20 English Idioms with their Meanings and Origins

23 January, 2014

EFL-anatomy

There’s no doubt about it: English is a challenging language to learn, and that’s largely because it’s full of bizarre colloquialisms that, when you stop and think about them, don’t appear to make much sense to anybody.

As native speakers, we use them without even thinking about where they come from; but to a student trying to learn English, they can be deeply confusing. Knowing a bit about the origins of these sayings is helpful in cementing these language nuggets in the mind. In this article, we’ll look at a number of these interesting idioms and teach you where the expressions came from – and more importantly, how to use them.

1. Play it by ear

Image shows someone playing the piano.

You might also say, “let’s see how things go”.

Meaning: Playing something by ear means that rather than sticking to a defined plan, you will see how things go and decide on a course of action as you go along.

Example: “What time shall we go shopping?” “Let’s see how the weather looks and play it by ear.”

Origins: This saying has its origins in music, as “playing something by ear” means to play music without reference to the notes on a page. This sense of the phrase dates back to the 16th century, but the present use only came into being in mid-20th century America, primarily referring to sports. These days, the expression has lost this focus on sports and can be used in any context.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all EFL and English Culture articles."2. Raining cats and dogs

Image shows a tree in pouring rain.

For this kind of weather, you could also say it was ‘bucketing it down’.

Meaning: We Brits are known for our obsession with the weather, so we couldn’t omit a rain-related idiom from this list. It’s “raining cats and dogs” when it’s raining particularly heavily.

Example: “Listen to that rain!” “It’s raining cats and dogs!”

Origins: The origins of this bizarre phrase are obscure, though it was first recorded in 1651 in the poet Henry Vaughan’s collection Olor Iscanus. Speculation as to its origins ranges from medieval superstition to Norse mythology, but it may even be a reference to dead animals being washed through the streets by floods.

3. Can’t do something to save my life

Meaning: “Can’t do something to save your life” is a hyperbolic way of saying that you’re completely inept at something. It’s typically used in a self-deprecating manner or to indicate reluctance to carry out a task requested of one.

Example: “Don’t pick me – I can’t draw to save my life.”

Origins: Anthony Trollope first used this expression, in 1848 in Kellys and O’Kellys, writing, “If it was to save my life and theirs, I can’t get up small talk for the rector and his curate.”

4. Turn a blind eye

Image shows Horatio Nelson.

‘Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805’ by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

Meaning: To “turn a blind eye” to something means to pretend not to have noticed it.

Example: “She took one of the cookies, but I turned a blind eye.”

Origins: Interestingly, this expression is said to have arisen as a result of the famous English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is alleged to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye, thus ensuring that he would not see any signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.

5. Fat chance

Meaning: We use the expression “fat chance” to refer to something that is incredibly unlikely. Bizarrely, and contrary to what one might expect, the related expression “slim chance” means the same thing.

Example: “We might win the Lottery.” “Fat chance.”

Origins: The origins of this expression are unclear, but the use of the word “fat” is likely to be a sarcastic version of saying “slim chance”. A similar expression is “Chance would be a fine thing”, which refers to something that one would like to happen, but that is very unlikely.

6. Pot calling the kettle black

Meaning: We use this expression to refer to someone who criticises someone else, for something they they themselves are guilty of.

Example: “You’re greedy.” “Pot calling the kettle black?”

Origins: First used in the literature of the 1600s – notably Don Quixote by Cervantes – this expression has its origins in the Medieval kitchen, when both pots and kettles were made from sturdy cast iron and both would get black with soot from the open fire.

7. Once in a blue moon

Image shows a moon, which is tinted violet-blue.

English has lots of moon-related idioms, including ‘to be over the moon’ (to be delighted) and ‘to ask for the moon’ (make excessive and impossible demands).

Meaning: The phrase refers to something that happens very infrequently.

Example: “I only see him once in a blue moon.”

Origins: Confusingly, a blue moon doesn’t refer to the actual colour of the moon; it refers to when we see a full moon twice in one month. This happens every two to three years. It’s thought that the word “blue” may have come from the now obsolete word “belewe”, which meant “to betray”; the “betrayer moon” was an additional spring full moon that would mean people would have to fast for an extra month during Lent. The saying in its present meaning is first recorded in 1821.

8. Head in the clouds

Meaning: Used to describe someone who is not being realistic, the expression “head in the clouds” suggests that the person isn’t grounded in reality and is prone to flights of fancy. The opposite expression would be something like “down to earth”, meaning someone who is practical and realistic.

Example: “He’s not right for this role, he has his head in the clouds.”

Origins: In use since the mid-1600s, the origins of this expression are unclear beyond the obvious imagery of someone who is a bit of a fantasist (having one’s head in the clouds is clearly impossible – or at least it was in the days before aviation!).

9. Mad as a hatter

Image shows John Tenniel's illustration of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.

One of John Tenniel’s famous illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Meaning: “Mad as a hatter” refers to someone who is completely crazy. A similar expression is “mad as a March hare”.

Example: “You could ask him, but he’s mad as a hatter.”

Origins: This is an interesting one. While “hatter” refers to Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter character in Alice in Wonderland, the expression has its origins in the effects of the chronic mercury poisoning commonly experienced by 18th and 19th century hat manufacturers owing to the use of mercurous nitrate in felt hats. “Mad as a March hare” comes from the behaviour of hares during the breeding season, when they run and leap about the fields.

10. Driving me up the wall

Meaning: This expression is used when something (or someone) is causing extreme exasperation and annoyance. A similar expression meaning the same thing is “driving me round the bend”.

Example: “That constant drilling noise is driving me up the wall.”

Origins: The saying evokes someone trying desperately to escape something by climbing up the walls. However, it’s unknown when it was first used.

11. Call it a day

Meaning: This means to stop doing something for the day, for example work, either temporarily or to give it up completely.

Example: “I can’t concentrate – let’s call it a day.”

Origins: The expression was originally “call it half a day”, first recorded in 1838 in a context meaning to leave one’s place of work before the working day was over. “Call it a day” came later, in 1919.

12. Knight in shining armour

Image shows NC Wyeth's illustration of Lancelot and Guinevere.

NC Wyeth’s illustration of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Meaning: A knight in shining armour is a heroic, idealised male who typically comes to the rescue of a female.

Example: “He saved me from humiliation – he’s my knight in shining armour.”

Origins: The phrase harks back to the days of Old England, when popular imagination conjures up images of chivalry and knights coming to the rescue of damsels in distress. Much of this is likely to be Victorian fantasy, as this was a period when interest in the legend of King Arthur and the Court of Camelot was high. The earliest use of the expression was in a poem by Henry Pye in 1790, which referred to “No more the knight, in shining armour dress’d”.

13. Know the ropes

Meaning: Someone who “knows the ropes” is experienced at what they are doing. “Showing someone the ropes” means to explain to them how something is done.

Example: “Ask John, he knows the ropes around here.”

Origins: This phrase has its origins in the golden age of sailing, when understanding how to handle the ropes necessary to operate a ship and its sails was an essential maritime skill. By the mid-19th century it was a common slang expression, and it survives to this day.

14. Larger than life

Meaning: The phrase “larger than life” refers to a flamboyant, gregarious person whose mannerisms or appearance are considered more outlandish than those of other people.

Example: “His colourful waistcoats and unusual taste for hats made him a larger-than-life character in the local community.”

Origins: First recorded in the mid-20th century, the phrase was famously used by The New Yorker to describe wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

15. Extend the olive branch

Image shows a olive branch.

Other idioms with Biblical origins include “setting your teeth on edge” (feeling intensely uncomfortable, such as from hearing nails on a blackboard) and “escaped by the skin of our teeth” (only just escaped).

Meaning: To extend the olive branch is to take steps towards achieving peace with an enemy (or simply someone with whom you have fallen out).

Example: “I thought it was about time I went over there and extended the olive branch.”

Origins: This expression has biblical origins, and was seen as an emblem of peace. In Genesis, a dove brings an olive branch to Noah to indicate that God’s anger had died down and the flood waters had abated.

16. A red herring

Meaning: Often used in the context of television detective shows, a red herring refers to something designed to distract or throw someone off a trail. Hence in a detective show, a clue that appears vital to solving a mystery is often added to heighten suspense, but may turn out to have been irrelevant; it was a red herring.

Example: “It seemed important, but it turned out to be a red herring.”

Origins: A herring is a fish that is often smoked, a process that turns it red and gives it a strong smell. Because of their pungent aroma, smoked herrings were used to teach hunting hounds how to follow a trail, and they would be drawn across the path of a trail as a distraction that the dog must overcome.

17. Barking up the wrong tree

Image shows a dog barking up a tree.

Other fun dog-related idioms include “a shaggy dog story” (a very unlikely, ridiculous story) and “going to see a man about a dog” (said when you don’t want to tell someone where you’re actually going).

Meaning: If someone is “barking up the wrong tree”, they are pursuing a line of thought or course of action that is misguided.

Example: “I’m certain that he was responsible.” “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. He was elsewhere at the time.”

Origins: The saying refers to a dog barking at the bottom of a tree under the mistaken impression that its quarry is up it, suggesting that the phrase has its origins in hunting. The earliest known uses of the phrase date back to the early 19th century.

18. Bite off more than you can chew

Meaning: If you “bite off more than you can chew”, you have taken on a project or task that is beyond what you are capable of.

Example: “I bit off more than I could chew by taking on that extra class.”

Origins: This saying dates back to 1800s America, when people often chewed tobacco. Sometimes the greedier people bit off too large a chunk – hence the warning not to bite off more than they could chew.

19. Blow one’s own trumpet

Image shows a woman joyfully playing the trumpet.

Other music-related idioms include “music to my ears” (usually said of very good news) and “to face the music” (facing the consequence of an action, normally a punishment or scolding).

Meaning: “Blowing one’s own trumpet” means to boast about one’s own achievements.

Example: “Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, I came top of the class.”

Origins: Though phrases meaning the same thing had been in use for centuries, the actual expression is first recorded by Anthony Trollope in his 1873 work Australia and New Zealand.

20. In stitches

Meaning: If you’re “in stitches”, you’re laughing so hard that your sides hurt.

Example: “He was so funny – he had me in stitches all evening.”

Origins: Presumably comparing the physical pain of intense laughter with the prick of a needle, “in stitches” was first used in 1602 by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. After this, the expression isn’t recorded again until the 20th century, but it’s now commonplace.

Though they make it harder to learn, expressions such as those we’ve covered in this article are also what make English so much fun. There are many, many more, and if you choose to attend one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses, you can look forward to adding even more English idioms to your ever-expanding vocabulary.






 

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Image credits: banner; piano; tree; Nelson; moon; Mad Hatter; Lancelot; olive; barking; trumpet

84 Responses to “20 English Idioms with their Meanings and Origins”

  1. June 29, 2014 at 1:09 pm, Neha Agarwal said:

    Thank u for your help……. these idioms saved me from a harsh scolding thank u

    Reply

  2. November 05, 2014 at 8:11 am, Gaily Tisha Bumanglag said:

    Hey thanks this is my apple of my eyes

    Reply

  3. November 09, 2014 at 6:28 pm, onah Joy said:

    I so love the idioms here ,it has actually equipped me with the right words for ”this” annoying fellow! Pls don’t ask me who***winks** thank you so very much.

    Reply

  4. November 30, 2014 at 1:56 pm, Alna said:

    thanks. u have saved me.

    Reply

  5. January 23, 2015 at 12:34 am, christian said:

    wow thanks you really helped me especially with my homework thanks a lot

    Reply

  6. February 09, 2015 at 2:05 pm, RAGHU said:

    it is very old idioms

    Reply

  7. March 01, 2015 at 12:42 pm, colin r.de guzman said:

    nice thank u

    Reply

  8. June 14, 2015 at 7:32 am, Vishesh said:

    You saved me !

    Reply

  9. July 02, 2015 at 3:33 am, Sruthi said:

    Need some more idioms which are rarely used by Indians…..which help in the fluency of English literature.

    Reply

    • May 06, 2017 at 10:04 am, Ekta Agarawak said:

      > what your full name

      Reply

  10. July 04, 2015 at 4:33 pm, yuugu said:

    thanks

    Reply

  11. July 09, 2015 at 8:13 pm, Barby Young said:

    My all time favorite idiom is “honeymoon”. Sadly it wasn’t on your list.

    Reply

  12. August 04, 2015 at 2:29 pm, preethi said:

    It is very useful for my daughter. I am very thankful to this website.

    Reply

  13. August 29, 2015 at 4:07 pm, Agaba said:

    What is the origin of the idiom ‘ he kicked the bucket’?

    Reply

  14. September 19, 2015 at 6:24 am, Immers said:

    To kick the bucket comes from the old days when people would hang themselves by standing on a bucket. Kicking the bucket from under their feet would leave them suspended and lifeless.

    Reply

  15. October 25, 2015 at 6:08 am, tharika said:

    Thanks for giving me good idioms.

    Reply

  16. November 16, 2015 at 10:19 pm, James said:

    Your idioms helped me on my assignment thank you.

    Reply

  17. December 20, 2015 at 8:16 am, Krishna Gorai said:

    Thanks for helping me with my homework.

    Reply

  18. February 01, 2016 at 6:31 am, Ali said:

    Thank you so much for helping me with my assignment.

    Reply

  19. February 06, 2016 at 12:18 am, Damayanti said:

    Thanks a lot..for helping brush up my idioms…

    Reply

  20. February 16, 2016 at 12:12 pm, zandra marie galang said:

    Salamat ho

    Reply

  21. February 28, 2016 at 1:51 pm, tijjani Mohammed said:

    Please complete this statement :
    “If you can write your name… “

    Reply

  22. March 07, 2016 at 5:58 pm, Abdul Wasay said:

    Thanks! This web site helped me for project.

    Reply

  23. March 09, 2016 at 1:14 pm, Laura Bannon said:

    Very well explained, I like it!

    Reply

  24. March 21, 2016 at 5:18 pm, paul said:

    oh lord these idioms have saved me.

    Reply

  25. April 06, 2016 at 1:56 pm, Shaveta Thakur said:

    Really auspicious idioms. Thanks a lot

    Reply

  26. May 20, 2016 at 9:28 am, Sophie said:

    It really helped me so much
    Thanks a lot
    I show my gratitude towards you

    Reply

  27. May 20, 2016 at 9:30 am, Kesar said:

    It was really useful to me
    Thank you very much
    It helped me in doing my h.w.

    Reply

  28. May 20, 2016 at 9:34 am, Kesar said:

    Can you please , also make a website for phrases with meanings
    It will also help me
    Please …..

    Reply

  29. May 21, 2016 at 8:45 am, Hussain said:

    Thanks you to complete my vacation HW

    Reply

  30. June 23, 2016 at 5:24 pm, akhila said:

    thanks a lot i recived great complements

    Reply

  31. June 26, 2016 at 3:25 pm, nitu said:

    these all are important in comptitive exams

    Reply

  32. June 26, 2016 at 3:26 pm, nitu said:

    i like all of them these all are very important of comp. exam.

    Reply

  33. June 27, 2016 at 1:09 pm, Sharmila said:

    I was praised because of these idioms…..

    Reply

  34. July 06, 2016 at 1:11 pm, Ray said:

    THANKS FOR THIS HELP I GOT AN ASSIAGMENT FOR 20 INDOMATIC EXPRESSION THANK YOU !! I,M GRADE 5 THANK YOU !!! 😀 😀 😀

    Reply

    • June 09, 2017 at 6:33 am, Mahesh said:

      > Wlc

      Reply

    • September 25, 2017 at 7:36 pm, extremedance13 said:

      >emojis suck

      Reply

  35. July 12, 2016 at 12:48 pm, Dan said:

    Bob’s your uncle!

    Reply

  36. July 18, 2016 at 3:20 pm, S.HARSHUL said:

    IT IS NICE .MY TEACHER SAID IT WAS NICE .

    Reply

  37. August 10, 2016 at 5:59 am, Franklin said:

    This was a perfect article for a student of mine who is curious about the origins of idioms. He will lap it up! Thank you very much.

    Reply

  38. August 18, 2016 at 10:13 pm, Jeff said:

    hi its jeff again

    Reply

  39. September 03, 2016 at 1:35 pm, Haruna kabo said:

    a lot of thiss

    Reply

  40. October 18, 2016 at 4:26 pm, 22 said:

    there is a mistake in 6th idiom “they”is repeated twice

    Reply

  41. October 24, 2016 at 4:52 pm, zorax said:

    thanks could complete my language project

    Reply

  42. November 03, 2016 at 12:28 pm, dav nans said:

    Thanks so much for the idioms…

    Reply

  43. November 08, 2016 at 12:45 am, Chris said:

    What is the origin of:
    eyes in the back of your head

    Reply

  44. November 09, 2016 at 4:54 pm, scoob said:

    i LOVE idioms

    Reply

  45. November 09, 2016 at 5:00 pm, scoob said:

    <3

    Reply

  46. November 13, 2016 at 3:09 am, John said:

    The hatter one isn’t that accurate.

    Hatters used to lick the linings of hats to make them stick. The linings contained mercury which causes madness so generally old hatters were quirky and eventually often went mad.

    Reply

    • January 27, 2017 at 2:27 pm, keertana said:

      > thanks!!

      Reply

  47. December 02, 2016 at 1:08 pm, hi said:

    where is in a pickle

    Reply

  48. January 27, 2017 at 2:25 pm, keertana said:

    thanks a lot to ‘lend me a hand’ with my assignment..

    this assignment was really ‘over my head’ cuz this subject was ‘not my cup of tea’ and im also ‘not the sharpest pencil in the draw’

    but u made this interesting!!

    thanks a bunch!!

    Reply

  49. February 26, 2017 at 7:28 pm, nokwazi mthethwa said:

    I just killed two birds with one stone

    Thank you…I’m sure nd definitely will pass my English
    paper 3😉

    Reply

  50. March 01, 2017 at 1:34 pm, Antoinette Larence said:

    Project came to life???

    Reply

  51. March 06, 2017 at 7:08 am, Abhilasha said:

    Thank you. This post helped me a lot.

    Reply

  52. April 05, 2017 at 4:34 pm, Gerald Hand said:

    Raining cats and dogs, according to my western civ professor, stems from the thatch roofs used in the middle ages. Cats and dogs would literally slip through the roof when the rain was coming down with sufficient force to allow the animal(s) to fall between the pieces of thatch.

    Reply

  53. April 20, 2017 at 7:43 am, Syed Sabir Ali , Memari, Burdwan, India said:

    Dear Sir, I know them all yet I feel a compulsion to admit that to have the stock of words/phrases/idioms is great, on the contrary, to have played with the same stock makes one not simply great but catapults one into the most coveted class of the intellectuals like yours,i.e.,THE BRITISHERS, the most esteemed people on earth. Anyway,
    some idioms are really didactic and knowledge oriented to sound classic enough though the remaining ones are no less important if one can make use of them in the most appropriate time and situations. Thank you Sir !!

    Reply

    • June 13, 2017 at 6:02 am, ahmad said:

      > Thanks(♥ω♥ ) ~♪(。’▽’。)♡(づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ(灬♥ω♥灬)

      Reply

  54. April 23, 2017 at 3:39 am, dylle said:

    thanks for this magnificent post, i really like how it compose and defined its meaning it made me deepen my knowledge not only in language but also in meaning.

    Reply

  55. April 27, 2017 at 5:18 am, Binita said:

    Can you post more color related proverbs with usage and meaning and origin

    Reply

  56. April 27, 2017 at 5:45 am, Sheetal said:

    Thanks a lot

    Reply

  57. May 05, 2017 at 7:53 am, Karthik said:

    Thanks it helped me

    Reply

  58. May 06, 2017 at 9:50 am, Ekta Agarawak said:

    I like your idioms very much as it help me to complete my project with excellent marks

    Reply

  59. May 06, 2017 at 4:52 pm, Ketaki Balu Kawade said:

    HEY THIS WAS GENIUS…….

    IT HELPED ME DO MY HOLIDAY HW
    MAKING IT EXITING..

    Reply

  60. May 06, 2017 at 5:09 pm, Swara Sandeep Pathni said:

    Thanks a lot yarr

    Me to puri gayi thi …I was going to be punished

    But you literally saved me on time

    Reply

  61. May 12, 2017 at 6:54 am, abhiben said:

    thanks

    Reply

  62. May 12, 2017 at 6:56 am, abhiben said:

    Raining cats and dogs

    Reply

  63. May 21, 2017 at 1:09 pm, Sneha said:

    You saved me and helped in my holiday homework

    Reply

  64. May 22, 2017 at 7:21 am, Isha sharma said:

    It really helped me in enriching my knowledge towards idioms…. And I really enjoyed reading… Thnx

    Reply

  65. May 22, 2017 at 7:23 am, Isha sharma said:

    It really help me…. I enjoyed reading and enriching my knowledge towards idioms …. Thnx

    Reply

  66. May 22, 2017 at 7:25 am, Isha sharma said:

    I really appreciate this website… Good work

    Reply

  67. May 24, 2017 at 3:58 am, Vibha M N said:

    yay! i could finally complete my hhw!!

    Reply

  68. May 29, 2017 at 6:08 pm, garima said:

    useless

    Reply

  69. June 01, 2017 at 9:35 am, jdjjd said:

    Saved me

    Reply

  70. June 02, 2017 at 7:22 am, maris said:

    a drop of water that falls on top of a leaf gave it live

    Reply

  71. June 02, 2017 at 7:24 am, maris said:

    a drop of water that falls on the top of a leaf gave it life

    Reply

  72. June 25, 2017 at 4:38 pm, Gaurav said:

    Thank u very much….

    Reply

  73. July 22, 2017 at 11:13 am, yaboi said:

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    Reply

    • September 25, 2017 at 7:38 pm, extremedance13 said:

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      Reply

  74. September 03, 2017 at 1:41 pm, side said:

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  75. September 07, 2017 at 2:17 pm, Llavina said:

    Thank you

    Reply

  76. September 07, 2017 at 3:11 pm, sakthi sharan said:

    This is very helpful

    Reply

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