monday, 20 February 2017 19:47

English Idioms (Sayings)

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What are idioms?


At, we do not give our students long lists of vocabulary words and grammar points to memorize; there are more than enough "cram schools" doing that already. Instead, we want to teach "real English," the way English speakers, especially Americans, actually communicate in real life. And a big part of that is helping our students understand idioms (sayings). Idioms are non-literal sayings that communicate a point or truth. By "non-literal" I mean, the words have a symbolic, rather than a  "black-and-white," meaning. And this is what makes idioms so hard to understand, especially for learners of a new language, but also so interesting. Here is an example. A common English idiom is "It's raining cats and dogs." Obviously, this does NOT mean cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky during a storm. Instead, it has a symbolic meaning: that the rain is very heavy and severe. To my knowlege, all languages have idioms, and learning them is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of learning a foreign language. I like it because different languages have their own unique ways to express a truth or insight, that one's native language might not have. For example, today I was teaching a student the idiom "to peter out," which means "to gradually weaken and end." I told him Chinese has a saying with a similar meaning: (虎头蛇尾"Tiger Head Snake Tail." I love that imagery and metaphor! A tiger's head is ferocious and powerful, while a snake's tail gradually reduces to nothing. It's a powerful word-picture of a person or plan that starts with much noise and attention, but eventually peters out to nothing.


Why are idioms important to learn?

And not only is learning idioms fun, it is also important. Spend much time reading or listening to English, and you will encounter them. Just today I was listening to a podcast and heard one of the speakers say she was "worked up," and I thought to myself: idiom! If you only focus on the literal meaning--like cats and dogs falling during a rain storm--they will not make sense. But when you learn the idioms, you will understand what they mean when you see or hear them, and you can start using them in your English speech and writing too! Since idioms are so fun and so important, that is why I make them a priority and have been starting my online classes with an idiom lesson ever since I began teaching ESL online in 2008! I began with idioms starting with "A" and have been going through the alphabet ever since. One of my most loyal students, Ricky in Taiwan, looked back through his old notebooks and discovered that he joined my online class when I was back in the B's, teaching "by hook or by crook." Ricky has stayed with me for years, and now we are up in the O's. Today he learned "Old Wives' Tales." 


Where do idioms come from?

Since English is a global language with a long, rich history, it takes idioms from many different sources and time periods. Some idioms are thousands of years old (The Midas Touch) while others are recent (be on the same page), which has only been traced back to 1974.


  • The Bible: This ancient book has had an enormous impact on the English language and Western thinking. There are many examples of Bible verses and names that have become English sayings: (As old as the hills; Good Samaritan; David and Goliath; The blind leading the blind; Let he who is without sin cast the first stone).
  • Ancient Greece and Rome:   English takes many words from Greek and Latin, and we take many sayings from these ancient civilizations too: (Achilles' Heel; Trojan Horse; Rome wasn't built in a day; All Roads lead to Rome).
  • Farming: Up until the past 100 years or so, most English speakers around the world lived by farming, so many of our sayings come from that agricultural history. (Don't count your chickens before they hatch; Don't look a gift horse in the mouth; Hit the Hay).
  • Native American Indians:  Although a small percentage of the US population today, American Indians have had an enormous impact on American culture and the English language that lives on today.  (Bury the hatchet; Keep your ear to the ground; Low man on the totem pole).
  • Rhymes: Some sayings become popular because they rhyme and are thus easy to remember.  (Plain Jane; True Blue; Snug as a bug in a rug).
  • Alliteration: Many other idioms repeat the same vowel or consonant sounds, and are thus fun to say. (Chatty Cathy; Get your Goat; Footloose and Fancy-free).
  • Names: A few people have actually had their name become part of the English language: (the Real McCoy; Fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys). 


To help our students improve their English skills, I am starting this list of English idioms, in alphabetical order. Please come by often to see the new additions!


A big hit   (positive connotation)

Meaning: Something suddenly and wildly popular, often referring to a new show, movie, song, product, or service

Origin: "to hit" can mean to make a successful connection, as in "he hit the ball," so a big hit is a big success.

1. When the ice cream cone was invented over a hundred years ago, it was a big hit, and it still is today. (Learn more about the accidental creation of the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis here.) 

2. The oldest movies were all black and white, but the 1939 color films The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were such big hits, most movies since have been in full color. 


A house divided against itself cannot stand         (negative connotation)

Meaning: When a family, group, or country is deeply divided, it will not be able to last is headed for a collapse

Origin: This is one of many English sayings that comes from the Bible. This is a direct quotation found in three places in the Bible:  Matthew 12:22-28Mark 3:23-30, and Luke 11:14-23. (Read in Chinese.) (Note: when items are repeated in literature, it is considered to be important.)

1. Abraham Lincoln, running for US Senate in 1858 (two years before the start of the Civil War), quoted the Bible in his now-famous "House Divided" speech": "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'   I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

2. With one daughter going to the University of Virginia and another attending rival Virginia Tech, Bryan good-naturedly put a "House Divided" plate on his car. 


This blog post is UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Visit often to see what we have added new. For now, take a look at these idioms and see how many you already know! 

A Penny for your thoughts

An ADHD moment

A man's home is his castle

Ace up your sleeve

Achilles' Heel

Across the board

Add Fuel to the Fire

Air your dirty laundry in public


Afraid of your own shadow (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be very timid and easily scared

Origin: A shadow is dark but harmless. It cannot hurt anyone. So, to be afraid of your own shadow means to have no bravery.

1. Our dog is a terrible watchdog. She is such a coward, she is afraid of her own shadow.

2. Barnie would never want to hurt anyone. In fact, he is afraid of his own shadow. 


After the dust settles

Against the grain

Ahead of the curve / Behind the curve

Albatross around your neck

All ears

All hat and no cattle (Texas expression)

All talk and no action

All thumbs

All washed up

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

Amen Corner

Amen to that!

Ants in your pants

(It's like) apples and oranges

Apples to apples

Apple of your eye

As different as night and day

As the crow flies

Asleep at the switch

At the drop of a hat

At the end of your rope

(Not your) Average Joe

Ax to grind


Babe in the woods

Back in the saddle

Back to square one

Backseat driver

Bad blood

Baker's Dozen

Bait and switch (also in Chinese!)

Ballpark figure (in the ballpark)

Bark is worse than your bite

Bandwagon (Get on/ Fall off the bandwagon)

Bark up the wrong tree

 Batten down the hatches 


Be on the same page   (also) Be on the same wavelengthareweonthesamepage    (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be in agreement; to have the same goals or point of view

Origin: When a teacher and student are "on the same page," they know what is going on in the classroom. When you are on the right wavelength, FM, AM, or TV, you can pick up the correct station.

1. "Since our Science Fair project is due next week, we need to meet after school today to make sure we're all on the same page about who's doing what," Megan told her group-mates. 

2. Before a man and woman agree to get married, they need to be sure they're both on the same page about important issues that will eventually come up in their marriage, like doing household chores, managing money, raising children, etc. Good pre-marital counseling can help a couple talk through those issues before they become problems later. 

3. Billy and his brother are never on the same page; they argue all the time and eventually had to move away from each other.


Beat a dead horse

Beat around the Bush

Beat the crowd

Beat your swords into plowshares

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Bed of roses

Beef up

Been there, done that, (got the T-shirt)

Beggars can't be choosers

Behind closed doors

Behind the eight ball

Bells and whistles

Bet your bottom dollar  (Hear Frank Sinatra sing that in "Chicago")

Better half

Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't know

Between a rock and a hard place

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts


(on the) Big screen

Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Birds of a feather flock together

Birthday suit

Bite off more than you can chew

Burn the candle at both ends

Bite the bullet

Bite the dust (from the Bible)

Bite the hand that feeds you

Bite your tongue

Bitten by the bug

Bitter pill to swallow

Black sheep of the family

Bleeding heart

Bless your heart!  (chiefly Southern)

Blessing in disguise

Blind leading the blind (from the Bible)

Blood is thicker than water




Call somone on the carpet.

Meaning: to loudly scold, blame or criticize someone

Origin: In old factory days, workers stood on a hard floor and the only carpet was in the boss' office. And often, workers were called to the office just to be scolded or corrected, so to be "called on the carpet" means you're in trouble.

1. Chuck got called on the carpet when we was late to work three days in a row. 

2. No one likes to get called on the carpet, so a wise teacher (or parent or boss) knows that correction should normally be done in private, whenever possible, without others watching.  



Don't be a doormat.

Meaning: do not be so weak and accepting, that other people feel like they can treat you badly or meanly. 

Origin: If someone feels like they can be mean to you or take advantage of you, we say "You let that person walk all over you." And since a doormat is on the floor and people walk on it, we say, "Don't be a doormat."


1. Richard is so weak and spineless, he lets everyone at work walk all over him but he still does most of the work. He's got to stop being such a doormat.

2. It is important for a husband and wife to compromise and cooperate to make the marriage successful, but that does not mean that one member of the marriage treats the other like a doormat. Respect has to go both ways.

Here are some good quotatations about NOT "being a doormat."






For lots of uses of the word "get," check out our blog post. 









On Cloud Nine  (also)  On Top of the Worldoncloudnine        (positive connotation)

Meaning: To be very happy; ecstatic

Origin: In some cultures, nine is a lucky number, so Cloud Nine is very high. To be on top of the world is to be at the highest spot possible.

1. Hugo felt on Cloud Nine when his crush told him she liked him.

2. Billy was on Cloud Nine when he was the only student in school that day; everyone called in sick except for him, so the teachers treated him like a king.

 On Easy Street         (positive connotation)

Meaning: Life is good and easy; everything is going well

Origin: People's addresses are on a street, so if you live on Easy Street, you are in a great place!

(Language note: capitalize the "E" and "S," because they function as place names.)

1. Ben felt like he was on Easy Street after he got a promotion and a big raise.

2. With her new job, apartment, and boyfriend, Carla thought she was living on Easy Street...until her car broke down, leaving her with a $1,000 repair job. 


On pins and needles           (negative connotation)

Meaning: This refers to the uncomfortable, nerve-wracking time time spent waiting for important news to arrive or something big to happen.

Origin: Pins and needles have sharp points, so obviously sitting or standing on pins and needles would hurt and you would want to stop the pain! 

1. Dave had a job interview on Monday, and he's on pins and needles waiting to hear back if he got the position or not.

2. Billy was on pins and needles, waiting until the last second until the Nintendo Switch was released.


On the ball      (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be organized, knowledgeable, in control, and "on top of things"

Origin: in soccer and most sports, when the player is "on the ball," he or she is controlling the ball and doing well at the game.

1. Sandra was always on the ball, so we voted for her to be in charge of the class dance.

2. Joshua is always on the ball when it comes to management, so we chose him to be the secretary of the Huguenots Club.


On the hot seat  (sometimes "in the hot seat") (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be in trouble; to have people mad at you and asking lots of questions

Origin: The electric chair is a means of execution, so it is the actual "hot seat."

1. Frank was on the hot seat when he showed up to class without having done his part of the group project. 

2. Billy was on the hot seat after his brother found out that it was Billy who stole his pizza.

3. Joshua was in the hot seat after he poked someone's eye with a paper airplane.


Put all your eggs in one basket


Put on airs


Put (someone) behind bars


Put the brakes on


Put the hammer down


Put the pedal to the metal


 Put two and two together


 Put your best foot forward


Put your finger on something


Put your foot down


Put your John Hancock on it


Put your money where your mouth is


Put your shoulder to the wheel


Putting on the Ritz (positive connotation)

Meaning: to wear fancy, expensive clothes

Origin: The Ritz Hotel in London is a well-known symbol of weath and high-living. Songwriter Irving Berlin wrote the song "Puttin' on the Ritz" in 1927, (during the Roaring 20's), and a movie by this name featured dancer Fred Astair. Hear the song and see Astair in this video

1. If you attend the big gala Saturday night, you'll see lots of the wealthiest people in our city putting on the ritz

2. Everybody in our company is asked to put on the ritz in order to evince how powerful the company is, since other famous corporations like Tencent will also take part in the conference this year.




Quick on the draw  (aka. Quick on the Trigger, Quick on the uptake)

Meaning: be quick to make a decision, do something, or make a response

Origin: In the American "Wild West" of the 1800s, there was little or no legal system. The nearest judge and court might be 500 miles away. Many people had to rely on their gun skills to defend themselves or uphold justice. So, "to be quick on the draw" meant to be able to pull a gun out quickly and use it correctly in case of sudden danger or challenge. 

1. It's hard to play a joke on Uncle Bob; he's so quick on the draw, he can usually see it coming and think of a quick comeback.

2. Our math teacher is quick on the draw. Whenever we make a calculation mistake, she can almost always identify it right away.


Quiet as a mouse

Meaning:very quiet or still

Origin: Mice are small, quiet animals that secretly go about looking for food or hiding places. With cat, dogs, and owls about, a noisy mouse will quickly be a dead mouse! This is one of MANY animal similes in English, such as: sly as a fox, stubborn as a mule, wise as an owl.

1. Quiet as a mouse, Maggie tried to slip back into her house after curfew, but her mom caught her.






R and R


Rain Check


Raining Cats and Dogs


Rain of Shine


Raise an eyebrow


Raise Cain

(The) Rat Race



(Like) Rats Abandoning a Sinking Ship


Read Between the Lines


Read (someone) the Riot Act


(The) Real Deal


(The) Real McCoy



Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

(Give somone the) red carpet treatment.

Roll out the red carpet.

Meaning: to give a grand, showy welcome to a guest.

Origin: When a president or king visits a country, the hosting president often has a long, red carpet rolled out to show how much they respect and welcome their new guest. From this we also get the idiom, "Roll out the red carpet."


1. The King of Saudi Arabia gave President Trump the red carpet treatment when Trump visited the Middle East in 2017.

2. Our boss told us we will roll out the red carpet when the company president comes to visit from New York next month, to give him a good impression of our office. (Note: this is symbolic language. The boss will probably NOT have an actual red carpet, but will make fancy preparations to welcome the company president in order to make a good first impression.)






Wear out the welcome mat.

Meaning: to overstay one's welcome; to be a guest at the host's place too long, so as to become annoying

Origin:  The Welcome Mat represents a warm welcome, and to wear out something means to use it too long, so that it is no longer good. 

1. Looking at his watch, Uncle Fred said, "It's 9:00 already; we don't want to wear out the welcome mat, so we'd better be going. Thanks for dinner!"

2. The famous Benjamin Franklin warned against wearing out the welcome mat with his saying, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days."





Visit often to learn new idioms as I add them.

Do you want to learn more about the English language and life in the USA? Contact me now to find out how you can join one of our classes or come study in the US!


Read 9038 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 October 2018 13:12
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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