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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 hands on deck

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.  (negative connotation)

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.  



Count your blessings (positive connotation)


Meaning: be thankful for what you have; focus on what you have, not on what you don't have

Origin: The idea that we all have many blessings, good things, in life, and if we focus on those, and not our sorrows, we will be happier. This saying may come from Psalm 40:5 in the Bible: 


Lord my God,
    no one can compare with you.
You have done many wonderful things.
    You have planned to do these things for us.
There are too many of them
    for me to talk about.   New International Readers' Version   (Read in Chinese)


1. "Mom, I hate school," Mandy said. "Some of the teachers are mean and there's too much homework."  Mom replied: "Count your blessings: think of all the children in the world who can't go to school, and will probably never make anything out of their lives!"


2. "Count your blessings" is such a popular saying, it even inspired the popular hymn written in 1897 (read its story here) and its 2017 remix (story here).



(Don't) be a doormat.  (negative connotation)

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. 



In the pink (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be in excellent health, condition, or spirits

(English is a crazy language; Red and Pink are close in color, but "in the pink" is good while "in the red" is bad!)

Origin: unclear

1.Uncle Billy is almost 90, but when we saw him at Christmas, he was in the pink--in great health and with a super attitude!

2. Tom and Freeda have been in the pink since they retired and moved to Florida--they love the warm winters, sunshine, and beaches!






Light up like a Christmas tree

Meaning: 1. to be well-illuminated,  2. to be very happy, with a big smile

Origin: Christmas trees are well-lit; earlier with candles, now with lots of pretty electric lights

1. No one wanted to live near the huge Wal-mart parking lot, because it was lit up lit up like a Christmas tree every night of the year.

2. Felicia lit up like a Christmas tree when she got the acceptance letter from her dream college!







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.


Paint the town red (positive connotation)

Meaning: to celebrate in a big, joyful and noisy way

(English is a crazy language. "Paint the town red" is good but "red ink" and "seeing red" are bad.)

Origin: unclear

1. Greg and Maggie wanted to paint the town red the night when they learned he had gotten his promotion.

2. Richard's plan to paint the town red was cut short when he realized he had left his wallet and keys at home and had locked himself out.



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  (See also "Read between the lines")


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)  (positive connotation)

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, poor as a church mouse, etc.

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

2. Quiet as a mouse, Billy tried to sneak into the lecture hall at the back so the professor would not see that he was late again. 


 (It's) quite a sight  (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: something is beautiful or amazing to look at

Origin: a "sight" is an incredible view

1. The fall colors here in the mountains are quite a sight. (Note: this idiom is often used to descibe a view of nature or beauty.) 

2.  When teachers from other schools came to visit my school's cafeteria, all of them flooded into the front gate and the whole first floor was so crowded that not a single student could step in. It was quite a sight.  - Lucy in Beijing

3.  Ellie and her family went camping on a cold day in the Fall. They found a stunning view, a hill full of red maple trees. "It is quite a sight!" Ellie cried.  -- Felicia in Taipei




R and R  (positive connotation)

Meaning: Rest and Relaxation; to take a break from work and have some fun.

Origin: The US and UK militaries allow set times for "Rest and Relaxation" when soliders are allowed to leave their place of duty and go on a short vacation somewhere.

1. During the Korean War, many US servicemen went to Japan for R and R because Japan was close, at peace, and more developed than Korea.

2. "I've been working really hard so we're going to the beach for some much-needed R and R," Dad told his family. 


Rain Check  (positive connotation)

Meaning: a ticket that shows you can get into an event later, or get an item at a sale price if it is SOLD OUT now.

Origin: in the 1880s, baseball games gave rain checks to fans in case the game was rained out, so the fans could attend another game later.

1.Mom had a coupon for 50 cents off toothpaste, but when she got to the store, that item was sold out; so, she asked the store manager "May I have a rain check?"

2.  Arianna has been looking for a T Rex costume for weeks, so when the supermarket finally had a discount on it, she rushed to the counter but found out they were all sold out. So she smiled splendidly and asked: "Can I have a rain check please?"   - Lucy in Beijing.

3. Ellie just had her birthday yesterday. She received a ticket to go to a concert where her idol would perform on stage. She was ecstatic. However, when the day finally came, she was blocked from the stage. So she asked the staff to give her a rain check. That way, she can go to the concert the next day.  - Felicia in Taipei


Raining Cats and Dogs  (negative connotation)

Meaning: A heavy rain

Origin: uncertain

1. "It's raining cats and dogs out there," Ricky said as he came in, soaking wet.

2. "It's raining cats and dogs -- I just stepped in a poodle" is an old, corny joke, because "poodle" looks and sounds a bit like "puddle."

3. Billy did not want to take a shower; luckily, it was raining cats and dogs, so all he had to do was to step outside.  --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan 



Rain or Shine

Meaning: We plan to do something, or have an activity, no matter what the weather is; rain will not stop us (Note: this saying is usually to announce an activity that will be held, no matter what.)

Origin: Most weather conditions fall under two main categories: rain, or the sun is shining, so "rain or shine" covers all weather conditions 

1. The church picnic will be at 12:00 on Saturday, rain or shine

2. Billy wanted his outdoor birthday party to be held rain or shine, but because nobody wants a soggy birthday cake, he moved his party indoors.  --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan 



Raise an eyebrow  (Raise eyebrows)  (negative connotation)

Meaning: to say or do something that surprises other people

Origin: When people are surprised, they often show it through body language like raising an eyebrow 

1. Meredith raised a few eyebrows when she showed up at school with her hair dyed bright green.

2. The principal raised a few eyebrows when she said all the teachers had to stay after school to provide extra tutoring, but that they wouldn't get paid any extra for it. 


Raise Cain (Raising Cain)   (usually negative connotation, but it can be positive, in the sense of "having a good time.")

Meaning: to make lots of trouble or noise; to do bad things and get in trouble

Origin: This is another idiom from the Bible. According to the book of Genesis, the first people were Adam and Eve, and their first two sons were Cain and Abel. Cain got mad and killed his brother, so Cain was a big trouble-maker.

1. I'm going to raise Cain if our boss wants us to work again this weekend-- I'm getting tired of it!

2. We used to spend a lot of time driving around and raising Cain when we were teenagers, then we all got married and settled down.

3. Billy is the only person who can raise Cain and get away with it; he always blames the trouble making on his twin brother.  -- Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan



Rally 'Round the Flag  (aka Rally the Troops)  (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: to gather a family or group together to show strength and unity, especially in hard times; in politics, citizens usually become more patriotic and support their government more when there is a foreign threat or enemy

Origin: the first person known to say "rally 'round the flag" was General (and later President) Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 (which ironically was the biggest battle in the War of 1812--and fought several weeks after the war had officially ended!). Jackson is on the $20 bill today. (source)   A famous US Civil War song "The Battle Cry of Freedom" repeats this idiom over and over. It inspired the North to keep fighting defeat the South, preserve the Union, and end slavery. The part "down with the traitor" means "defeat the South" and the part "up with the star" means "keep the US flag up high."

1. Aunt Sally has been very sick this year, so we'll try to rally the troops to get the whole family to get together to see her this Christmas.

2. The surprise little 1982 Falklands War began when the leader of Argentina tried to use the "Rally 'Round the Flag" effect to stir up support at home by attacking the Falkland Islands, which he claimed as Argentinian. However, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher fought back and rewon the tiny islands. The "Rally 'Round the Flag" phenomenon worked for her, because she stayed in office until 1990!  Watch the video to learn more.



(The) Rat Race  (negative connotation)

(Language note: Chinese has only 1 word for "rat" and "mouse," (鼠 Shǔ) but in English, these two animals are different. Rats are big, ugly, and scary, while mice are smaller and some think they look cute. That is why Walt Disney created the famous cartoon character "Mickey Mouse" but NOT "Ronald Rat."

Meaning: This represents the busy, competitive life that many workers have on a daily basis: wake up early, rush to work, work hard, try to make lots of money, get ahead of your co-workers and the competition, go home late, fall asleep exhausted, and wake up the next day and repeat!

Origin: From rats in a laboratory experiment, racing through a maze to be the first to get the cheese.

1. After twenty years of the rat race as a well-paid New York City lawyer, Bill quit his practice and moved to Virginia to be an organic farmer.

2. Some say, "Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat." So, there is more to life than making money and beating the competition. It is important to be a nice person.

3. After those years, Ellie finally escaped the rat race; she retired.  --Felicia in Taipei, Taiwan



(Like) Rats Abandoning a Sinking Ship    (negative connotation)


Meaning: When an organization or place is in serious trouble, many of the people there will try to get out to escape

Origin: Old ships often have many rats aboard, so if the ship is sinking and filling with water, the rats will try to escape and swim away to safely

1. The school principal was more and more unpopular and unreasonable, so tons of teachers were leaving like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

2. We thought the new boss would improve our company, but it turns out he's a real jerk, so people are leaving like rats abandoning a sinking ship. I'm looking for a new job too. 

3. Billy's company was going bankrupt, so the employees are resigning like rats abandoning a sinking ship.   --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan 


Read Between the Lines  (See also "Put 2 and 2 together")

Meaning: To use your mind and context clues to infer a meaning or message that is not stated plainly in obvious language; to figure something out by putting clues together. Today this idiom can refer to something written, spoken, or just in life.

Origin: Some old secret messages included invisible ink or hidden messages written between the lines of a normal-looking letter. 

1. Molly didn't say she can't come home for Christmas, but she said she will be busy this winter, so reading between the lines I don't think we'll see her.

2. Margaret says she still likes Ben, but she's spending a lot of time with other guys lately--reading between the lines, I think they'll break up soon. 



Read (someone) the Riot Act  (negative connotation)

Meaning: to severely scold or warn someone

Origin: In 1714, the English government passed "the Riot Act," a law that made unlawful crowds break up and go away. However, a government official first had to read the act out loud, and then wait one hour, before the act could go into effect. So, the official literally had to "read the riot act" before taking action.  Here is part of it: “Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!”   The punishment for failure to obey? Death!  (source)

1. Mom read Billy the riot act when he brought home a report card full of Ds and Fs.

2. The judge read Carly the riot act when she had been caught speeding three times in three months; after a good scolding, he assigned her to a Driver Improvement Program (DIP) class and suspended her license for a month.

 3. The students have been behaving much better since the class monitor read the riot act last week.  --Lucy in Beijing

4. "Billy has been stepping over the line, it is time to read him the riot act," Billy's father said. --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan



(The) Real Deal (positive connotation; see also "Real McCoy")

Meaning: to be honest and true, the real thing, not fake

Origin: unknown, but many idioms are rhymes

1. The designer bag Emily bought in New York isn't a cheap fake, it's the real deal.

2.  In our shallow world, it's hard to find loyal friends, or more importantly, a loyal husband or wife. When you find someone who's the real deal, treasure that person!


(The) Real McCoy (positive connotation; see also "Real Deal")

Meaning: the real thing, not a substitute, fake copy or imposter

Origin: unclear, but many believe it comes from the black US-Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy; he invented a "lubricating cup" that automatically oiled train axles and wheels and had the name "McCoy" on it. Many people later tried to copy his invention, but since his was the best, buyers insisted on buying his invention, or "the real McCoy. (read more)

1. For years we had an artificial Christmas tree, but in recent years we've bought a live tree; a natural tree is the real McCoy, and it looks and smells so nice.

2. If you buy luxury items from a street vendor, it's easy to be tricked--fakes are always a lot cheaper than the real McCoy.


Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be distracted by meaningless details while disaster is striking; to ignore real danger by focusing on trivia

Origin: The famous ship Titanic sank in 1912, killing 1,503 people, including some of the world's richest. Obviously, as the Titanic was sinking, rearranging the chairs on the deck would help no one and actually be a waste of time.

1. Many of the teachers were deeply concerned that many of their students could barely read or write, so when the school system told them to spend more time on record-keeping and testing, instead of actual instruction, they felt like they were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

2. How often in life do we ignore crucial issues and instead get sidetracked by trivia, simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic instead of focusing on what is truly important?


(Give someone the) red carpet treatment. (positive connotation; see below)


Roll out the red carpet.  (positive connotation, see also "Give someone the red carpet treatment")

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. Several years ago I taught a student in Beijing who attended a school near Tienanmen Square. Once when the King of Jordan visited China, he and his classmates were brought out to wave Chinese and Jordanian flags and participate in the red carpet treatment as the President of China welcomed the king.

3. 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.)



Red Herring (negative connotation)

Meaning: Literal: a herring is a small fish that turns dark reddish or brown when salted and smoked; Symbolic: Something someone deliberately introduces to confuse or mislead others; something that distracts from the real issue, so people are fooled or confused; it often may have a kernel of truth, but its main goal is to trick and mislead others

Origin: Hunting dogs have excellent noses and can track animals; smoked herring (the plural has no -s, like "deer" or "sheep") have a strong odor, so if you drag a red herring across the ground, it can trick the dogs into following it so they lose the scent of the hunted animal or criminal

1. Good authors of mysteries fill their novels with red herring so the readers follow lots of rabbit trails and dead ends.

2. Magicians like to wave one hand to catch everyone's attention so they can do the real trick with the other hand. Someone said politicians and the media do that too: they use red herring so people focus on trivia or side issues instead of the really important matters. 



Red Ink  (In the Red) (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be in debt; to be out of money, broke; to spend more money than you take in   (In contrast, "in the black" means to be making money, so "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, is a day when most store owners hope to make a big profit and maybe be "in the black" for the first time that year.)

(English is a crazy language. Red and pink are close in color, but "in the red" and "see red" are bad while "in the pink" is good. Also "paint the town red" is good.)

Origin: Some clerks in western countries used red ink to show financial losses or debts; in contrast, black shows profits, so "In the Black" is good, because you are making money

1. shows the skyrocketing red ink for the US government, household debts, student debt, etc. The US government budget has been in the red for a long time. What a disgrace!

2. When I was in Taiwan and watched the stock reports on the TV news, I was surprised to see red ink showed stocks that went UP that day, and green showed stocks that went DOWN. In the US, it is the opposite! 



Red-Letter Day (positive connotation)

Meaning: a special day to celebrate and remember

Origin: As long as 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome, special days and holidays were printed in red on calendars. Even today, many calendars use red ink to denote a holiday.

1. May 8, 1945 was a red-letter day across most of the world when Nazi Germany surrendered, thus ending World War II in Europe. That date is called VE Day today, for Victory in Europe.

2. Reaching your 18th or 21st birthday is a red-letter day for most people--adulthood! 



Red Tape (negative connotation)

Meaning: lots of bureaucratic paperwork and requirements

Origin: Most believe this saying started with the King of Spain in the 1500s, who began using red tape or ribbon to mark and hold together important documents. 

1. When I taught in Taiwan, we had lots of red tape to deal with at the end of each school year-- the teachers got a sheet that required multiple people to sign off that the teacher had turned in grades, cleaned the classroom, etc. 

2. "Red Tape Holds Up Bridges" is an actual newspaper headline. Can you figure out its ironic double meaning?   (English is a crazy language! Even native speakers have trouble with it!)

3. There was a lot of red tape when I graduated from university, because I had to go to many different offices and get signatures before I could get my diploma.  -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China


(Don't) Reinvent the wheel (negative connotation)

Meaning: to "reinvent the wheel" means, go to a lot of work to make something that has been created before; to waste time and effort. Therefore, "Don't reinvent the wheel" means "save work and energy; use what has been made before, instead of working hard to duplicate what someone else has already done." This relates to: "work smarter, not harder."

Origin: The wheel is one of mankind's oldest and most useful inventions, so now that we have it, there is no need to invent it again.

1. At, we give each student a feedback sheet every nine weeks to show them their progress, and since we don't want to reinvent the wheel, we use the same basic form each quarter. 

2. Mr. Crawford introduced his history project this way to his students: "Class, if you just follow these five simple steps, and give us the information I am asking for, you will get an A on this project. There is no need to reinvent the wheel."


Riding Shotgun (positive connotation)

Meaning: to sit in the front passenger seat of a vehicle, next to the driver

Origin: In the Wild West days of stagecoaches, the driver held the horses' reins while someone sat next to him holding a shotgun. Travel over long distances in the Wild West was dangerous, with possible attacks from native Americans, bandits, or wild animals, so travelers usually were armed. 

(Cultural note: This is one of MANY gun-related idioms in English, because the free ownership of guns has played an important role in the freedom-loving history of English-speaking peoples. Other examples include: Don't jump the gun, fire away, pull the trigger, a shot across the bow, etc.)

1."I call shotgun," Benny called as the kids rushed toward the car.

2. When our kids were young and we took long road trips in our van, I usually drove, my wife rode shotgun, and the kids sat in the middle or back. Great memories!


(The) right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. (negative connotation)

Meaning: There is total confusion and no coordination, especially in an organization; no one knows what is going on

Origin: This is one of MANY idioms from the Bible. This is from Matthew 6:3-4. Ironically, this saying has a negative connotation today, but Jesus said it with a positive connotation.  When you do some good deed, do it privately so that God, and not other people, will praise you. 

1. This school is driving me crazy: the department chairman tells us to raise our academic standards, but the principal says "no students can fail here." We teachers can't do both of those same things!  The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing!

2. I just left a meeting where the marketing director said we have to start shipping our new product in three weeks, but the secretary heard from the packaging director that shipping starts tomorrow! No wonder everyone here has a headache: the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing! 



Right off the Bat (positive connotation)


Right out of the Box (aka Right out of the Gate) (usually positive connotation)



Right then and there (usually positive connotation)




Seeing red




(have a) tin ear





Wear out the welcome mat.  (negative connotation)

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."




You are in good company




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 12066 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 February 2019 13:24
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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