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20 English Idioms with their Meanings and Origins

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  … Read more

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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.

 

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Learning a language is a little like learning an instrument; and just like an instrument, there are some fiddly bits!.

 

1. Play it by ear

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.

 

2. Raining cats and dogs

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

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

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

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.

 

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This is what you call a knight in shining armour..

12. Knight in shining armour

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

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

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 chewer would put into their mouth more than they could fit; it’s quite self-explanatory!

 

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Fine in a band- frowned upon elsewhere..

 

19. Blow one’s own trumpet

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.

Comments (104)

  1. Neha Agarwal


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

  2. Gaily Tisha Bumanglag


    Hey thanks this is my apple of my eyes

  3. onah Joy


    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.

  4. Alna


    thanks. u have saved me.

  5. christian


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

  6. RAGHU


    it is very old idioms

    • Shagun


      Then don’t see them. Ok!!!

    • Shagun


      Stupid.so why are you still looking it???

  7. colin r.de guzman


    nice thank u

  8. Vishesh


    You saved me !

  9. Sruthi


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

    • Ekta Agarawak


      > what your full name

  10. yuugu


    thanks

  11. Barby Young


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

    • cyrell surio


      > thank you. Lovelotsssssssss

    • Shagun


      >????

    • Shagun


      >?????

    • Alia


      Love you so much baby

  12. preethi


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

  13. Agaba


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

  14. Immers


    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.

  15. tharika


    Thanks for giving me good idioms.

  16. James


    Your idioms helped me on my assignment thank you.

  17. Krishna Gorai


    Thanks for helping me with my homework.

  18. Ali


    Thank you so much for helping me with my assignment.

  19. Damayanti


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

  20. zandra marie galang


    Salamat ho

  21. tijjani Mohammed


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

  22. Abdul Wasay


    Thanks! This web site helped me for project.

  23. Laura Bannon


    Very well explained, I like it!

  24. paul


    oh lord these idioms have saved me.

  25. Shaveta Thakur


    Really auspicious idioms. Thanks a lot

  26. Sophie


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

  27. Kesar


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

  28. Kesar


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

  29. Hussain


    Thanks you to complete my vacation HW

  30. akhila


    thanks a lot i recived great complements

  31. nitu


    these all are important in comptitive exams

  32. nitu


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

  33. Sharmila


    I was praised because of these idioms…..

    • Mahesh


      > wlc

  34. Ray


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

    • Mahesh


      > Wlc

    • extremedance13


      >emojis suck

  35. Dan


    Bob’s your uncle!

  36. S.HARSHUL


    IT IS NICE .MY TEACHER SAID IT WAS NICE .

  37. Franklin


    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.

  38. Jeff


    hi its jeff again

  39. Haruna kabo


    a lot of thiss

  40. 22


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

  41. zorax


    thanks could complete my language project

  42. dav nans


    Thanks so much for the idioms…

  43. Chris


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

  44. scoob


    i LOVE idioms

  45. scoob


    <3

  46. John


    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.

    • keertana


      > thanks!!

  47. hi


    where is in a pickle

  48. keertana


    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!!

  49. nokwazi mthethwa


    I just killed two birds with one stone

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

  50. Antoinette Larence


    Project came to life???

  51. Abhilasha


    Thank you. This post helped me a lot.

  52. Gerald Hand


    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.

  53. Syed Sabir Ali , Memari, Burdwan, India


    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 !!

    • ahmad


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

  54. dylle


    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.

  55. Binita


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

  56. Sheetal


    Thanks a lot

  57. Karthik


    Thanks it helped me

  58. Ekta Agarawak


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

  59. Ketaki Balu Kawade


    HEY THIS WAS GENIUS…….

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

  60. Swara Sandeep Pathni


    Thanks a lot yarr

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

    But you literally saved me on time

  61. abhiben


    thanks

  62. abhiben


    Raining cats and dogs

  63. Sneha


    You saved me and helped in my holiday homework

  64. Isha sharma


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

  65. Isha sharma


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

  66. Isha sharma


    I really appreciate this website… Good work

  67. Vibha M N


    yay! i could finally complete my hhw!!

  68. garima


    useless

  69. jdjjd


    Saved me

  70. maris


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

  71. maris


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

  72. Gaurav


    Thank u very much….

  73. yaboi


    YEEEEE BOI

    • extremedance13


      > yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee bbbbbbbbbbbooooooooooooooiiiiiiiiii

  74. side


    Ⲩour means of explаining еverything in thiѕ ρarаgraph
    is really pleasant, all can wіthout difficulty know it, Thаnks a lot.

  75. Llavina


    Thank you

  76. sakthi sharan


    This is very helpful

  77. no name boi


    wasssssupppp!!!!!!!

  78. no name boi


    if ur reading this kim jong un took over america LOL

  79. mihz tee


    thx u are a life saver

  80. Luke


    Wassup

  81. Luke


    ?✌️

  82. Jake


    Hey girl ?

    • WEAVE SNATCHED


      > wth dood. not the time.

  83. Grace


    Thanks u helped me with my assignments

  84. Shreya


    Thanks so much for this it has saved me

  85. Shreya


    It helped me so much thanks

  86. BENUYENAH PATRICIA


    This finds me well. I love using idioms.
    THANK YOU!!

  87. Hip hop tamizhan


    Before searching for idioms i don’t know about it but now I completely came to know about it. THANK YOU. HATS OFF

  88. Idioms


    Hello, I would like to thank you very much for the wonderful list of idioms with their meaning, example and origins. This is very helpful for teachers to teach students.

    Again many thanks,
    Amy from Australia

  89. Zart


    I really like these they are easy to understand and learn

  90. Regina


    I’ve known some of them but now I’ve learned many more~ Thanks


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