What’s an idiom? How is it different from a proverb?

An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a meaning that in most cases cannot be deduced directly from the individual words in that phrase or expression.

For example, the idiom ‘bite off more than you can chew’ doesn’t mean you bite more than a mouthful of a cake or something else and then struggle to chew. It means you try to do something that is too difficult for you.

How are they different from proverbs? Proverbs are well-known sayings, stating a general truth or advice. For example, the proverb ‘a picture is worth thousand words’ is a general truth. The idiom ‘bite off more than you can chew’, however, is neither a general truth nor an advice.

Before you get into the idioms, I would give you a tip if you want to use them (versus just know the meaning).

It’s relatively easier to remember words than to remember idioms (and proverbs), because idioms typically contain 3-4 or more words. Remembering a string of words in the correct sequence and recalling them in a flash while speaking isn’t easy.

One thing that has helped me remember and, more importantly, use them is to repeat the idiom few times loudly and then in 2-3 different sentences (like the examples in this post).

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You may also find list of 150 proverbs (with meanings and examples) and 200+ tongue twisters useful.

Here is the list of 200 popular idiomatic expressions, and for you to consolidate what you’re learning, there’re four quizzes in this post, one after every 50:

1. Stir up a hornets’ nest

Provoke trouble

Example: 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. Back against the wall

Be in a difficult situation from where escape is difficult

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

3. Bite off more than you can chew

To try to do something that is too difficult for you

Example: 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.

4. Head over heels

If you’re head over heels, you’re completely in love.

Example: Max fell head over heels in love with her colleague and wants to marry her.

5. Upset someone’s applecart

If you upset someone’s applecart, you do something that causes a plan to go wrong.

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

6. Spoil someone’s plans

To ruin someone’s plans

Example: The heavy overnight rain spoilt our plan to play cricket next morning.

7. Keep someone at arm’s length

If you keep someone at arm’s length, you avoid becoming friendly with them.

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

8. Up in arms

Angry about something

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

9. Drive a hard bargain

If you drive a hard bargain, you argue hard to get a favorable deal.

Example: The author tried to drive a hard bargain with the publisher on signing amount, but couldn’t because he didn’t have best sellers in his name.

10. Barking up the wrong tree

To ask the wrong person or follow the wrong course

Example: The sales team blamed the engineers for the organization’s failure to bag the mega deal, but they were barking up the wrong tree.

11. Scrape the barrel

When you’re scraping the barrel, you’re using something you do not want to but you’ve no option.

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

12. Bend over backwards

To try please or accommodate someone to an unusual degree

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

13. A chip off the old block

If you’re a chip off the old block, you’re similar in some distinct way to your father or mother.

Example: He is as stingy as her mother – a real chip off the old block.

14. Blow your own trumpet

If you blow your own trumpet, you tell people how good or successful you are (used in negative way).

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

15. Once in a blue moon

If something happens once in a blue moon, it happens rarely.

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

16. Burn your boats/ bridges

If you burn your boats, you do something that makes it impossible to change your plans and go back to the earlier position or situation.

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

17. Make no bones about something

If you make no bones about something, you say clearly what you feel or think about it.

Example: Jack made no bones about getting a hike in his salary.

18. Break fresh/ new ground

If you break new ground, you do something that was not done before.

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

19. In the same breath

When you say two things in the same breath, you say two very different or contradictory things.

Example: How can the manager praise my colleague and talk of his average performance in the same breath?

20. Take away your breath

If someone or something takes your breath away, it astonishes you.

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

21. Sell like hot cakes

If something sells like hot cakes, it sells very fast.

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

22. Burn the candle at both ends

If you burn the candle at both ends, you work excessively hard, say, by keeping two jobs or by leading a busy social life in the evening.

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

23. Separate the wheat from the chaff

If you separate wheat from the chaff, you separate valuable from worthless.

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

24. Change tune

If you change your tune, you change the way you behave with others from good to bad.

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

25. Run around in circles

To be active without achieving any worthwhile result

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

26. Turn the clock back

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

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

27. Against the clock

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

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

28. Close the door on someone

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

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

29. Burn the midnight oil

To work late in the night

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

30. 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.

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

31. On cloud nine

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

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

32. Under a cloud

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

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

33. Head in the clouds

If your head is in the clouds, you’re not in touch with the ground realities.

Example: Many academics have their heads in the clouds.

34. Small cog in a large wheel

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

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

35. The other side of the coin

The other point of view

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

36. 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.

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

37. Left out in the cold

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

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

38. 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.

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

39. Blow hot and cold

If you blow hot and cold, you vacillate.

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

40. To come to a head

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

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

41. Cool your heels

Wait for something, especially when it’s annoying

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

42. Cut corners

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

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

43. Run its course

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

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

44. Stay the course

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

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

45. 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.

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

46. Daylight robbery

Blatant overcharging

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

47. Boil the ocean

If you try to boil the ocean, you try to accomplish something too ambitious.

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

48. Handle with kid gloves

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

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

49. Clear the decks

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

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

50. 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.

Example: 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.

As you get into the first quiz, here is a hint for this and subsequent three quizzes: some of the multiple choices may not even be idioms (revisit definition of the idiom at the beginning of the post to know why) and therefore should be ruled out right at the outset.

Click on the tabs below to open the quiz and its answers.