We won’t beat around the bush on this one. Idioms are fun. Native English speakers have been using idioms to express themselves for a long time. While there are probably some idioms that are unknown to you, it’s almost a certainty that you know and use several of them in everyday language. This article will give examples of idioms, as well the meanings behind both the more common idioms and some that are less well known.
What is an Idiom?
Idioms are phrases or sayings that don’t really have much to do with the literal words contained within those phrases. The first sentence of this article is an idiom, so we’ll use it as an example. “Don’t beat around the bush” is the commonly known idiom here. It doesn’t literally mean that we refuse to take a stick or other weapon and beat our way around a shrubbery. It means that we plan to forge ahead and get right to the matter. We won’t dilly dally with the task at hand. We’re getting right down to business.
Idioms are sayings and phrases. They are not proverbs because proverbs are sayings that are direct and speak a general truth. An example of a proverb is, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” It’s a fun little saying, but it’s a proverb because it’s true.
A good night’s sleep can make you healthier, more focused and able to conduct better business, and more open to learning. Although it’s also a catchy saying, the difference is that it makes sense in a literal way, and even those who are not native English speakers would be able to understand its message.
The following are some common idioms, along with some sentence examples and how they are used in speech. As you read, pay attention to the ones that you use most often and any that you’d never heard before. Maybe there is even an idiom or two that you thought you knew the meaning of, and you were wrong. Have you been using idioms correctly?
Every Once In a Blue Moon Meaning
We’ve all heard this one “Every once in a blue moon”. The meaning behind this idiom is that something happens very rarely. An example would be:
Elliot tells his coworkers that he’s going to the casino to do a little gambling after he gets off work. He hopes to try his luck at the poker table with a few of his buddies. A coworker who has never gambled for money is curious and asks Elliot if he ever wins anything when he goes to the casino. Elliot responds with, “Oh, every once in a blue moon. I go mostly for the fun of it.”
What Elliot is saying in the above example with the use of the idiom is that he wins very rarely. Blue moons are a phenomenon that is a rare occurrence in nature. Therefore we use this saying to describe something that very rarely happens.
Kill Two Birds with One Stone Meaning
This one is very common. It means that you are able to complete two tasks in one fell swoop or at the same time. An example of when this idiom would be used is:
Edgar has to go to work on Saturday morning to pick up some paperwork he left there the night before. While he’s there, he takes an hour to himself while the office is quiet to finish up the project he’s been stressed over. His wife, Debbie, calls him as he’s getting ready to leave and asks what’s taken him so long. He responds, “I was alone here at work and had to get the papers I left here. Thought I’d go ahead and kill two birds with one stone and finish up that big project I was telling you about, too.”
Most people have heard this one, but if you haven’t, don’t worry. Edgar isn’t really going to throw one rock and murder a couple of birds with it. What he means is that while he’s already in the process of doing something productive, he may as well continue and get something else done in tandem. It means getting two things done at the same time.
Wild Goose Chase Meaning
Another of the more common English idioms, this one means that you’ve been led on a pointless adventure that expended more energy than it was worth. Consider the following example:
Lisa asked her husband if he needed anything from the supermarket before she headed home from work. He told her that the baby’s pacifier had gone missing and that they needed a new one. The problem was that the baby was very particular about her pacifier and would only use a specific color and brand.
Lisa then visited four different stores in the area, trying to find the exact pacifier the baby wanted. When she came home, exhausted, hungry, and stressed, she saw that the baby was sleeping soundly, with her pacifier already in her mouth. “What happened?! I thought she lost her pacifier?” Lisa’s husband then informs her that just minutes after he hung up the phone, he found the missing pacifier but had then misplaced his phone and couldn’t call her to tell her. “So I went on a wild goose chase over nothing? Great…”
Lisa wasn’t really out chasing a goose all over town. However, anyone who has any experience with large waterfowl can tell you that approaching geese or ducks results in quite the discombobulated and stressful event. Hence, the idiom was created.
An Arm and a Leg Meaning
This is one of the many idiomatic expressions that can really confuse someone unfamiliar with the sayings that exist in the English language. It sounds violent and awful, but what it really means is that the cost of something is extravagantly high. The following is an example:
Billy and Beverly are looking in the shop window downtown. A brand new bike has just been put in the display window. It’s beautiful, and it looks like the fastest bicycle in existence. Billy has just started a paper route, so Beverly turns to him and asks, “Are you going to save up your money from your paper route job to buy that amazing bike?” Billy sees the price display hanging from the handlebars of the bike and responds, “No way! That thing costs an arm and a leg!”
Billy doesn’t really think that the cost of the bike in the shop window is two of his limbs. That’s ridiculous. Instead, what he means is that the cost is far too high for him to realistically consider purchasing. However, having to pay for something by giving up two limbs is a very high cost, one that is seldom worth it. Therefore, we have the idiom to express such a high fee.
Learning Idioms and Common Expressions
The following are some common sayings and idioms, as well as their meanings. Most of us use at least some of these in everyday English. Each phrase does a good job of getting a message across but is not literal.
- In the same boat
- Meaning: Two or more persons are in the same predicament, often unpleasant.
- Back to the drawing board
- Meaning: Having to start over and develop a new plan because an earlier one was unsuccessful. A fresh start.
- Throw caution to the wind
- Meaning: Let your guard down; do something you’d generally be nervous or afraid to do.
- Enough to make one’s blood boil
- Meaning: Something that makes a person extremely angry; rage-inducing.
- That’s the pot calling the kettle black
- Meaning: Someone is being a hypocrite. The person speaking is being referred to in this idiom as the “kettle black,” accusing the “pot” or the person they are dealing with of being a hypocrite for insulting or condemning them for something they do as well or are guilty of as well.
- Barking up the wrong tree
- Meaning: The wrong solution; not the right course of action to solve a problem or issue.
- It’s raining cats and dogs
- Meaning: It’s raining heavily, a torrential downpour.
- Cat on a hot tin roof
- Meaning: Someone is in an uncomfortable situation, being very nervous about a predicament.
- Over my dead body
- Meaning: A person will stop at nothing to stop something from happening.
- On thin ice
- Meaning: Someone is about to be in a lot of trouble, one occurrence away from big trouble.
- Straight from the horse’s mouth
- Meaning: Information given by a person involved in a particular situation.
- In cold blood
- Meaning: Without remorse; intentionally cruel.
- The greatest thing since sliced bread
- Meaning: Innovative and convenient.
- A chip off the old block
- Meaning: Someone is just like their mentor or parent.
- Ace up one’s sleeve
- Meaning: One trick left to try. A secret or hidden advantage someone has left to try.
- Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
- Meaning: To end what helps you profit just to get some immediate profit that won’t sustain you.
- Fallen on a deaf ear
- Meaning: Something was said and promptly ignored. When you’re speaking about more than one person, the idiom goes, “Fallen on deaf ears.”
There are so many idioms that it’s nearly impossible to name them all. Because they are so common, idioms are often taught to immigrants and people whose first language is not English to help them feel as though they fit into the culture and the language. EF Education includes entire lessons on the usage of idioms and gives tips on how to use them regularly to sound more “native” to the United States.
Idioms can be difficult for people who are new to English because the individual words mean something altogether different from the context of the sentence an idiom is used in. Also, if you don’t put the words in the correct sequence, you make no sense at all. English idioms are often difficult for those who have not grown up saying them to master.
If you reflect and attempt to think of a time in which you heard an idiom for the first time, you may be able to understand just how confusing they can be. Most English-speaking people learn idioms at the knee of their grandparents or elder relatives and peers and then figure out how they’re used by putting them into practice. We rarely stop to think about how the saying came to be or exactly what it means.
What Does Right as Rain Mean?
The idiom “right as rain” means a person is in good health or in perfect condition.
What Does Cut the Mustard Mean?
To “cut the mustard” means reaching the expectations, fulfilling the standards, or surpassing the level of desired performance or quality.
The following are more examples of idioms. Take a few minutes to look them over and see if there are any that you’re unfamiliar with. Idioms can be confusing, but it’s not rocket science (it’s not too difficult for someone of average intelligence to figure out).
- To call a spade a spade: to speak the truth, however unpleasant it might be, or to speak bluntly.
- My heart was in my mouth: Feeling extremely nervous or anxious about something.
- Bell the cat: To undertake a dangerous task that may end badly.
- Let me bounce something off you: To discuss ideas with each other to devise a solution.
- Out of the blue: An unexpected event or something that happened that surprised people.
- Shoot yourself in the foot: To harm one’s own reputation or good name by doing something silly or unwise.
- Read between the lines: To find the hidden meaning in an agenda or plan.
- Blow hot and cold: To go back and forth or to be in conflict about something, usually internally.
- There are other fish in the sea: There is more than one suitable thing for each person; you’re not only meant for one thing or person in life.
- Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth: Don’t take something for granted.
- Run around in circles: To be extremely happy or excited about something. It can also mean putting effort into something, looking for a worthwhile result, but getting nowhere. This is an example of an idiom that has a dual meaning and needs situational context to exact its meaning under a specific circumstance.
- Draw first blood: To be the first person to strike or harm someone, or to be the first to attack or lash out.
- Selling like hotcakes: Having great success with sales, the product is popular.
- I’ve got my fingers crossed: Wishing someone good luck. To cross your fingers for yourself is to wish yourself good luck.
- Stab someone in the back: Harm to someone who gave you their trust.
- Break a leg: Wishing someone good luck. It is common practice to say “break a leg” to someone before a theatrical performance, such as a concert or play.
- My heart skipped a beat: To feel afraid, nervous, or to feel excited about something.
- Turn a blind eye: To ignore that something has either happened or is currently happening.
- Sweep it under the rug: To cover something up, dismiss it, or try to hide something that has occurred.
- Quitting cold turkey: To stop doing something suddenly and with no lead-up or easing into it. People often use this term when they suddenly stop using an addictive substance, such as caffeine, alcohol, or cigarettes.
- Don’t spill the beans: Don’t tell a secret. To spill the beans means you have given up secret information.
- A bitter pill to swallow: A hard truth to accept, something that is difficult to accept as fact.
- Egg on your face: To face embarrassment or humiliation over something you’ve done or said.
- Keep an ear to the ground: Pay close attention and stay alert to what’s going on in a particular situation.
- Black sheep of the family: To be the outcast in the family.
- Up a creek without a paddle: In a hopeless situation.
- Snug as a bug in a rug: Warm and comfortable, at peace.
Idiom Examples Help Us Express Ourselves
Sometimes the impact we are looking for from speech can’t be attained using the literal words and phrases of the English language. So we use other words in the form of idioms, sayings, proverbs, curse words, etc. When we’re trying to express ourselves in a particularly positive or negative way, creativity helps us purge some of what we’re feeling, which is good for a person who feels overwhelmed by emotion, situation, or task.
Learning How to Use Idioms
If you’re unfamiliar with the use of idioms and would like to practice, you’ll quickly learn that some idioms can stand alone, while others need context or to be a part of a sentence for them to make sense. A lot of it is trial and error and being observant of the idioms that are used around you.
Even if you get them wrong when you try them, idioms are still fun and creative and one of the many little quirks of language. They’re included not only in everyday discussion and speech but also in film, music, and literature.
Idioms are an American staple of speech, and speaking and communicating with one another would lack a particular punch if we didn’t have idioms at our disposal. When everything we say is literal, there’s no room for creativity.