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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?

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, 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. Watch Scott teach the idiom "Roughing it" in this video. Please come by often to see the new additions!


This blog post is UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Visit often to see what we have added new.


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. (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 laughed and put a "House Divided" license plate on his car. 



A Penny for your thoughts (positive connotation)

Meaning: Please tell me what you are thinking; I'd love to know what you are thinking right now (Somewhat rare, old-fashioned saying)

Origin: it dates from 1535

1. When Debby noticed that Greg appeared lost in thought, she asked him, "A Penny for your Thoughts."

2. Frances noticed that Mike was smiling silently. "A Penny for your Thoughts" she asked him, to bring him back from his daydreams. 



An ADHD moment


A man's home is his castle



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Ace up your (my/his/her/our) sleeve (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: a secret tool, trick, resource, or method you have to be successful; other people do not know about it (yet)

Origin: Long ago, clothes did not have pockets so people kept things in their sleeves. Magicians often hide objects in their sleeves. This idiom comes from card games like poker. A person who is cheating might have an ace hidden in the sleeve of his shirt. The other players do not know it is there, and the cheater will bring it out at the right time to win the game.

1. Some people do not understand why Billy gets the best jobs in our office, but Billy has an ace up his sleeve: he is married to the boss' daughter!

2. If you want to improve your English skills, you can have a GREAT ace up your sleeve--join an online English class with! Learn real American English right at your home or office! Find out more here!



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. Teddy 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 premarital 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 someone 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.  



Consider the Source (negative connotation)

Meaning: When you hear or read something, think carefully who is saying it. (Note: this is often used to cast doubt on what dishonest people say)

Origin: A source is where something comes from, so when someone says or writes something, we should judge if the speaker is honest or not.

1. Billy says his dog ate his homework today, but consider the source: Billy has said that three times this week. His dog must love paper!

2. Ellen says that new restaurant has terrible food, but consider the source; Ellen is such a critical person, nothing is ever good enough for her. 



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 quotations about NOT "being a doormat."







Face the music (negative connotation)

Meaning: accept the unpleasant consequences of one's bad choices

Origin: unknown

1. On Monday the teacher announced there would be a test on Friday, but Billy played computer games and did not study. On Friday when Billy asked if he could take the test later, the teacher responded: "No, I announced the test five days ago; you'll have to face the music and see how you do." 

2. Many Americans are not saving enough money, so if they get sick or lose their job, they'll have to face the music and try to get along as well as they can. 


Culture Connection: In 1960 Frank Sinatra sang "Face the Music and Dance," a song written by the legendary Irving Berlin, a Jewish American who also wrote "God Bless America" and "White Christmas."  




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



Have a Field Day


(A) Hole in the wall




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 wealth 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 Astaire 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 show 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 1800's, 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 describe 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 military forces allow set times for "Rest and Relaxation" when soldiers 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 1880's, 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 D's and F's.

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 impostor

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 Tiananmen 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 (usually positive connotation)


Meaning: immediately; right away, without any delay; to take quick action

Origin: It probably comes from baseball; once a ball comes off the bat, the player has to start running toward first base right away.

1. The other teachers had warned the substitute teacher that Billy was a troublemaker, so when he started acting up in class, she sent him to the principal's office right off the bat.

2. We were happy to hear that Larry applied for a new job and got hired right off the bat! He starts Monday. 

3. When Billy saw the police coming, he ran away right off the bat; little did he know that policemen seldom arrest people who forget to turn in their homework in time. --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan


4. During my trip in Japan, all the adults went shopping right off the bat  when they heard there was a 40% discount, while we children chose to sleep in the hotel yawning all the time.

5. When I submitted my application, the university sent me an offer, right off the bat. -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China

6. Ellie ran away right off the bat after she heard a gun shot.  -- Felicia in Taipei, Taiwan



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

Meaning: Both mean "right away, from the very beginning," but with a small difference of usage (see below). 

Origin: "Right out of the box" comes from computers or software. You just open the box and can start using the item. So, you usually use this idiom to refer to a product, item or food you can start using right away.

"Right out of the gate" comes from horse racing. Horses are kept in stalls and, when the race starts, the gates are opened and all the horses rush out. So this idiom refers to an action starting right away (See "Right off the bat")

1. It's amazing how technology has grown so quickly. You can buy a computer and start using it right out of the box

2. "Honey, this lasagna is delicious." 

"Thanks, Ben, but it's right out of the box. I just put it in the microwave and it was ready in 20 minutes!" 

3. The Eagles started the basketball game strong right out of the gate. They scores 8 points in the first two minutes.

4. The meeting got off to a bad start right out of the gate, when the boss told the new employee to put her phone away and she got a bad attitude


Right then and there   (See also "right off the bat" and "right out of the gate") (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: immediately; on the spot; right away 

1. Billy was walking Claire to her locker and right then and there he asked her for a date. 

2. Glen strolled into PE class five minutes late and the teacher told him to do 25 push-ups right then and there.  


Ring a Bell (positive connotation)

(Note: This is usually used as a question: "Does that ring a bell?"  It can also be used in the negative: "That doesn't ring a bell.")

Meaning: to bring up something you can remember or recall

Origin: unknown

1. I met a guy this weekend named Doug; he says he went to elementary school with you. Does that ring a bell?

2. Pearl said someone named Hank used to work with me, but that doesn't ring a bell at all. 



Rise and Shine (positive connotation)

Meaning: to wake up in the morning with a great attitude

Origin: When the sun rises in the morning, it shines, thus warming and lighting everything

1. "Rise and shine" mom called at 6:30 on the first day of school.

2. "I'd better be getting to bed, so I can rise and shine bright and early in the morning--I have a big meeting at 8:00 tomorrow," Larry said.




(Don't) Rob Peter to pay Paul




(Don't) Rock the Boat ("rock the boat" negative connotation)

Meaning: "Rock the boat" means to upset people or the status quo (current situation). So, "don't rock the boat" means "do not upset people by bringing changes; keep things the way they are."

(Note: this idiom is usually used in the NEGATIVE: "Don't rock the boat.")

Origin: People should sit still in a small boat so the boat stays stable. If people move around in a boat they might rock the boat; that can make everyone feel uncomfortable, and the boat might even sink.

1. Mary comes late to most of our gatherings. Sometimes I'd like to speak with her about it, but I don't want to make her mad because she might stop coming completely. I don't want to rock the boat, so I guess I'll keep my mouth shut.

2. We have a bipolar boss: he's happy one moment and furious the next. I've thought about confronting him but all my friends warn me, "Don't rock the boat," so the problem continues. 


3. Billy wanted the school to rock the boat and get rid of the school cafeteria because their food was revolting. Surprisingly, the school agreed since the teachers all had the same thought.   --Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan

4. My classmates are sometimes loud in class, but every time I try to stop them, Claudia tells me "don't rock the boat" because nothing I say will make any difference.  -- Lucy in Beijing, China

"Don't Rock the Boat" was a big hit from 1974; take a listen.



Roll the Dice (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: to take a big risk or chance, with possible outcomes of a huge success or terrible failure.

Origin: This comes from gambling or playing board games, where you roll the dice and the result--and winning or losing--is seemingly up to pure chance 

(Language Note: "dice" is a plural noun, but the singular is "die.")  

1. Billy felt nervous asking the prettiest girl in class if she'd go to the school dance with him, but he decided to roll the dice and ask her anyway.

2. Ben didn't think he had much of a chance of getting the new job, but he chose to roll the dice and apply anyway. To his pleasant surprise, he got called in for an interview!




Roll out (a new product) (positive connotation)

Meaning: a business will introduce a new product or service to the marketplace

Origin: "to roll out" can mean to put out or deliver, (See "Roll out the red carpet")

1. Each spring, we at DreyerCoaching are DELIGHTED to roll out our new classes for the upcoming school year. Click here to find out more about how our classes work.

2. It's hard for most people during the hot summer to think about Christmas, but savvy business leaders are already planning how to roll out merchandise for the lucrative Christmas shopping season.





Roll with the Punches (positive connotation)

Meaning: to stay flexible when life gets hard or your circumstances turn bad

Origin: A punch is a hit, and in boxing when a person tries to hit you, you should try to roll away to avoid or reduce the force of the hit

1. Life has its unexpected twists and turns, so you have to learn to roll with the punches and keep going

2. One of the most valuable skills in life is to know how to stay flexible and roll with the punches when things don't go your way.

3. Ellie's life never knocks her down since she always rolls with the punches. -- Felicia in Taipei, Taiwan

4. I was very frustrated with my recent physics quiz, but mom told me I should learn to roll with the punches. -- Lucy in Beijing, China

5. In the process of growing up, I learned how to roll with the punches. -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China


English is a crazy language! What does this picture mean?





(A) Rolling Stone gathers no Moss



Rome wasn't build in a Day (positive connotation)

Meaning: it takes a lot of time and effort to make something great and valuable; be patient and keep waiting for and working for success.

Origin: The City of Rome, the capital of the great Roman Empire, was the leader of much of the world for hundreds of years. It has many beautiful buildings and roads that took lots of time, money, and work to build.

1. It is easy for students to get tired and discouraged, as they face all the homework, tests, and grades. However, it is important to remember: Rome wasn't build in a day!  Be encouraged and keep on going!

2. Learning a foreign language is a long-term process, but Rome wasn't built in a day! And can help you!




(See the world through) Rose-colored Glasses  (negative connotation)

Meaning: Having an overly-optimistic and unrealistic view of people, situations, or the world; not being able to recognize dangers, flaws, or painful truths

Origin: glasses affect how you see things. Good glasses should give you clear vision. However, if you look at life or people through glasses that have pink or rose-colored lenses, everything looks pretty and you cannot see dangers or life as it really is

1. Being positive and optimistic is an important part of a happy life; however, if you go too far, you might look at the world through rose-colored glasses and miss dangers or warning signs.

2. Molly thinks everybody is a good person. Since she looks at everything through rose-colored glasses, I'm afraid she will get really hurt some day. 

3. Ellie finally took off her rose-colored glasses after her best friend betrayed her.  -- Felicia in Taipei, Taiwan

4. A lot of young prople look at their idols though rose-colored glasses; they think their idols are the most perfect people in the world.  -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China

5. Ever since Ivy felt in love with Thomas, she has looked at things through rose-colored glasses, and does not listen to others who tell her that he is not a good person.  -- Lucy in Beijing, China




(One) Rotten Apple spoils the Barrel (negative connotation)

Meaning: one person who behaves badly and breaks the rules messes things up for everyone else; a single bad influence can ruin what would otherwise remain good; avoid negative, "rotten" people

Origin: If you have a barrel of good apples but one is rotten, the rot can gradually spread to the others

1. We used to be able to go anywhere in school during noon break until a couple of kids went to the bathroom and got in a water fight, so now we all have to stay in our classroom during break time. It's not fair, but our teacher told us, "one rotten apple spoils the barrel."

2. Most people are honest with their medications, but a few take too many and get addicted, so now the laws are stricter and it's harder for everyone to get pain killers. Marie is mad about that, because it's harder for her now to get the medications she needs for pain managment. One rotten apple spoils the barrel.



Roughing it (usually negative connotation, but it is often used jokingly)

Meaning: to live without modern conveniences of home, like electricity, a soft bed, and running water

Origin: "rough" means "not smooth," as in "He had a rough beard after not shaving for two days." So, "roughing it" is living without smooth comforts of home

1. Lots of people enjoy camping because they like the change of pace of roughing it for a day or two.

2. After the huge 2012 windstorm knocked out power for milions for days or even weeks, I think my parents actually enjoyed roughing it for about a week without electricity or running water. Dad carried water up from the lake and boilied it on his gas grill and shaved outside on his deck--they cooked canned food the same way. Pretty amazing, especially considering mom and dad were in their 80's!


Historical Note: Roughing It was also a famous book by American author Mark Twain.



Watch Scott teach this idiom to his advanced students here.



(A) Round Peg in a Square Hole (negative connotation)

(Language note: this idiom can be reversed to: "A square peg in a round hole.")

Meaning: a person feels like they never completely belong or fit in; feeling like an outsider or you don't belong or "fit in" with any group; being a "misfit."

Origin: a common children's game lets kids put pegs in the right holes. However, a square peg will never quite fit in a round hole, or vice versa.

1. Most schools reward kids who can sit still, listen to their teachers, and do well with book work. However, kids who are physically active or like to learn by doing will often feel like a round peg in a square hole. (Such children might feel like this.)

2. The term "third-culture kids" refers to children whose parents are from one culture, but they grow up in a second culture, and become a blend of the two. An advantage for these young people is they can get along with many different kinds of people, yet a disadvantage is they can feel like a square peg in a round hole, never really fitting in anywhere. 

3. The 1964 hit Christmas movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer shows an island of misfit toys. Those toys surely felt like a square peg in a round hole.

4. Being the only adult in the elementary school classroom, Billy felt like a round peg in a square hole standing in front of the classroom.  -- Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan

5. Carl is the only boy in the class who is not interested in either sports or super heros, so he feels like a round peg in a square hole when other boys are talking about Avengers: The Endgame these days. -- Lucy in Beijing, China 

6. The only foreigner in our school feels like a round peg in a square hole. -- Thomas in Hsinchu, Taiwan



 What is the message of this cartoon? Who does the boy represent? What does the square cube represent? What does the hand holding the cube represent? Do you agree or disagree with this cartoon's message? Why?:





Rub Elbows (Shoulders) with someone (positive connotation)

Meaning: to often be close to other people, especially important, well-known people

Origin: When you are physically close to someone, your elbows or shoulders might actually touch

1. Some parents encourage their children to get part-time jobs at a country club because they want their kids to rub elbows with wealthy, well-educated, well-connected people in their town.

2. Since John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush were both sons of presidents, they grew up rubbing shoulders with important people--that surely helped them both become presidents themselves. 


3.Ellie still cannot believe that she rubbed elbows with her idol.  -- Felicia in Taipei, Taiwan


4.  I believe that growing up rubbing shoulders with my father is the luckiest thing for me.  -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China



Rub (someone) the wrong way (negative connotation)

Meaning: to irritate, annoy, or anger someone (Note: this usually refers to a person whose speech, behavior or policy annoys or irritates you)

Origin: cats and dogs have fur (hair) that runs one way, from the head toward the tail. When you pet an animal in the direction of their fur, it feels good, but if you rub your hand the wrong way, from the tail to the head, it bothers the animal and makes them uncomfortable. A cat might even bite you to get you to stop!

1. If someone's posts on facebook always rub you the wrong way, it might be time to unfollow or even unfriend that person.

2. President Trump rubs a lot of people the wrong way, yet millions of others still love him. 




(Where the) Rubber meets the Road (usually positive connotation)

Meaning: to get serious; where an idea or theory is actually put to the test and used; to see if a theoretical idea will actually work or not

Origin: A car or truck is large and heavy, but it only touches the road in four small spots: where the bottom of the rubber tire actually touches the pavement. Good tires will keep a car or truck on the road, but bad tires can cause a vehicle to skid and crash. (Life lesson: be sure you have good, high-quality tires on your vehicles!)

1. Good parents try their best to raise their kids to be mature, responsible adults, but the rubber meets the road when the kids move out on their own and start making all their own choices.

2. For awhile I had the idea to see if I could live in the US but teach English over the internet to students in other countries.  On October 22, 2008 we let the rubber meet the road when we launched our first online ESL class to students in Hsinchu, Taiwan! 

3. With the teacher’s help, Bob was able to solve all the math problems. However, when the rubber met the road, he didn’t know how to solve the problems and failed the test.  --Thomas in Hsinchu, Taiwan

4. The rubber met the road when Billy decided to use real lemons in his lemonade; in a world where everything is made in factories, Billy has to spend a lot of money on lemons. -- Ricky in Hsinchu, Taiwan


5. Two years ago, I'd never thought about studying abroad, but one year ago I let the rubber meet the road and now I've been admitted to Boston University.  -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China

6. My classmates and I have been preparing for the school festival for three whole weeks; next Tuesday, when the festival will be held, is where the rubber meets the road.  -- Lucy in Beijing, China



Rule of Thumb (positive connotation)

Meaning: a general principle or guideline that is useful in many or most cases, but it is NOT a set law that should be applied 100% of the time; an idea or principle that comes from practical usage, not a strict law

Origin: unknown, but many believe it comes from a man's thumb being about 1 inch long from the tip to the first joint, so without a ruler, you can roughly measure a distance

1. When I was at William and Mary, some professors said a good rule of thumb is study and do homework about three hours for each hour of class time. Here's why: most high school students are busy in classes for about 35 or more hours a week, so when they go to college and only have some  12-15 hours of classes, many think they have lots of "free time" and go crazy with it. However, college workloads are heavy, so a big part of success or failure depends on how wisely they use their time OUT of class.

2. If you want to learn a foreign language, a good rule of thumb is: review what you have learned and spend some time with the new language every day.

3. Everyone should have a rule of thumb to control their screen time every day. -- Thomas in Hsinchu, Taiwan

4. If you want to learn more things in school, you need to follow a rule of thumb: to get on well with your teachers. -- John in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China

5. A helpful rule of thumb for Eillie is, to remember to take her earphones every day, since her TOFEL test will be in two weeks and she can practice her listening while in the car.  -- Lucy in Beijing, China



Run Circles Around Someone (can be a positive or negative connotation, depending on which person you are)

Meaning: to be full of energy, power and skill, so you can seriously overpower and defeat your enemy or competitor

Origin: one person has so much energy and power, he or she can literally run circles around the slower person, who can barely move. Think of a race or basketball game, where one person can run circles around another person yet still win.

1. Most puppies are so full of energy, they can run circles around their owners.

2. Our old lawn care guy was getting lazy, so we hired a teenager who runs circles around the man who used to mow our grass. the new guy can do in two hours what it took the previous man three hours to do.

3. We hope our students learn English so well, they can run circles around their competitors some day!

What does this saying mean?




Run off at the Mouth (negative connotation-- an insult)

Meaning: to talk too much or too loudly, often in a boastful or bragging way

Origin: "to run" can mean to use or to operate, like "to run a chainsaw," so this saying means to use your mouth too much

1. Gossips have a hard time keeping a secret, so if you want to keep something confidential, don't tell someone who often runs off at the mouth.

2. We could have kept our plan a secret if Tom hadn't run off at the mouth and told everyone.


What does this quotation from Russian writer Checkov mean? (Can you identify the second idiom in his quotation?)






Safe and Sound (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be totally safe 

Origin: Many English idioms use alliteration, the repetition of a sound. (In this idiom, "sound" is an adjective meaning "safe, solid, secure.")

1. Parents like it when their kids call home now and then, telling mom and dad they are safe and sound.

2. After a ten-hour drive to the beach, it was good to arrive at the motel safe and sound.


Learn 3 meanings of the word "Sound" and watch Scott explain the idiom "Safe and Sound" here.


Salt of the Earth (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be a valuable, respected, responsible member of society; a person in the community everyone respects and looks up to

Origin: This, like many idioms, comes straight from the Bible. Jesus told His disciples (followers): “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  (Matthew 5:13, New International Version)

Traditional Chinese: “你們是地上的鹽;如果鹽失了味,怎能使它再鹹呢?結果毫無用處,唯有丟在外面任人踐踏。 -- 马太福音 5:13

Simplified Chinese: “你们是地上的盐;如果盐失了味,怎能使它再咸呢?结果毫无用处,唯有丢在外面任人践踏。-- 马太福音 5:13

(See also "Worth your salt" below.)

1. My parents are real salt of the earth types: They have been married since 1951, raised four children, and are active in their church and community.

2. We love our neighborhood: most of the residents are responsible, salt of the earth people.


Save for a Rainy Day (positive connotation)

Meaning: be responsible and save money during times of abundance, so you have extra money during hard times. 

Origin: "a rainy day" is dark and cloudy, so it means a time of hardship and difficulty.

1. "Always save a little bit for a rainy day," grandma used to tell us.

2. Dave Ramsey is a talk radio guru who gives financial advice to millions. His "Baby Step One" is to save for a rainy day by having at least US$1,000 available at all times. (Read Ramsey's Seven Baby Steps here.) 


Saved by the Bell (positive connotation)

Meaning: to be saved from trouble at the last-minute by a sudden, outside source

Origin: In boxing matches, a bell rang to end each period. If a boxer were weak and in trouble, the ring of a bell marked a well-needed rest. (source)

1. Mr. Flanagan asked Megan what year the US Civil War began, but she didn't know because she had forgotten to do her homework. Then the bell rang, ending class. Megan was saved by the bell -- literally!

2. Things were getting hot in the meeting when no one had the information the boss wanted...until his secretary walked in with all the necessary files, and he calmed down. We were all saved by the bell. 


Say Grace (aka "Say the Blessing") (positive connotation)

Meaning: to say a prayer of thankfulness before eating a meal

Origin: "Grace" can mean an undeserved gift from God, and in the Bible Jesus and Paul both paused to say a prayer of thankfulness before eating a meal (source)

1. We always ask Gramps to say grace before our Thanksgiving meal.

2. Brent is a wise guy: whenever we ask, "Who will say grace?" he shouts out "Grace!" and everyone laughs.


Norman Rockwell was a famous American artist whose painting "Saying Grace" was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for Thanksgiving 1951. In 2013 it broke a record by selling at auction for over $46 million! Learn more here.



Say a mouthful (positive connotation)

Meaning: 1. to say something very meaningful or deep, or 2. to say something that is long and hard to pronounce; to speak for a long time

Origin: saying something meaningful or difficult to pronounce requires good mouth skills. This phrase was first recorded in 1790. (source)

1. The pastor said a mouthful when he told his congregation that he has struggles in his daily life too.

2. If you can say the German word for Bundesgesundheitsministeriumundesgesundheitsministerium -- The Federal Ministry of Health-- you can say a mouthful



Say "when"  (positive connotation)

Meaning: When someone is offering you food or drink, they often tell you "Say when," so you will tell them when you have enough and they should stop serving you more. In this case, you can respond by saying "when," or just "OK" or "That's enough."

Origin: It is probably a short version of "Say when to stop." (source)

1. As the waiter started to grate cheese onto our salad, he said "say when."

2. "Say when" grandma told us when she began to pour tea into each person's cup.


(as) Scarce as Hen's Teeth (aka "as rare as hen's teeth) (negative connotation)

Meaning: very rare or hard to find; non-existent

Origin: since hens (female chickens) do not have teeth, hen's teeth are impossible to find

1. When I lived in Taiwan during the 1990s, buying train tickets with reserved seats around Chinese New Year was as scarce as hen's teeth.

2. Finding white Americans who can speak Chinese are as scarce as hen's teeth, but Dennis Woodson and Scott Dreyer are exceptions.



Scot Free  (aka scot-free, go scot free, get off scot-free) (usually positive connotation, but it can be negative to show displeasure at a guilty person getting off without any punishment)

Meaning: totally free, without cost or price

Origin: The Scandinavian word "skat" means "tax" (source), and over time "skat" changed to "scot." 

1. Two boys caught fighting were sent to the principal, but when he realized they were stars on the school's football team, he just gave them a warning and let them go scot-free

2. Did you know most of the content on that Scott Dreyer puts there is scot free



Scrape the Bottom of the Barrel (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be desperate and take whatever you can find, even if it is of bad quality, because there are no other good options left

Origin: this comes from long ago before refrigeration or canning, when many food items were stored in wooden barrels. When you first open the barrel, you get the newer, fresher product off the top. However, when you get to the bottom of the barrel, you have to scrape what is left off the bottom, and that is usually older product of poor quality 

1. Our boss has a hard time attracting and keeping good talent, so he often has to scrape the bottom of the barrel just to fill positions at his company.

2. As the radio host introduced his guest, the guest humbly joked, "I guess you had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to include me on your show today."



(Barely) Scratch the Surface (negative)

Meaning: to treat or study a subject in a superficial way; to leave most of a topic untouched

Origin: On any item, the surface is the thin outer layer, so to barely scratch the surface, most of the item is left untouched or unexamined

1. A common criticism of many school systems is that classes go too fast in order to "cover the material." If a history teacher only has two or three days for World War II, the students can barely scratch the surface of that conflict. 

2. Charlie has so many emotional problems, during his first session with a counselor he was barely able to scratch the surface of what is bothering him, but at least he's getting help.



Scream Bloody Murder (negative connotation)

Meaning: 1. to scream in a loud, hysteric voice (literal), 2. to complain loudly (figurative)

Origin: if a person were trying to murder you, or you saw someone trying to commit murder, you would probably scream at the top of your lungs!

1. Bethany screamed bloody murder when Owen tried to take her teddy bear away.

2. The French people screamed bloody murder in 2019 when their government tried to raise their already high gas taxes--that sparked the "yellow vest" protest movement.



Seal the Deal (positive connotation)

Meaning: to reach a final agreement; a final decision is made or piece of evidence is given, that causes both parties to reach a firm agreement

Origin: Many origins include a rhyme, and "to seal" can mean to close or finalize, and "a deal" can mean an agreement.

1. When the interviewer promised Jim a 10% raise and three weeks' vacation each year, that sealed the deal and Jim took the new job in Texas.

2. Many families are wary of putting their child in online English classes, but when they realized offers professional teachers who are all native speakers of American English, that seals the deal and they sign up.



See Eye to Eye (Positive connotation)

Meaning: to be in total agreement. (see: "Be on the same page" or "Be on the same wavelength")

Origin: This saying is ancient, coming from the Old Testament of the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, written about 700 B.C. Read Isaiah 52:8 in English and Chinese. (source)

1. Dave Ramsey says, "It's important for a husband and wife to see eye to eye on finances.

2. My old boss and I never saw eye to eye, so I finally had to leave and get a new job.



Seeing red (negative connotation)

Meaning: to be very angry

Origin: This is one of many color idioms. Red is often associated with anger, like a bull charging a red cape, and some people claim in times of intense anger they have actually seen red flashes across their eyes.

1. Megan was seeing red when she found out her boyfriend had been texting lots of other girls.

2. Dad was seeing red when he told Billy three times he had to clean his room, but Billy kept refusing.



Sell like Hotcakes  (Going like Hotcakes) (positive connotation)

Meaning: an item is selling very quickly because it is so popular; an item that is easy to sell

Origin: "Hotcakes" is another word for pancakes. Pancakes are cooked in oil and taste best when fresh, right when taken off the griddle. They were popular at early American fairs and church socials, so they went quickly. (source)

1. When gas prices are high, economical cars sell like hotcakes.

2. Chick-fil-A's popular peach shakes go like hotcakes during the summer.



Senior Moment (negative connotation, though it is often used jokingly)

Meaning: to be forgetful or get mentally confused

Origin: The word "sen" means "old," as in "senior" or "senator." A "senior" may be a 4th year student in high school, college, or an older adult, usually around age 60 or over. Since older people can sometimes lose their mental sharpness, a "senior moment" is when a senior citizen gets confused momentarily.

1. Mom laughs that she is having a senior moment each time she wants to call my name, but she goes through all the names of my brothers and sisters before she gets to my name.

2. Dad complained that he was having a senior moment when he forgot where he had placed his keys.



Set your (my/his/her) Teeth on Edge (negative connotation)

Meaning: To cause annoyance or discomfort, usually a sound, flavor, or idea

Origin: This is one of the many idioms that comes from the Bible. Ezekiel 18:2 and Jeremiah 31:29.

1. Some social media posts really set my teeth on edge, so I may just "unfollow" those people.

2. Screaming children in a restaurant set my teeth on edge



Shake a Leg (negative connotation) 

Meaning: a command to hurry up

Origin: If a person is sitting still, they must move (shake) their legs to get moving

1. "Shake a leg, your ride will be here any minute" mom told Billy.

2. "Please take this note to the office; shake a leg" Mrs. Holt told Claire.



Shape Up or Ship Out (negative connotation)

Meaning: A command to improve your job performance, or else you should leave or maybe get fired

Origin: This is one of the many idioms with alliteration, repeated sounds. "Shape up" means get in good shape or improve your condition. "Ship out" means to leave or go away.

1. The boss was unhappy that his new salesman was not making any sales, so he told him "shape up or ship out."

2. The dean did not use the exact words "shape up or ship out," but she told Charles that if his grades did not improve, he could not come back to college the next semester.



Sharp as a Tack (positive connotation)

Meaning: very smart and intelligent      74952585 10220718338126277 1375258101661302784 n

Origin: "sharp" has two meanings: 1. able to cut easily, like a knife (literal), 2. very smart (figurative). Many idioms are this kind of literary device called a simile. They compare two things using the words "like" or "as." This will help you remember it: "simile" and "as" both have the letter S.

1. Aunt Diane commented that little Sarah is sharp as a tack.

2. At, we are delighted to see so many of our students are as sharp as a tack, and with guidance from college-educated, native speaker teachers, we love seeing their great growth.


"Real English" Just moments after I added this idiom to this blog page, a high school friend of mine, a nurse, put this on her social media post:

It was a rough three days at work! I had over 14,000 steps each day! But today, I had a special moment that makes it all worthwhile. I met a 101 year old who is turning 102 tomorrow! Sharp as a tack! So I made this individual a bday card from our dept and gave them a pack of gum!


At, we don't give you vocabulary lists or grammar rules to memorize: we teach you REAL ENGLISH that REAL PEOPLE use every day. 



Shed Light on something


(The) Shoe is on the Other Foot



Spic and Span


(A) Square peg in a round hole  (See: "A Round peg in a square hole")





(have a) tin ear





Wear out the welcome mat.   (aka: Wear out your welcome)  (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."


Worth your (his/her/their) salt (positive connotation)

Meaning: a person is of great value to his or her company or community; a person who makes great, valuable contributions to the group

Origin: In ancient times, before refigeration, salt was of great value because it could keep food from rotting. The Latin word for "salt" is sal, which we see in "salary," as some Roman soldiers were paid their salaries, not with money, but with salt. 

So, "to be worth your salt" means you worked hard and deserved your salary. (See also "Salt of the earth" above)

1. I think the boss made a good decision to hire the new secretary; she's hard working and effective, really worth her salt.

2. Whenever you are hired at a job, make sure you are worth your salt: show up early, have a great attitude, and add value to your organization.





You're 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 23546 times Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2020 17:22
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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