200+ Common Idioms [With Meaning and Example]

An idiom is a phrase or expression whose meaning can’t be deduced directly from individual words in that phrase or expression. In other words, idiom is figurative language.

Without further ado, here are 200+ popular idioms, each followed by its meaning and an example sentence (marked ‘S’).

1. Stir up a hornets’ nest

Hornets are the largest eusocial wasps, and their sting can be really painful. Given this, who would want to poke a stick in hornet’s nest and stir it? That would be unnecessary pain and trouble.

S: It’s not that the management is not aware of few false bills here and there, but they don’t call it because it would expose many and stir up a hornet’s nest.

2. An eye for an eye

In ancient Mesopotamia, one of the offences in king Hammurabi’s penal code was damaging someone’s eye. If found guilty of this offence, convict’s eyes used to be damaged in a tit-for-tat punishment. You, of course, don’t live in Hammurabi’s Mesopotamia, but if you smash someone’s windshield because they’ve smashed yours, you’ve just taken an eye for eye.

S: I’ll return damage to my car by damage to his car. An eye for an eye.

3. Back against the wall

Back in the days, when a military unit was in a difficult situation in war, it was said to have its back against the wall. In modern times though, you don’t need to be in military to have your back against the wall.

S: With banks baying for his blood over default in payments, he has his back against the wall.

4. Barking up the wrong tree

Hunting dog chases a monkey, but the monkey escapes into a tree. The dog, standing underneath the leafy branches, keeps on barking while the monkey quietly slips to the adjoining tree. The dog is now barking up the wrong tree. If someone is barking up the wrong tree, they’re following a wrong course of action.

S: In the initial months of Covid-19, scientists were sometimes barking up the wrong tree in their recommendation on preventive steps.

5. Bite off more than you can chew

It’s difficult to chew food if you bite more than a mouthful, isn’t it? Same holds for taking on a task that is too difficult for you. You’ll struggle to manage it.

S: He has taken more responsibilities as he couldn’t say ‘no’ to his boss. I think he has bitten more than he can chew, and he’ll struggle to handle them all.

6. Pigs might fly

Can pigs fly? No. That’s an impossible thing. Flying of pigs, thus, can be associated with something that’s not going to happen.

S: Tom: I’ll wake up at 5 AM and go for a jog. Mary: And pigs might fly.

7. Upset someone’s applecart

A farmer is merrily hauling up his produce of shiny, juicy apples in his cart. “I’m going to get great price for it. Maybe I’ll use the money to…” Right then few ravenous monkeys pounce and upset the applecart. The apples roll on the road, and some of them are run over. If you upset someone’s applecart, you do something that spoils their plan.

S: The increase in customs duty by the government has upset the applecart of those car companies who were importing most of their car parts.

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8. Not enough room to swing a cat

If there isn’t enough room to swing a cat, the place must be pretty cramped. BTW, don’t swing a cat even if the place is spacious.

S: We were jammed in the bus with not enough room to swing a cat.

9. White elephant

The kings of Siam (now, Thailand) used elephants for carrying heavy loads, but they exempted the rare white (albino) elephant from work duties. As the legend goes, one of the kings struck a novel idea to punish a courtier without appearing to be punishing him. He gifted him a white elephant. The poor courtier paid through the nose to feed the elephant but couldn’t put it to work (it was against the rules) to recover the cost. A white elephant is something that costs a lot but doesn’t serve any useful purpose, sometimes even requiring recurring cost.

S: The new Formula 1 race track is proving to be a white elephant for the owners. It is used for just few weeks in the year, but sucks a lot in maintenance.

10. Bounce something off someone

Have you tried bouncing a soft ball on someone? The ball isn’t going to bounce well because bodies, human or not, aren’t rock hard. But you can bounce ideas and plans with someone. Human minds are great for that. If you bounce something off someone, you discuss ideas or plan with someone to get their view on it.

S: X: Can I see you after the office to bounce few ideas off you? Y: Sure. Let’s meet at 6 PM.

11. Keep someone at arm’s length

We high-five our friends, and we hug them. We don’t keep them at arm’s length. If we do, then we’re not friendly with them.

S: I’ve more productive time in the day because I’ve developed this good habit of keeping video games at arm’s length.

12. Cry wolf

A kid once cried ‘wolf’ to prank people, and it worked. People got scared. He tried again. It worked again with some. After few tries, people ignored him whenever he cried ‘wolf’. One day, a wolf actually showed up. Guess what happened? The boy cried ‘wolf’, but no one came to his help. If you cry wolf, you ask for help even when you don’t need it, making people think that you don’t need help even when you do.

S: The pranksters in the class have cried wolf so many times that people won’t believe them in future.

13. Scrape the barrel

If you’ve a barrel full of your favorite food, you’ll dip your fingers and eat whenever you want. But when nothing is left, you’ll be forced to scrape the walls and the bottom to get whatever you can. If you’re scraping the barrel, you’re in a state of deprivation and hence making use of remnants.

S: I was scraping the barrel when I had to stay for six months with my parents after I lost my job.

14. Bend over backwards

Gymnasts bend over backwards to make a living. Otherwise, why would someone take the pain. But some would, not literally but figuratively. If you bend over backwards, you try to please or accommodate someone to an unusual degree.

S: The hotel staff bent over backwards to make the visit of the dignitaries a memorable one.

15. Watch like a hawk

A hawk has such sharp eye that it can spot a tiny mouse from miles up in the sky. So, if someone watches you like a hawk, it’s tough for you to do something bad without getting found.

S: The police watched the procession like a hawk to spot any sign of troublemaking.

16. Blow your own trumpet

In the era of kings and kingdoms, trumpets were blown to herald the king and important dignitaries. Will trumpets be blown if the person is unimportant? No. The person will probably have to ask a friend or blow it himself. If you blow your own trumpet, you tell others about yourself, often in praiseworthy way. It doesn’t look good, does it? If someone else praises, it’s far better.

S: Tom can be so off-putting. He is always blowing his trumpet mentioning his awards and positions in various associations.

17. Once in a blue moon

Moon is silvery, not blue. And if it turns blue as a result of some climactic or celestial phenomenon, it’ll be a rare event. So, if something happens once in a blue moon, it must be an extremely rare event.

S: Many startups turn in a profit once in a blue moon.

18. Burn your boats

On reaching the Mexican shore in 1519 AD, Hernan Cortes, the Spanish general, ordered the boats to be burnt. Without boats, they couldn’t return. The only option left was to fight as hard as they could and win the land. If you burn your boats, you do something that makes it impossible for you to change your plans and go back to the earlier position.

S: I’ve burnt my boats with my previous supervisor by criticizing him publicly.

19. Run with the hare, hunt with the hound

Hound, a hunting dog, commonly hunts hare. If you run with the hare and hunt with the hound, you’re essentially in both the camps, implying that you are friends with two opposing sides. Such stand is frowned upon as being opportunistic and hypocritical.

S: Lawyers can’t represent both the parties in a legal case because they can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hound.

20. Flog a dead horse

Flogging a horse has been an acceptable practice to make it run at higher speed. But will flogging be of any use if the horse is dead? No. If you flog a dead horse, you waste effort where there is no chance of success.

S: Arguing over watching TV in the evening is flogging a dead horse. We’ve already discussed and settled the issue.

21. Take away your breath

You may be so mesmerized on seeing corals the first time that you may skip a breath or two, not literally of course. Something that takes away your breath is spell-binding and astonishing.

S: His diving catch at the crunch moment in the match took my breath away.

22. Sell like hot cakes

Hot cakes sell quickly. So, if something sells like hot cakes, it sells fast.

S: More than five thousand cars sold so far. The new model is selling like hot cakes.

23. Burn the candle at both ends

If you burn a candle at both ends, it’ll deplete fast. What if the candle was your body? If you work very hard, you’ll deplete your strength and energy like the candle burning at both ends.

S: Mitch is burning the candle at both ends. He is working two jobs, one in the evening.

24. Separate the wheat from the chaff

When you separate wheat from its chaff, you separate valuable from less valuable. (Wheat, which can be consumed by humans, is more valuable than chaff, which can be consumed only by livestock.)

S: The new testing procedure to evaluate employees will separate the wheat from the chaff.

25. Change tune

Musical tunes change depending on the type of performance. However, some people also change their behavior (tune) towards others depending on changes in their economic or power status.

S: After he came to know that I’m close to the power in the organization, he changed his tune.

26. Run around in circles

If you run in circle, you’ll reach the same place, but to outsiders you’ll appear busy. Sometimes, we do the same at work. We seem to be working hard at something but, at the end of the day, we’ve nothing to show for result.

S: He ran around in circles trying to bring us on board for the new cause.

27. Armed to the teeth

The idiom seems to have origin among the pirates of Port Jamaica in seventeenth century. While looting ships, they armed themselves with as many guns as possible (the guns in those times didn’t carry many rounds and were not easily reloadable), and on top of that carried a knife between the teeth. If you’re armed to teeth, you’re overly prepared.

S: We were armed to the teeth with data, testimonials, and what not. Little wonder, we won the bid.

28. Bite the bullet

In the nineteenth century, in absence of anesthesia, wounded soldiers were asked to bite the bullet, an unpleasant task, to distract them while being treated. If you bite the bullet, you decide to do an unpleasant task.

S: I’ve to bite the bullet and get my tooth extracted.

29. Head in the clouds

A giant so tall that his head pierces the clouds will have hard time seeing what’s happening on the ground. If your head is in the clouds, you won’t be in touch with ground realities.

S: Many academics have their heads in the clouds.

30. Boil the ocean

Good luck to you if you try boiling the ocean. Impossible, right? If you’re trying to boil the ocean, you’re trying to accomplish something too ambitious.

S: You expect our plant to manufacture 40,000 parts in a week. You’re trying to boil the ocean on this one.

31. Face the music

If you’re a disgraced soldier being removed from your unit, you won’t like the music being played in the background to mark the ceremony. Music here, for a change, symbolizes unpleasant experience. If you face music, you’re at the receiving end of somebody’s criticism or reprimand.

S: You’ll face the music for deliberately reporting inflated sales numbers.

32. A flash in the pan

In the heat of battle in 17th century, a musketeer (soldier) fires the gun. The gunpowder ignites, creating a flash of light, but the main charge goes untouched. Flash of light, but no fire. A company launches a new product with lot of fanfare, but it fails to tick. Lot of publicity and expectation, but little sales. If you call something flash in the pan, you say it succeeded only briefly, and it won’t repeat.

S: Considering their dismal past record, the win in the last match seems to be a flash in the pan.

33. Hold your horses

If there are horse carriages moving one after the other, you need to sometimes hold your horses to avoid bumping into each other. If you hold your horses, you show patience.

S: Hold your horses! I’m not yet done with my explanation.

34. Drag one’s feet

If a cartwheel gets stuck and drags, instead of rotating, it’ll slow down the cart. If a person drags his feet, instead of walking normally, he’ll walk slowly. If you drag feet, you slow down on a task deliberately.

S: The police is dragging its feet in investigating this case allegedly because influential people are involved in the crime.

35. Worth its weight in gold

There is custom in some parts of the world where, on special occasions such as birthday, a person is weighed on a weighing scale with a precious commodity, showing how valuable they are or how high their net worth is. If the commodity is gold, the person must be very valuable. If someone or something is worth its weight in gold, they’re of high value.

S: The new hire is worth her weight in gold. She has helped us land three big deals this quarter.

36. Jump the gun

Awaiting the gun fire, sprinters are ready to blast off the blocks. But then, just before the gun fire, a sprinter blasts off, forcing the referee to call a false start. If you jump the gun, you do something too soon without proper thought.

S: I jumped the gun by sending the proposal to the client without first showing it to my manager.

37. The tail is wagging the dog

If a tail is wagging the dog, the tail is dictating terms to the dog. A tiny thing controlling an important thing!

S: The fringe group is small but vocal. I fear they’ll control the direction of today’s meeting. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

38. Test waters

Before jumping into the lake, if you touch water to get a feel of how cold it is, you find out how comfortable (or uncomfortable) the swim would be. If you test waters, you try to find how people will receive your idea or action before actually launching it or telling people.

S: The Company is testing waters with few products before going full steam.

39. Thorn in your flesh

A thorn in your flesh will be irritating and painful. Won’t it be? A person or thing that constantly troubles you is no less than a thorn in your flesh.

S: Demanding coalition partners have been a thorn in the flesh of the government.

40. Turn the tide

A menacing tidal wave that threatens to cause untold destruction is approaching the shoreline. If you manage to repulse it (or turn the tide), you’ve just turned around an adverse situation.

S: With that goal right at the start of the second half, the home team seems to be turning the tide against their arch rivals.

41. On top of the world

When someone reaches a high mountain peak, they’re ecstatic. They take pictures. They celebrate in whatever way they can. Being on top of the world, even if it’s not Mt. Everest, brings extreme happiness.

S: I was on top of the world after landing the job I so badly wanted.

42. Change hands

Something in your hands implies you own it. If it changes hands, it’ll be owned by someone else. Changing hands means change in ownership.

S: This car has changed hands so many time since its first buy in 2009.

43. Have one’s hands full

If your hands are full, you can’t hold more. It shows that you’re too occupied with existing work to take additional work.

S: Working on two projects, I’ve my hands full.

44. Throw up one’s hands

You reason with a lunatic for over 30 minutes so that he could mend his way. Your arguments are logical and convincing, but are ignored. What do you do? Throw up your hands in exasperation. You throw up hands to express anger or frustration.

S: The manager threw up his hands in despair when nothing concrete emerged even after hours of negotiations.

45. Watch one’s step

You don’t normally watch your steps when you walk. You just walk. But would you watch your steps if you’re walking in a minefield or other treacherous surface. Of course. If you watch your steps, you are careful about how you behave or conduct yourself.

S: Watch your steps at least in the first few months at your new job.

46. Know which way the wind is blowing

If a hunter knows which way the wind is blowing, he would approach the animal from a direction that’s against the wind. If a sailor knows which way the wind is blowing, she will take advantage of wind’s thrust. If a politician knows that an issue finds support with most people, he too will support the issue. If you know which way the wind is blowing, you anticipate how certain situation is likely to develop and act accordingly.

S: Politicians are good at knowing which way the wind is blowing, and they form alliances with other political parties accordingly.

47. Eat like a bird

Do you eat like an elephant or a bird? If you eat like an elephant, you’ve heck of an appetite. But if you eat like a bird, you eat too little.

S: You claim to be eating like a bird for the past three months, but you’ve hardly lost any weight.

48. Kill two birds with one stone

If a hunter kills two birds with one stone, he saves effort. If you finish multiple tasks with the same effort, you save effort.

S: I can kill two birds with a stone by picking up the laundry while going to the college.

49. Shoot oneself in the foot

During World War I, some soldiers would shoot themselves in the foot to avoid going into the battlefield. Such self-sabotage may have saved lives in the battlefield, but now it causes only self-harm.

S: He shot himself in the foot in the interview by disclosing too much personal information.

50. Draw first blood

In a sport such as fencing or boxing, if your swipe draws the blood from your opponent first, you take the first advantage. This can happen in football, tennis, debate (you don’t need to throw mike though), and so on. Blood need not be spilled; only a first winning manoeuvre is enough.

S: Federer drew the first blood by breaking Anderson’s service in the fourth game of the first set.

51. Egg on your face

In the older times, throwing eggs and rotten tomatoes at a bad stage performance wasn’t uncommon. If you’ve egg on your face, you look stupid and embarrassed because of something you’ve done.

S: The case of the minister issuing statement in favor of a convicted person has left the government with egg on its face.

52. Kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

As the story goes, a goose used to lay a golden egg a day. The owner was very happy with the riches coming his way, but he got greedy. One day he killed the goose to get all the eggs at a time. The goose died, and he got nothing. If you kill the goose that lays golden eggs, you destroy something that gives you regular return to get immediate return.

S: Thomas killed the goose that laid the golden eggs when he sold off his business before setting up another.

53. An arm and a leg

Imagine, something is so expensive that you’ve to trade your limbs to buy it. If something costs an arm and a leg, it costs a lot.

S: Two days in the hospital for a minor ailment cost me an arm and a leg.

54. Take a back seat

If you move from the driving seat to the back seat, you’re no longer in control of the vehicle. But in the idiom world, vehicles alone don’t have driving seats. If you take back seat, you choose not to be in a position of responsibility or power.

S: After being in the leadership position for more than a decade, it’ll be tough for him to take a back seat.

55. The pot calling the kettle black

Pot calls the kettle black. Kettle retorts, “Look who is saying. Aren’t you black yourself?” It’s better not to point someone’s fault if you yourself possess it.

S: He called me a cheat – that’s pot calling the kettle black.

56. Make one’s blood boil

When earth erupts and molten lava shoots, we say mother earth is angry. When our blood boils, not literally, we’re angry.

S: An excessive penalty for just one-day delay in payment of the bill made my blood boil.

57. Like a cat on hot tin roof

What will happen if you put a cat on a hot tin roof? It’ll be agitated. It’ll jump around. After all, the tin is hot. If you’re like a cat on hot tin roof, you’re uneasy and agitated.

S: Waiting for the result of my medical tests, I was like a cat on hot tin roof.

58. Like a fish out of water

Fish is at home in water. Out of water, it’s in alien condition and will die. If you find yourself like a fish out of water, you’re in unfamiliar situation, in which you feel awkward.

S: I was like fish out of water when I moved to the capital from my hometown.

59. Turn the clock back

If you turn the clock back to an earlier period, you return to that time.

S: Turning the clock back to our glory days is fruitless. We’ve to work harder and smarter in the present.

60. Against the clock

If you’re working against the clock, you’re working in great hurry.

S: With only half the syllabus studied, I raced against the clock to be ready for the exam on Monday.

61. Break fresh/ new ground

If you break new ground, you’re doing something that has not been done before.

S: Our scientists are breaking new ground in robotics and cancer research.

62. Close the door on someone

If you close the door on someone or something, you no longer deal with it.

S: The country decided to close the door on talks till other outstanding issues are resolved.

63. Burn the midnight oil

To work late in the night

S: I had to burn the midnight oil for nearly three months to write my first book.

64. Chicken and egg situation

If a situation is chicken and egg, it is impossible to decide which of the two came first and caused the other one.

S: I need to have experience to get job, but without job, I can’t have experience. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

65. On cloud nine

If you’re on cloud nine, you’re very happy.

S: I was on cloud nine after receiving the news of my promotion.

66. Under a cloud

If you’re under a cloud, you’re under suspicion or in trouble.

S: The IP for our key technology has been leaked, and many in my team, including the manager, are under a cloud.

67. Small cog in a large wheel

Someone or something that has a small role in a large setup or organization.

S: I work as a sales representative in a Fortune 500 company – just a small cog in a large wheel.

68. The other side of the coin

The other point of view

S: We only see the glamor and money in showbiz. But the other side of the coin is that only one in hundreds reach there.

69. Pay someone back in his /her own coin

If you pay someone back in his/ her own coin, you treat him/ her in the same way he/ she treated you.

S: By refusing to help her colleague, she paid him back in the same coin.

70. Left out in the cold

If you’re left out in the cold, you’re ignored.

S: I was left out in the cold in the annual promotions in the company.

71. Up in arms

If you’re up in arms, you’re angry about something.

S: Media has traditionally been up in arms with the government of the day.

72. Pour cold water on

If you pour cold water on an idea or plan, you criticize it to the extent that people lose enthusiasm to pursue it.

S: The investors poured cold water on the plan to build another factory.

73. Blow hot and cold

If you blow hot and cold, you vacillate.

S:  The editor blew hot and cold over the story for few days and then finally decided to publish it.

74. To come to a head

If something comes to a head, it reaches to the point of a crisis.

S: The situation came to a head when he passed a derogatory comment purportedly toward me.

75. Cool your heels

Wait for something, especially when it’s annoying

S: I spent two hours cooling my heels in the waiting room while the CFO was busy in a meeting.

76. Cut corners

If you cut corners, you save money or effort by finding cheaper or easier ways to do things.

S: It you cut corners on this product, it’ll have a lesser lifespan.

77. Run its course

If something runs its course, it continues naturally until it finishes.

S: There is no cure for this infection. You’ll have to let it run its course.

78. Stay the course

If you stay the course, you persevere till the completion of a task, especially a difficult one.

S: Despite an injury, he stayed the course to save the match for his team.

79. Cut someone down to size

If you cut someone down to size, you show them they’re not as important or intelligent as they think.

S: The boss cut that arrogant guy to size in no time.

80. Daylight robbery

Blatant overcharging

S: $5 for a can of juice! This is daylight robbery.

81. Handle with kid gloves

If you handle someone with kid gloves, you treat them with extreme tact and care.

S: The client is hyper sensitive. We need to handle him with kid gloves, or we risk losing the deal.

82. Clear the decks

If you clear the decks for something, you remove all hurdles to get started on that work.

S: By sanctioning the budget and filling in the vacancies, the committee has cleared the decks for our new office.

83. Between the devil and the deep blue sea

If you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, you’re caught between two undesirable alternatives.

S: If you support your son, your business partner will be hurt, and vice versa. You’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

84. The luck of the devil

If you’ve the luck of the devil, you’re extremely lucky.

S: X: I’m alive today because I failed to board the plane that crashed yesterday. Y: You really have the luck of the devil.

85. Keep an ear to the ground

Be well informed of current trends, opinions, and happenings

S: One of the main reasons for his success in business is that he keeps an ear to the ground to know what the customers want and why they’re dissatisfied with competing products.

86. Turn a deaf ear

If you turn a deaf ear, you ignore what others are saying.

S: I’ve made the request few times in the past, but it has always fallen on deaf ears.

87. Eat like a horse

If you eat like a horse, you eat a lot.

S: He is lean, but he eats like a horse.

88. Go against the grain

If an idea or action goes against the grain, you don’t do it or accept it because it is against your beliefs or principle.

S: It goes against the grain these days to use polythene bags as carry bags.

89. Stick to your guns

If you stick to your guns in the face of opposition, you stand firm.

S: Despite opposition from his family, he has stuck to his guns in picking his career path.

90. Let one’s hair down

To be relaxed and behave informally

S: Over tea on Sunday, he finally let his hair down and talked about his hobbies and family.

91. Hand in glove

If you work hand in glove with someone, you work closely with them often to accomplish something dishonest.

S: Some of the bank employees have been allegedly working hand in glove with business owners to sanction loans without proper due diligence.

92. Look for needle in a haystack

Looking for something small in a pile of other things or a vast area

S: The gem in my ring fell somewhere on my way to home. Finding it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

93. Wear your heart on your sleeve

If you wear your heart on your sleeve, you express your sentiments too openly.

S: Wearing your heart on your sleeve can backfire at workplace because you may be seen unprofessional.

94. Move heaven and earth

Make supreme effort

S: I’ll move heaven and earth to finish in top 10 percentile in the exam.

95. Hit the bottle

To drink alcohol to excess

S: He doesn’t hit the bottle often, but when he does, he can be nasty.

96. Hit the book

To study

S: I need to hit the book today or else I’ll fall behind in my exam prep.

97. Hit the sack

To go to bed

S: I hit the sack around 11 PM.

98. Get someone off the hook

If you get someone off the hook, you help them get out of trouble.

S: The government has intervened by infusing billions of dollars to get the banks off the hook.

99. Cut no ice

Fail to influence or make an effect

S: His reason to get leave cut no ice with his manager.

100. On thin ice

If you’re on thin ice, you’re in precarious or delicate situation.

S: You’re falling short on class attendance and you failed to submit the last assignment. You’re walking on thin ice in this semester.

101. Strike while the iron is hot

To act quickly when the opportunity comes by

S: That’s an amazing deal you’re getting. Don’t wait. Strike while the iron is hot, or else it’ll be gone.

102. Hit the jackpot

If you hit the jackpot, you achieve big success, usually through luck.

S: We’ve hit the jackpot with our new product – sales have doubled.

103. Have the last laugh

If you’ve the last laugh in an argument or disagreement, you ultimately succeed from a seemingly losing position.

S: He was dropped from the team, but he had the last laugh when he was recruited by a rival club at a higher fee.

104. See the light of day

When something sees the light of day, it finally happens for the first time.

S: After so many false starts, his book finally saw the light of the day.

105. Light at the end of tunnel

If you see light at the end of tunnel, you see signs of improvement in a situation that has been bad for a long time.

S: The business has started to gain momentum after months of struggle. We finally see light at the end of tunnel.

106. Toe the line

If you toe the line, you behave according to an official rule, especially when you do not agree with it.

S: In this organization, if you don’t toe the line, you’ll be fast eased out.

107. Live on borrowed time

If you live on borrowed time, you continue to exist longer than expected.

S: This 15-year-old car is living on borrowed time.

108. Hold your tongue

To hold your tongue means to not speak

S: “Hold your tongue, son. Be patient,” the old man tried to restrain the agitated man.

109. Make a mountain of a molehill

If you make a mountain of a molehill, you make something unimportant to seem important.

S: One bad interview doesn’t mean you’re struggling to get the job. Don’t make a mountain of a molehill.

110. Cry for the moon

If you cry for the moon, you make a demand that can’t be fulfilled.

S: You want such an expensive gift on your birthday. Well, you’re crying for the moon.

111. Hit the nail on the head

If you hit the nail on the head, you’re exactly right about something.

S: I think the CEO hit the nail on the head when he said that the organization was losing market share because of complacency and security.

112. Nail in someone’s coffin

Nail in someone’s coffin is something that hastens failure of a person or thing

S: The scandal proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the mayor.

113. Pay through the nose

If you pay through the nose, you pay too much for something.

S: We’re paying through the nose for petrol and diesel.

114. Under someone’s nose

If you do something under someone’s nose, you do it openly, although unnoticed.

S: The dog took away the biscuit right under my nose, but I realized it only later.

115. Cast pearls before swine

If you cast pearls before swine, you offer something valuable to someone who does not recognize its worth.

S: To serve an elaborate multi-course dinner to them is like casting pearls before swine.

116. Put the cat among the pigeons

If you put the cat among the pigeons, you say or do something that makes lot of people angry or uncomfortable.

S: She put the cat among the pigeons by accusing others in the office of misusing organization’s dinner allowance for working late hours.

117. Put someone in his/ her place

If you put people in their place, you let them know that they’re less important than they think.

S: When he exceeded his brief to take charge of the project, the boss put him in his place.

118. Point finger at

If you point finger at someone, you say that s/he should be blamed

S: Why are you pointing finger at me? I’m not the only person responsible for the loss.

119. Pour out one’s heart

If you pour out your heart, you reveal your thoughts or inner feelings.

S: I poured my heart out to my colleague about the mismanagement in the Company.

120. Swallow your pride

If you swallow your pride, you do something even though it hurts your self-respect.

S: I swallowed my pride to do menial tasks for six months till I found a better job.

121. When push comes to shove

When situation turns desperate

S: If push comes to shove, I’ll take loan to finance my education.

122. Raining cats and dogs

If it rains cats and dogs, it rains heavily.

S: It has been raining cats and dogs for the last hour or so. Let’s brace up for the traffic jam.

123. Read between the lines

If you read between the lines, you try to understand someone’s real feelings or intentions from what they say or write.

S: The government says that the economy is robust, but if you look at employment data and read further between the lines, you realize that the situation isn’t that rosy.

124. Beat a retreat

If you beat a retreat, you withdraw from a dangerous or unpleasant situation.

S: Seeing the cops, the arsonists beat a hasty retreat.

125. Take somebody for a ride

If you take somebody for a ride, you deceive them.

S: The placement agency took hundreds of people for a ride by promising non-existent jobs.

126. Go through the roof

To increase beyond all expectations

S: Petrol and diesel prices have gone through the roof.

127. On the ropes

If someone is on the ropes, they’re close to defeat or giving up.

S: High crude oil prices have put many airlines on the ropes.

128. Rub salt into someone’s wounds

To make a bad thing worse

S: I was upset at not getting promoted, but the management really rubbed salt into my wounds when they promoted my junior.

129. Give someone a run for their money

If you give someone a run for their money, you compete well with them.

S: Despite being an underdog, Division B team gave the best team of the tournament run for their money.

130. Shut one’s eyes to

Refuse to see or consider

S: The government can no longer shut its eye to growing pollution arising from stubble burning.

131. In the red (In the black)

Operating at a loss or under debt (Operating at a profit or have surplus)

S: Many airlines across the world are in the red because of increase in oil prices.

132. Allow the dust to settle

To allow a situation to become calm or normal again after a period of excitement or upheaval

S: Farmers are angry because of the low prices at which government agencies are buying their produce. Let’s wait for the dust to settle before we negotiate with them.

133. Take the word out of somebody’s mouth

To say exactly what the other person was about to say

S: X: Why don’t we leave early today to watch the 5 PM show of the latest release? Y: You’ve taken the words out of my mouth. I was about to say the same.

134. Eat your words

If you eat your words, you retract your statement or words.

S: Experts had to eat their words on the impending doom of abc.com when the fledgling ecommerce website turned in an unexpected profit.

135. A shot in the dark

A wild guess

S: Chasing an offender, the policemen took a shot in the dark and turned left on reaching the square.

136. Call the shots

If you calls the shots, you’ve the power and authority.

S: In this ministry, the junior minister calls the shots.

137. Head and shoulders above

Greatly superior to

S: In his prime, Usain Bolt was head and shoulders above his competitors.

138. Put to bed

To help a child sleep

S: I’ll be back in few minutes after putting my son to bed.

139. Put something to sleep

If an animal is put to sleep, it is killed by a veterinarian to relieve it of its pain and suffering.

S: We put the dog to sleep as it was suffering from age-related ailments.

140. By the skin of your teeth

By extremely narrow margin

S: He caught the train by the skin of his teeth.

141. Save your skin

If you save your skin, you save yourself from an unpleasant or dangerous situation without thinking of what happens to others.

S: They lied and tampered with crucial evidence to save their skin.

142. Have a thick skin

To be less affected by criticisms and rebuffs

S: You need to have a thick skin to survive in politics.

143. Start with a clean slate

Make a fresh beginning forgetting what happened, usually bad, in the past

S: Relations have not been great between the two countries, but it’s time to start from a clean slate.

144. No smoke without fire

A suspicion or rumor is not for nothing. It usually has some basis.

S: I’m hearing that the investment company in which I put my money has been running a Ponzi scheme. I’m going to ask for my money back, because where there is smoke there is fire.

145. No strings attached

Free of conditions

S: World Bank rarely gives loans with no strings attached.

146. Throw a spanner in the work

To disrupt or cause problems in an activity or project

S: Last-minute withdrawal of the sponsor threw a spanner in our plans to organize the cultural festival.

147. Wear two/ several hats

To function in more than one capacity

S: He wears two hats in the company – Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Information Officer.

148. Throw one’s weight around

To act in a way that suggests you’ve lot of power or authority

S: The politician tried to throw his weight around with the police, but the police ignored him.

149. Throw caution to the wind

Behave or speak in a rash manner

S: Just to impress others, he threw caution to the wind and climbed the steep rock without any safety gear.

150. Spill the beans

To reveal a secret information unintentionally

S: Someone for sure spilled the beans about the plan of jail inmates to smuggle in weapons. How else could jail authorities know about it?

151. Walk a tightrope

If you walk a tightrope, you do something that allows little room for error.

S: Many educational institutions have to walk a tightrope between charging a high tuition fee and facing criticism, and not charging much and depending on grants.

152. Be in a tight spot

To be in a difficult situation

S: If the government fails to get support from its key ally, it’ll be in a tight spot during the voting tomorrow.

153. Spread yourself thin

To try to do too many things at the same time, implying inadequate time or attention to any of them

S: College students, especially in first year, spread themselves thin by joining multiple elective courses and social activities.

154. Steal the show

If you steal the show, you get lot of attention or credit in an event or show.

S: Chinese participants stole the show on the first day of 2018 Asian Games.

155. Let off steam

To do or say something that helps you release pent-up emotions such as anger or frustration

S: When I get stressed at work, I go on a weekend trek to let off steam.

156. Blow someone’s cover

To reveal someone’s secret identity and what they’re doing

S: The police blew the cover on the plot by tapping kidnappers’ phones.

157. Stick to your guns

To maintain one’s position despite disagreement and opposition from others

S: No matter how much police grills you, you’ve to stick to your guns and state the same story.

158. Leave no stone unturned

To do everything you can to achieve your goal

S: I left no stone unturned to raise money for my company.

159. Set in stone

If something is set in stone, it’s very difficult to change.

S: The contract isn’t set in stone. If the deal is compelling enough, we’re open to change it.

160. Set the record straight

If you set the record straight, you quash misinformation about something by telling the truth.

S: Let me set the record straight on all the talk in the media about my business relationship with the key accused in the scandal.

161. Go on record

If you go on record about something, you say it publicly and officially. (You can’t turn your back on such statement later.)

S: The actors have gone on record describing exploitation of newcomers in the film industry.

162. The last straw (or the straw that broke the camel’s back)

If an event is the last straw, it is the last in a series of unpleasant or undesirable events that exceeds your limit of tolerance.

S: Recent hikes in fuel prices are the last straw for the lower middle class.

163. Bitter pill to swallow

Something such as failure or rejection that is difficult to accept, but has to be accepted

S: Not getting admission to any of the colleges I applied to is a bitter pill to swallow.

164. Laugh all the way to the bank

To earn lot of money by doing something which others thought to be a foolish pursuit

S: Investors dismissed his idea as immature, but he is now laughing all the way to the bank.

165. Show someone the door

To ask someone to leave

S: During my worst period, I was promptly shown the door by very same people who once courted me.

166. Foot in the door

If you get your foot in the door, you succeed in achieving an initial step in an area that is difficult to succeed in.

S: It’s your relationships that help in getting your foot in the door in the initial phase of your business. Otherwise, it can be a grind.

167. In full swing

If something happens in full swing, it happens at the highest speed or level of activity.

S: Our development team is working in full swing to meet the deadline.

168. Turn the tables on somebody

To completely reverse circumstances or gain upper hand on someone who was previously in a stronger position.

S: He turned the tables on his political opponent by reeling off data on how poorly the economy has fared in the last one year.

169. Can’t make head or tail of something

Can’t understand someone or something at all

S: I haven’t been able to make head or tale of the bugs in the software so far.

170. Keep one’s words

To do as promised

S: He always keeps his words. If he has promised to put in a word for you, he will.

171. Lose your temper

If you lose temper, you become very angry.

S: When he started giving excuse for not completing the assignment in time, the teacher lost her temper.

172. Through thick and thin

If you do something through thick and thin, you do it whether circumstances are good or not.

S: He is one of those rare employees who has remained with the organization through thick and thin.

173. Try one’s patience

To test the limit of one’s patience

S: The constant chatter at the back of the class tried the professor’s patience.

174. Twist someone’s arm

Make someone do something by pressurizing them

S: The government brought the rebel leaders to the negotiating table by twisting their arms by launching investigation into their shady business deals.

175. Wash dirty linen in public

If you wash your dirty linen in public, you discuss those matters in public which should have been kept private.

S: The two brothers went public accusing each other of fraud, washing dirty linen in the public in the process.

176. Be off the mark

If something is off the mark, it is incorrect or inaccurate.

S: The meteorology department was quite off the mark in predicting rainfall this week.

177. Wild-goose chase

A search that turns out to be time-wasting and unsuccessful because the thing being searched doesn’t exist or you were given wrong information about its location

S: The treasure hunt to find gold coins expectedly proved to be a wild-goose chase.

178. Have your work cut out

If you’ve your work cut out to do something, you’ve a difficult task at hand.

S: The government has its work cut out in controlling air pollution this winter.

179. Back the wrong horse

To support a person or action that later turns out to be unsuccessful

S: The political party fielded a businessman from the prestigious seat in the national capital, but he lost. They clearly backed the wrong horse.

180. From the horse’s mouth

If you hear from the horse’s mouth, you hear from the original or trustworthy source.

S: We’ve lost the deal we bid for last month. It’s true, because I’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth – my manager.

181. Eat humble pie

Be humiliated by admitting that you are wrong

S: The e-commerce company claimed that they’ll surpass the market leader in two years, but they had to eat humble pie after the latest sales numbers.

182. Have one’s cake and eat it too

To have two good things at the same time that are incompatible and therefore not feasible

S: You don’t want to pay more taxes and still have better services. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

183. Shoot from the hip

To speak bluntly or rashly without thinking carefully

S: If you want to be a spokesperson, you need to avoid your habit of shooting from the hip.

184. In cold blood

If you do something violent and cruel in cold blood, you do it deliberately and in an unemotional way.

S: He was murdered in cold blood.

185. Ace up one’s sleeve

A secret or hidden advantage that you can use when you need it

S: Murali, the mystery bowler whom the opposite team has never played, is an ace up the home team’s sleeve.

186. Play your cards right

To behave or work in a way that gives you an advantage or improves your odds of success.

S: You’ve to play your cards right to cross level 4 in this game.

187. Behind one’s back

If you do something behind someone’s back, you do it secretly without their knowledge (used in negative way).

S: I don’t give a damn to people who say all sorts of things behind my back.

188. Stab someone in the back

Harm someone who trusts you.

S: It’s not uncommon for people to stab colleagues in the back to move ahead in the professional world.

189. Back to the drawing board

If you go back to the drawing board, you make a fresh start or try another idea because the earlier one didn’t succeed.

S: After the new product failed to set the sales number rolling, the team went back to the drawing board.

190. Right off the bat

If you do something right off the bat, you do it immediately.

S: I learnt right off the bat that I need to build good rapport with the marketing team to do well in the organization.

191. Heart misses (skips) a beat

If your heart misses a beat, you feel excited or nervous.

S: My heart skipped few beats while scrolling down the exam result on the notice board.

192. Have your heart in your mouth

If you’ve your heart in mouth, you’re feeling extremely nervous.

S: My heart was in my mouth when he slipped and fell down on the floor.

193. Not the only fish in the sea

Not the only suitable thing or person one can find

S: You shouldn’t be so heartbroken at the rejection by her. Remember, she’s not the only fish in the sea.

194. Not your cup of tea

If you say that someone or something is not your cup of tea, you mean that they’re not the kind of person or thing you like.

S: Sales is not my cup of tea.

195. A piece of cake

If something is a piece of cake, it’s easy to do.

S: Solving such math problems is a piece of cake for me.

196. Call it a day

If you call it a day, you stop what you’re doing because you’re tired of it or you’ve not been successful.

S: Faced with increasing competition and thinning profits, the owner decided to call it a day after twenty years in the business.

197. Call a spade a spade

To speak truth even if it’s unpleasant

S: He doesn’t hold his words and calls a spade a spade.

198. A bolt from the blue

A sudden, unexpected event

S: The resignation of the minister this morning came as a bolt from the blue.

199. In the same boat

If two or more persons are in the same boat, they’re in the same difficult situation.

S: Both of us are in the same boat – without jobs.

200. Miss the boat/ bus

To miss an opportunity

S: He waited far too long to get a good deal. Most good ones are gone now. He missed the boat.

201. Over my dead body

If you say something will happen your dead body, you mean you dislike it and will do everything you can to prevent it.

S: X: We’re selling your old bike to remove the junk that’s gathering in the house. Y: Over my dead body.

202. Bell the cat

To undertake a risky or dangerous task

S: Who’s going to bell the cat and tell the teacher that no one else but her son has pulled off the mischief?

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Anil Yadav

Anil is the person behind this website. He writes on most aspects of English Language Skills. More about him here:


  1. I am thankful to Anil and Lemon Grad for creating this useful page. Because of this page, I scored 96% in English. I was weak in grammar and idioms but your website has helped me a lot.
    Thank you!
    Kavita, Dehradun

  2. Examples use situations that are difficult for my ELL adult learners to grasp. My students are intermediate ELL.

  3. This is really helpful for my son’s 11+ exam prep; thank you very much, Anil. Is there a PDF version of the list available so that I can print it off for him please? Else, I’ll create a list on Word.

  4. Thank you for exposing me to more idiomatic expressions. With these, my command of English will be better and I’m sure of stealing attentions when speaking.

  5. These are the most best idom’s i’ve ever heard! I can tell you put lots of effort in this! Keep it up!

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