(Page one can be found here: Useful North American Idioms List)
This a continuation of a list of 195 useful North American Idioms (found here) from 2011. I had many students ask me about other idioms, so I made this new list to answer their questions. Therefore, these are not only North American idioms; these are just idioms students have requested I explain. The list is ordered according to when the idiom was requested.
Request an Idiom Explanation
Students, if you want me to explain an idiom that is not on this list, then please leave a comment below. I will try my best to explain it and add it to the idioms list here.
What is an Idiom?
An idiom is a combination of words that have a special meaning when used together. Take for example the idiom white lie. If you think about the meaning of the words ‘white’ + ‘lie’, and then add them together, the expression doesn’t make sense. That’s because these two words, when joined together, have a special meaning. A white lie is a lie that you tell someone because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. This is an idiom. You wouldn’t understand it unless you have studied idioms.
Note: A phrasal verb, such as shut up, is like an idiom because it has two or three words that have a special meaning when combined. A phrasal verb always contains a preposition (in/on/about, etc) or an adverb (along, around). To study phrasal verbs, see this Basic English Phrasal Verbs list.
Advice for Teaching Idioms (for Teachers)
- Maybe save 15 minutes of class to study idioms. Don’t spend a whole class on idioms.
- Only cover 6-7 idioms with your students or they won’t remember them well.
- Always review the idioms you studied in the previous class. Here is a good warm-up activity (requiring pictures) to review them.
- After you have taught 10 or so idioms, do this role-play activity to give your students a chance to use the expressions in conversation.
The Idiom List
(note: “sth” = something, “sb” = somebody)
|odds and ends||His closet was full of odds and ends. In it, there was a football, a screwdriver, magazines, socks, and toys. |
= miscellaneous things. A bunch of things that are not related to one another.
|to hit the nail on the head||A: Bob is late. His car probably broke down.|
B: You hit the nail on the head. He phoned me 5 minutes ago and said he was at the repair shop.
= to describe exactly what is causing a situation/problem.
|to go against the grain / do sth against the grain||The other men wore wore a dark-colored suits to the ceremony. However, Peter went against the grain and wore a brown one.|
=to do something in a different way from how it’s usually done. Wood has grain. When you cut wood, you should cut it along the grain. This is easier. If you cut it against the grain, it’s more difficult. This is cutting against the grain.
|that is to say||Carl isn’t from here. That is to say, he’s a foreigner. |
= in other words
|from A to Z||The book tries to explain everything about English grammar, from A to Z. |
= completely; including everything.
|I dare say||I dare say that our company will go out of business if we don’t find a new manager.|
= to assert; to affirm; to be confident enough to say something
|to make a fuss about sth||The old lady made a fuss about the bus arriving five minutes late. The driver told her that he was sorry. |
= to get angry or complain about sth
|to get/be sick of sth / to get/be tired of sth||A: Do you want to have spaghetti tonight?|
B: No. I’m sick of pasta. We ate it yesterday. Let’s have something else.
= to start to dislike sth because you have seen/done/had it too much
|be better off||We were better off in our old apartment. I wish we still lived there.|
= to be in a better situation
|get on (well) (with sb)||A: Do you get on well with your father?|
B: No, sadly. We don’t speak very often.
= to have a good relationship with someone. (British English)
|to sell like hotcakes||Tickets for the World Cup sold like hotcakes. All of the tickets were gone in only two days. |
= to sell quickly (usually in large numbers). Note: a hotcake is an (old) synonym for pancake in American English.
|the lion’s share||The lion’s share of the money the company makes goes to its owners. |
= the best and/or largest part of something
|to fall prey to sth||The customer fell prey to a dishonest salesman who sold her a broken car for $20,000. / Senior citizens sometimes fall prey to telephone scams. |
= to become the victim of sth.
|pull the plug||Joanne decided to pull the plug on the barbeque because it was going to rain. |
= to stop an activity or plan; to stop something from continuing
|(every) now and then||It rains every now and then in summertime. It rained two weeks ago, and it might rain this weekend. |
= once in a while; occasionally
|back to the drawing board / back to square one||I showed my essay to my professor, but he said the topic was not acceptable. Now I’m back to the drawing board. (I have to start again with a new idea.) |
= back at the starting position; back to where you began
|to beat around the bush||The politician didn’t want to answer the question, so he tried to beat around the bush. He began talking about the weather. |
= to not answer a question directly or to not talk about what is important in order to waste time
|through thick and thin||Renee promised to love her husband through thick and thin. |
= in good times and bad times
|shame on you||A: Mom, I got in trouble today at school because I cheated on my test.|
B: Shame on you!
= this expression is usually said to a person (often a child) after he/she does something shameful.
|to take the plunge||After dating Marie for two years, Greg decided to take the plunge and ask her to marry him. |
= to start an activity that requires courage; (to plunge means to dive, so it means to dive (into sth)
|to be a real bind||John has to finish reading his book and then write a report on it tonight. But he also has to work his part-time job until 10 p.m. He’s really in a bind. |
= to be in a difficult situation
|the best of both worlds||Vancouver has beautiful mountains for snowboarding and skiing. It is also on the ocean, where you can swim and boat. It’s the best of both worlds. |
= a situation in which you can enjoy two different things at the same time
|a hard nut to crack||The thief refused to tell the police the names of the others who helped him commit the crime. He was a hard nut to crack. |
= something that is difficult to solve; or a person who is hard to understand; something that will not easily reveal what it is hiding
|a hard pill to swallow||When Ian’s boss told him that he was fired, it was a hard pill to swallow. He had been working there for 20 years. |
= a difficult fact to accept
|no hard and fast rules||There are no hard and fast rules about how to live a happy life. |
= there are no clear rules
|fan the flame||When Greg is angry, telling him to calm down only fans the flames. He’ll continue to yell and get angrier. It’s better to ignore him and let him relax on his own. |
= to make a situation worse; to make something more intense. (When you fan flames, you give air to a fire. This won’t extinguish the fire; it’ll make it burn more strongly.)
|find fault with||The fans couldn’t find fault with anything the football coach had said. It was true, unfortunately. The team needed to improve in many ways. |
= to find an error in something; to criticize
|be in hot water||The boy’s teacher phoned his parents to tell them that their child had been misbehaving in school. Now the boy was in hot water. |
= to be in trouble; to be in a situation where you are going to be punished
|go over your head||Everything the teacher said went over the students’ heads because their English level was too low to understand. |
= to not be able to understand something because it is too difficult/complicated for you
|be in over your head||George’s computer wouldn’t start. He opened it but he didn’t know how to fix it. He was in over his head, so he took it to a computer repair store. |
= to be in a situation that is too difficult for you to manage
|to pocket an insult||Lillian pocketed the insult from her boss because she didn’t want to have an argument in the meeting. |
= to bear an insult; to take an insult without reacting
|to add insult to injury||The president of the company was fired for stealing money from the organization. And to add insult to injury, his picture was posted on the front page of the newspaper the next day. |
= to hurt someone who has already been hurt, or generally, to make a situation worse for someone who is already in a bad situation
|an off day||John is usually a great tennis player. Yesterday, however, he lost all of his matches. He must have had an off day. |
= a day on which you don’t perform as well as you normally do
|with open arms||John and his parents had many serious disagreements when he was growing up. Despite this, his family welcomes him with open arms every year when he comes home for Christmas. |
= to accept/greet/receive/welcome someone warmly or with great enthusiasm; (‘open arms’ means your arms are open, ready to hug the other person)
|a bad egg|| The Johnsons’ children are well behaved except for John. He’s the bad egg. |
= a person who is dishonest (or rotten)
|little by little||John didn’t like his new job in the beginning. But, little by little, John began to enjoy it. |
= in small increments; in little steps
|kick the bucket||Roger Mowatt was the oldest man in town. When he finally kicked the bucket, he was 103 years old. Everyone will miss him. |
= to die (informal)
|bucket list||Grace is 80 years old, but she still has many things left on her bucket list. For example, next year she is traveling to China to see the Great Wall. |
= a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket (= a list of things you want to do before you die)
|tie the knot||Jack and Jill tied the knot in a small church in the countryside. |
= to get married
|under the weather||Bill is feeling under the weather, so he didn’t go to school today. |
= to be sick/ill
|bag of bones||Tim is a bag of bones. He looks like he hasn’t eaten in days. |
= a very thin person who doesn’t have muscle. The person looks like s/he is only skin (the bag) and bones.
|make ends meet||It’s hard to make ends meet when you only earn $10 an hour. |
= to earn as much money as you spend. The ‘ends’ are the two ends of the balance sheet – your income (earnings) and expenses. When both ends meet, it means they are balanced (and so is your budget).
|put your foot in your mouth||On his date last night, John really put his foot in his mouth when he said that he thought tattoos were ugly. After he said that, his date told him that she was a tattoo artist. |
= to say something carelessly that you later regret saying because it was offensive, rude, or stupid.
|fit as a fiddle||When Jane was in college, she was fit as a fiddle. But after she got an office job, she gained a lot of weight. |
= to be in good physical condition (used for people only)
|be at sea||Without his girlfriend, Ryan would be completely at sea. He needs her to stay organized and focused. |
= to be lost; confused; perplexed (the idiom means to be lost at sea)
|be caught on the wrong foot||George was caught on the wrong foot when his boss asked him to give a speech at the event. He hadn’t prepared anything. |
= to be in a situation you are not prepared for
|(get/have) cold feet||Mark got cold feet on the day of his wedding. Suddenly he started thinking that he was making a big mistake. |
= to suddenly become too frightened or nervous to do something you had planned to do
|a bed of roses||John had a comfortable childhood. Life was a bed of roses. However, things changed after moved to another city because his parents divorced. After that, he struggled in school and he had a hard time making friends. |
= an easy comfortable situation; an easy life.
|call it a day||The meeting ended at 4:45. After, there wasn’t enough time to do any work, so we decided to call it a day. |
= to decide to go home because you have done enough work.
|Over my dead body!||A: Frank, I know you don’t want this to happen, but one day, I’m going to marry your sister.|
B: Over my dead body!
= This means that you will never let something happen. It means that you would rather be killed than allow a particular thing to happen. It is a dramatic way of saying ‘Never!’
|something smells fishy / sounds fishy||Yesterday, a man phoned Walter and asked for his credit card information. The man said he was from his bank. Something smelled fishy, so Walter hung up the phone. |
= something sounds suspicious / doubtful.
|hot potato|| The issue of gun control is a hot potato in the United States. Although problems caused by guns fill the news every day, many Americans still believe they have the right to carry one. |
= an issue or situation that is difficult to deal (literally, a hot potato is hot and hard to hold on to; just like a hot potato, there are issues that are hard to handle or manage.)
|cry over spilled milk||“John, don’t cry over spilled milk. You lost the football game yesterday. Forget about it and let’s move on.” |
= to be upset about a situation that you cannot change. (literally, after you spill milk, there is nothing you can do to get the milk back in the jug. You have to accept it and clean it up.)
|cross that bridge when you come to it||A: Jane, have you told your husband that you don’t want to celebrate Christmas with his parents?|
B: Not yet. It’s only September now though. I don’t want to make him upset. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it in a few months.
= to not deal with a particular problem until you have to.
|every cloud has a silver lining||Ryan broke his leg last month. However, while in the hospital, he met a nurse who is now his girlfriend. I guess every cloud has a silver lining. |
= every bad thing that happens to you also brings something good.
|a slip of the tongue||John accidentally called his girlfriend “Victoria,” which was the name of his ex-girlfriend. His girlfriend didn’t appreciate this slip of the tongue. |
= an accidental or small mistake in speaking.
|to be on cloud nine||Lisa was on cloud nine when she learned that she had been accepted into Harvard University. She had been dreaming of this for many years. |
= to be very happy.
|to throw in the towel||Ben tried to fix his washing machine yesterday. After working on it for four hours without success, he decided to throw in the towel and call a professional repairman. |
= to quit; to give up. (note: this idiom was taken from boxing. When a fighter was losing badly, his manager would throw a towel in the ring. This towel was like a flag which showed the referee that the fighter admitted defeat.
|a wolf in sheep’s clothing||Alan was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He appears charming, but he uses his charm to steal money from others.|
|wild-goose chase|| The police were on a wild-goose chase; the man they were looking for didn’t exist. |
= a hunt for something you can never find.
|hold your horses||A: Bye Mom. I’m going outside to play.|
B: Hold your horses! First, put on a jacket. Then you can go outside.
= to hold on / to slow down / to stop for a moment.
|burning question|| The doctor told his patient that he could phone him if he had a burning question. Otherwise, he would see him in two weeks for their next appointment. |
= an urgent question; a question that must be answered immediately.
|small talk||John makes small talk with his workmates when he meets them in the elevator. |
= a short conversation about light topics such as the weather, your health, etc. Examples (How are you? It’s sunny today, isn’t it? How was your weekend?)
|once in a blue moon||I see my cousin once in a blue moon. I think the last time I saw him was in 2004 at a wedding. |
= very rarely
|better half||When John has to go to work, his better half stays home to take care of their baby. |
= a person’s wife, husband, or partner
|to bridge the gap||The government hoped their new tax plan would help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. |
= to connect two things, or to make two things become closer together
|to sweat bullets||The man was sweating bullets while the two police officers asked him questions. |
= to sweat a lot, especially when you are nervous or worried
|to put the cart before the horse||A: Okay, let’s decide where we’re going to go on our road trip this weekend.|
B: Let’s not put the cart before the horse. First we should figure out if we can rent a car. That’s the first step.
= to do something before another thing that should have been done first. (Background: a horse pulls a cart, so to ‘put the cart before the horse‘ is not the right order — the horse should go first)
|to take something with a grain of salt||A: Yesterday, Peter told me that American cars are the best cars in the world.|
B: Well, you should take anything he says about cars with a grain of salt. He works for an American car company, so of course he says that.
to consider that something may not be completely true (note: when you take something with a grain of salt, it becomes easier to swallow. To ‘swallow’ something is to accept it as true. So, if you need to take something with a grain of salt, that means it is difficult to swallow (accept) without salt.
|couch potato||My husband is such a couch potato. He spends all his free time in front of the TV, watching sports and talk shows. |
someone who spends most of their time sitting on on a couch watching TV
|like a bull in a china shop / to be a bull in a china shop||George was like a bull in a china shop at the art museum. He knocked over one piece of art and also hit some people with his bag by accident. He needs to be more careful. |
someone who is very careless; or a person who acts clumsily in a delicate situation (*’china’ refers to plates and bowls made of ceramic. A bull in a china shop would cause much damage.)
|white elephant||George used to love his motorcycle, but now it has become a white elephant to him. He has to pay a lot of money to insure it every year, and he hardly uses it, so he has decided to sell it. |
an expensive but useless item that is difficult to maintain or to throw away
|the elephant in the room||Racism in the college had become the elephant in the room. None of the staff wanted to admit the problem existed. // During dinner, the topic of George’s health was the elephant in the room. Everyone could see that he was unwell, but no one wanted to ask him about it. |
The elephant in the room describes an obvious problem or issue that people don’t want to discuss. It is something that everyone can see, but they don’t want to admit is there. (Note: an elephant is something so big that you should notice it).
|(to be) a chip off the old block||A: Jack is a funny guy. He’s just like his father! They have the same sense of humour.|
B: Yes, he’s a chip off the old block.
a person who is similar in character or behavior to their mother or father
|to bark up the wrong tree||The police thought that one of the students at the school had stolen the video camera, but they were barking up the wrong tree. The camera had actually been stolen by a school staff member. |
to follow the wrong course; to put your energy or attention into the wrong thing (*when a dog is hunting an animal that has run up a tree, sometimes the dog will bark up the wrong tree. In this case, the animal usually escapes.)
|(to be) on the fence||Roger is on the fence about buying a new car. On one hand, he’d rather drive than take the bus to work. On the other hand, owning a car is very expensive. He’s not sure what to do. |
to be undecided between two options
|to go to the ends of the earth||John’s son wanted a special toy for Christmas. John went to the ends of the earth to find it, but unfortunately, the toy wasn’t available online or elsewhere. |
to make a great effort to achieve or obtain something; to do as much as possible
|not my cup of tea||Horror movies are not my cup of tea. I prefer action movies or comedies. |
used to say that something is not your preference; it is not your choice, or something you like.
|an act of God||The insurance company claimed that the fire, caused by lightening, was an act of god. |
a natural disaster, an event outside human control (*phrase often used in insurance)
|to let off steam||George has a stressful job. After work, he likes to play tennis because it helps him let off steam. |
to release stress or anger; (steam = stress/anger.)
|saved by the bell||John was supposed to give a presentation at 3:00, but thankfully for him, the fire alarm rang. He was saved by the bell. |
an expression, usually used in school, to say that you didn’t have to do something unpleasant because the school bell (or fire bell) rang.
|like a fish out of water||Wendy felt like a fish out of water on her trip to the Middle East. The women had to cover their faces, arms, and legs, and couldn’t drink alcohol. It was hot — she just wanted to wear shorts and have a cold beer. |
someone who is like a fish out of water is someone who feels uncomfortable because they are in an environment that they are not accustomed too. A fish’s natural environment is a lake or the ocean; if you take a fish out of water, it will not be comfortable.
|Curiosity killed the cat.||John suspected that his neighbour had had plastic surgery recently, so he asked her. However, this question made her quite angry and now she won’t even talk to him. Curiosity killed the cat. |
An expression that means too much curiosity can be dangerous.
|to go on and on||The man’s speech went on and on. It felt like it would never end. Everyone wanted to go home, but he wouldn’t stop talking. |
to talk or do something for a long time without stopping (usually something unpleasant, like a boring movie or bad weather).
|day by day||My English is improving day by day. / Day by day, I began to feel comfortable in my new job. |
gradually; describing something that slowly changes every day; (also: week by week, year by year)
|Rome wasn’t built in a day.||A: It’s going to take forever to write this essay. I have to go to the library, do research, and then write 1500 words!|
B: Have patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
This proverb means that great things take time; or that you cannot achieve something without working on it for some time.
Questions? Cannot find an idiom? Make a request below!
Copyright Matthew Barton, June 2015, of Englishcurrent.com. Do not remove website name or URL from printable materials.