What are Idioms and Phrases?
A phrase is a group of words that represents a part of speech.
- The big bad wolf – Noun Phrase
- Surprisingly good – Adjective Phrase
- Was sleeping – Verb Phrase
When the group of words or a phrase represents an idea or a thought which has a deeper, figurative meaning, it is called an idiom.
- Wolf in sheep’s clothing – A deceptive person or a thing
- Flesh and blood – related by blood
- No love lost – not on good terms
In this chapter, we shall learn some commonly used English idioms and phrases.
Idioms Related to Animals
To cry wolf
Meaning: To raise a false alarm
Usage: Naresh has a tendency to cry wolf every time, so don’t pay attention to him.
A bull in a china shop
Meaning: Someone who is clumsy or unskilled
Usage: Mario was like a bull in a china shop when it came to handling the finances.
A fly in the ointment
Meaning: Something which spoils the beauty or balance
Usage: The only fly in the ointment is the ugly looking house amid the beautiful buildings.
To be the underdog
Meaning: A competitor who has little or no chance of winning
Usage: No one had expected an underdog like Floyd to beat the three-time champion.
The elephant in the room
Meaning: A deliberately unaddressed topic which may cause embarrassment or awkwardness if mentioned
Usage: Rohini’s ugly divorce was the elephant in the room at the party.
Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To make a wrong choice or to ask the wrong person
Usage: If the detectives think the house help is involved in the theft, they are barking up the wrong tree.
Cat’s got one’s tongue
Meaning: To neither speak nor respond
Usage: Why aren’t you answering? Did the cat get your tongue?
The lion’s share
Meaning: The biggest part
Usage: Being the person who invested the most, Rajan got the lion’s share of the profits.
A red herring
Meaning: A deceptive piece of information intended to mislead someone from the truth
Usage: The scarf at the crime scene was a red herring which made us think that the culprit is a woman.
Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: To rain very heavily
Usage: Last night, it rained cats and dogs. Fortunately, everyone was indoors.
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: Information taken from a reliable or an authorised source
Usage: Jagan, Krishna’s best friend, said that he is indeed resigning. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.
Until the cows come home
Meaning: For a very long time
Usage: We cannot delay the matter till the cows come home.
Idioms Related to the Paranormal
Baying for blood
Wanting to punish or hurt someone
After the con artist decamped with their money, the swindled residents are now baying for his blood.
A campaign to punish people who may have unconventional views
The authorities launched a witch hunt against the people who voted for the opponent.
A person who presents a counter view just for argument
Let me play the devil’s advocate and ask you what happens if plan A fails.
Idioms Related to Food
Apple of someone’s eye
Meaning: A beloved person cherished more than any other
Usage: Samantha was the apple of her father’s eye.
The salt of the earth
Meaning: A person who is giving, trustworthy and honest
Usage: I am glad that my friend married Kamlesh. He truly is the salt of the earth.
With a grain of salt
Meaning: To not trust something completely; to treat something with suspicion
Usage: The news related to the cricketer’s retirement should be taken with a grain of salt.
Put all your eggs in one basket
Meaning: To depend on something entirely
Usage: By depending entirely on the written section of the examination, you have put all your eggs in one basket.
Bread and butter
Usage: Singing is my bread and butter.
Bring home the bacon
Meaning: Earn a livelihood
Usage: These days, women not only look after the needs of their family but also bring home the bacon.
A bad egg
Meaning: A dishonest person
Usage: Nilesh is a bad egg who was accused of stealing money from his workplace.
Cool as a cucumber
Meaning: A calm and relaxed person
Usage: Our new manager is as cool as a cucumber; he handles everything calmly.
Cry over spilled milk
Meaning: To worry about something which cannot be undone
Usage: You cannot take back the harsh things you said to him; there is no use crying over spilled milk.
Full of beans
Meaning: To be very energetic and spirited
Usage: Gregory who is usually morose is full of beans today.
Eat the humble pie
Meaning: To be humbled by an experience which proves one wrong
Usage: If I am right, I will gloat about it; if I am wrong, I will gladly eat the humble pie.
Piece of cake
Meaning: An extremely easy task
Usage: Testdriving the new fully automatic car was a piece of cake.
Idioms Related to Mental State
Method to the madness
Meaning: A plan in somebody’s seemingly illogical behaviour
Usage: It is easy to dismiss Van Gogh’s works as products of an unstable mind; however, there is a method to his madness.
To lose one’s marbles
Meaning: To lose one’s mental balance
Usage: The man was rambling about how he fought in the world war. I think he has lost his marbles.
Meaning: A silly or impractical idea
Usage: Don’t fall for Dinesh’s harebrained ideas. He is not the most sensible person around.
Stark raving mad
Meaning: Completely crazy
Usage: Imagine keeping a cobra as a pet. Looks like she is stark raving mad!
Not playing with a full deck
Meaning: Mentally unsound
Usage: It was embarrassing to hear her talk senselessly in front of the audience. Seems like she wasn’t playing with a full deck.
Mad as a hatter
Meaning: Crazy or mad
Usage: Gajendra is an eccentric writer who can seem as mad as a hatter to some.
Idioms Related to Household Items and Miscellaneous Things
Can’t hold a candle to
Meaning: Cannot be compared to something which is vastly superior
Usage: Darshana cannot hold a handle to Meena when it comes to intelligence.
To blow off steam
Meaning: Do something to relieve pent-up frustration or other negative emotions
Usage: I play cricket with my friends after a long day at school to blow off steam.
Too big for his boots
Meaning: To become overconfident
Usage: After three consecutive wins, Marshall has become too big for his boots.
To blow the whistle
Meaning: To report a wrongdoing
Usage: Manisha blew the whistle on her employers who were procuring material through unlawful means.
A pot calling the kettle black
Meaning: Calling out someone for a wrongdoing which he himself is guilty of in the first place
Usage: The ex-convict turned minister criticising his opponent of having mafia links is a case of a pot calling the kettle black.
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer
Meaning: Not very intelligent
Usage: I am not surprised that Harish failed the interview. He is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Dead as a doornail
Usage: These flowers look as dead as a doornail.
Idioms Related to Parts of the Body
Scratch someone’s back
Meaning: Do a favour for someone in the hope that the favour would be returned someday
Usage: I will give you a part of the loot if you co-operate; you scratch my back and I scratch yours.
A chip on her shoulder
Meaning: To be enraged easily
Usage: Maya who tends to have a chip on her shoulder did not take too kindly to Asha’s remarks.
Meaning: To get courage and comfort from a reassuring fact
Usage: After Puneet’s speech, the underprivileged students took heart from his rags-to-riches story.
Meaning: To suffer as a result of a bad decision
Usage: Neeraj burnt his fingers after foolishly spending crores on property in an inhabitable part of the city.
By the skin of one’s teeth
Meaning: Just barely
Usage: Richa escaped the wrath of the teacher by the skin of her teeth.
Thick in the head
Meaning: Dull or stupid
Usage: Roofus is too thick in the head to understand his master’s instructions.
Down in the mouth
Usage: After her friend’s departure, Margaret is a little down in the mouth.
Meaning: To listen attentively
Usage: Tell us all about your trip to Peru. We are all ears!
Break a leg
Meaning: A phrase said to actors in an ironic manner to avoid bad luck before a performance
Usage: I hope you all perform well. Go break a leg!
Cost an arm and a leg
Meaning: Cost a lot/expensive
Usage: Vineeta’s new house by the bay cost her an arm and a leg.
Get something off one’s chest
Meaning: Make a confession
Usage: I want to get something off my chest; it was my dog that destroyed your flowerbed.
Have one’s head in the clouds
Meaning: To be in a fantasy world
Usage: He seems to have his head in the clouds ever since the boss promised him a promotion.
Keep one’s chin up
Meaning: To be optimistic during trying times
Usage: Be positive and keep your chin up. Your efforts will be rewarded.
Play something by ear
Meaning: To not have a plan and to take things as they come
Usage: None of us have any formal training; we just play by the ear.
Rule of thumb
Meaning: A basic principle
Usage: The thumb rule for making a delicious cake is getting the proportions of the ingredients right.
Wash one’s hands of something
Meaning: To disassociate oneself from a problem
Usage: I have washed my hands of my neighbours; they are on their own now.
Idioms Related to History/Mythology
Cross the rubicon
Meaning: Pass a point of no return
Explanation: Julius Caesar had crossed a river (the rubicon), after which he became a part of a civil war.
Usage: Salim crossed the rubicon by accepting the position of the assistant manager.
Meaning: A weak spot/primary weakness
Explanation: Achilles, the greatest warrior on earth, was invincible. The only part of his body which was vulnerable was his heel. He was killed after being struck on the heel with a poisonous arrow.
Usage: Math has always been her Achilles’ heel.
Meaning: A victory which comes at a huge cost
Explanation: It is named after King Pyrrhus who incurred great losses despite his victory over the Romans.
Usage: The king conquered new kingdoms but lost all his best men. It was unfortunately a pyrrhic victory.
Meaning: Something which looks harmless but intends to harm covertly
Explanation: It is named after the wooden horse the Greeks gifted the Trojans as a peace offering. In reality, it was a ruse and the wooden horse was full of Greek soldiers who were wheeled into Troy by the unsuspecting citizens. The soldiers broke out at night and burnt the city to the ground.
Usage: His seemingly harmless offer is actually a Trojan horse; he will strike when you least expect it.
(Note: Some harmful computer programs are also called Trojans/Trojan horses.)
Beware the Greeks bearing gifts
Meaning: Do not trust your enemies even if they seem to have the best intentions
Explanation: Refer to the explanation for ‘Trojan Horse’.
Usage: Person A: My arch rival is being good to me these days.
Person B: You know the saying: beware the Greeks bearing gifts.
The face that launched a thousand ships
Meaning: To be the primary cause of a big problem
Explanation: It alludes to Helen of Troy who was the main cause of the war breaking out between the Greeks and the Trojans. She eloped with the young prince Paris which caused her husband King Menelaus to declare war on Troy.
Usage: Hers is a face that launched a thousand ships. Both suitors were warring against each other in a bid to court her.
Hounds of hell
Meaning: To be pursued by evil forces as a retribution for a wrongdoing
Explanation: In Greek mythology, the underworld is guarded by devilish looking hounds. These hounds are also known to pursue sinners to punish them.
Usage: If one dares to oppose the mafia crime boss, one would be pursued by his hounds of hell.
Meaning: An ability to make money easily
Explanation: The phrase is named after king Midas who was known to turn anything he touched into gold.
Usage: Subodh is a rich man today because of his fine business acumen. He is known to have a Midas touch.
Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion
Meaning: A person in a high public position should have a very good reputation and should even be free of suspicion
Explanation: Julius Caesar’s wife Pompeia was divorced by him since she was suspected of adultery. Even though Caesar knew that his wife was innocent, he still divorced her stating even the taint of suspicion should not befall his wife.
Usage: The new political party positioned themselves as a cleaner alternative to existing corrupt parties. They should guard their reputation with their lives since Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion.
Idioms Related to Business and Work
Meaning: A business venture which gives steady returns and good profits
Usage: 50% of our revenue is made of the sales of our renowned jalebi. It is safe to say that sweetmeat is our primary cash cow.
Meaning: A payment given to someone who leaves or loses a job
Usage: Hamid was given the golden handshake when he was laid off last year.
Grease someone’s palms
Meaning: To offer a bribe
Usage: Whose palms do I have to grease to speed things up?
Hold the fort
Meaning: To take care of a place in the absence of the person who is usually in charge
Usage: When the owner Mrs Sousa is on a business trip, her assistant Mr Cardoza holds the fort
Give a blank cheque
Meaning: To give someone complete freedom to act in the way they deem fit
Usage: Mr Dutta gave Rajnish a blank cheque for the administrative work in the organisation.
Back to the salt mines
Meaning: To return to work
Usage: After the short vacations, it is back to the salt mines again!
Hold all the aces
Meaning: To have all the advantages
Usage: Manish’s rivals are jealous because he holds all the aces in the company.
Ace up your sleeve
Meaning: To have advantages which others have no knowledge of
Usage: Christopher has an ace up his sleeve; he knows how to floor the guests with his signature dessert.
Too many chiefs and not enough Indians
Meaning: Too many people who give orders and not enough people who follow orders
Usage: The work will not be completed if everyone wants to be the boss. There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
Idioms Related to Studies
Meaning: To know something from memory
Usage: After repeating it around a hundred times, I now know the chemical formula by heart.
Meaning: Someone who has a habit of copying from others
Usage: I am seated beside that copycat Sakshi for the exams.
Meaning: A student who enjoys privileges on account of being the favourite of the teacher
Usage: Veena got the best topic for the assignment; could she be the teacher’s pet?
Thinking cap on
Meaning: To think hard or to try to find a solution to a difficult problem
Usage: Let us all put on our thinking caps and figure out how to organise the class picnic.
Meaning: Someone who spends most time in reading
Usage: You rarely see Radhika without a book. She is the biggest bookworm I have ever known.
A for effort
Meaning: Acknowledging someone for his or her efforts even if it was not successful
Usage: Although he didn’t pass, I have to give Ganesh an A for effort.
Back to basics
Meaning: Learn the basic concepts again
Usage: I have forgotten all the formulas. Looks like I have to go back to basics.
Cover a lot of ground
Meaning: To accomplish a great deal within a short span of time
Usage: Although she was allotted only a week, our substitute teacher covered a lot of ground in History.
Show of hands
Meaning: To put up one’s hands for the purpose of votes or survey
Usage: Through a show of hands, how many of you would want Gauri as the class representative?
School of hard knocks
Meaning: Learning through life’s negative experiences
Usage: Whatever Bill has learnt in life is through the school of hard knocks.
An old head on young shoulders
Meaning: Someone who is wise for his or her age
Usage: The precocious young child speaks with wisdom which is rare for a child of her age. She is truly an old head on a young body.
Learn the ropes
Meaning: To understand the tricks and workings of a job
Usage: In barely a year, Vinayak has learnt the ropes in the industry.
Meaning: A silly mistake
Usage: How can an inveterate lawyer commit such a schoolboy error?