VOCABULARY - IDIOMS


Idiomatic Expressions - List in Alphabetical Order


idioms

List of idioms in alphabetical order

A list of idioms arranged in alphabetical order (with definitions and examples.) For a list arranged in categories, click here


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Learn English Idioms

A list of English idioms with definitions and examples:

call a spade a spade
to be truthful about something, even if it is rude or unpleasant.

Lacy never fears to tell the truth. She calls a spade a spade.

Category | general

call in sick
If you call in sick, you inform your employer that you will be absent because you are ill.

Many employees called in sick because of the flu.
He called in sick and went shopping with his wife.
Why don't you call in sick and go with us to the beach?


Category | health

call it a day
to stop working for the rest of the day.

Why don't we call it a day? I'm really tired.

Category | time

call off the dogs
If you call off the dogs, you stop criticizing or attacking someone.

Origin


The dogs referred to in this phrase are hunting dogs. These dogs are often loosed as a form of intimidation. When they finish serving their purpose they are called off and returned to their kennel.

By analogy, the idiom refers to a situation where one is asked to stop behaving aggressively toward someone else.

Please, call off the dogs. I apologize for what I have done.
It is time to call off the dogs; he’s had enough!
The only way to call off the dogs is to apologize and admit you were wrong.


Category | animals

call on the carpet
To reprimand; to censure severely or angrily.

I hope he wouldn't be called on the carpet by the boss.

Category | furniture

call someone names
to call someone by unpleasant, abusive or insulting names.

because he called his teacher names, Bill was punished.

Category | names

call the shots
If you call the shots you are in charge. You decide on the course of action and take the initiative.

This is my wedding party; I will call the shots.

Category | war

call the tune
to be the one who controls a situation; to have the most power and authority in a situation

In any deal you have with banks, it's them who call the tune.

Category | music

calm before the storm
the calm before the storm is an unussual or false quiet period before a period of upheaval.

The negotiation between the two parties may be peaceful now. But don't be misled! This is only the calm before the storm.

Category | nature

cannot stomach someone or something
The phrase cannot stomach someone or something means not to be able to tolerate someone or something.

Another variation of this idiom is not to be able to stomach someone or something

She cannot stomach his silly remarks.

Category | parts of the body

Captain Obvious
The name Captain Obvious is used in conversation to draw attention to a self-evident fact.

It is used sarcastically to mean that someone had just stated something obvious.

The phrase uses captain in the sense of a comic book super-hero.

John: Did you know that the earth turns around the sun?

Sara: Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious!


Category | names

carrot and stick
If you use the carrot and stick technique to persuade people to do something, you combine both rewards if they do it and punishment if they do not.

Origin


This phrase refers to an offer that involves a reward countered by the threat of punishment. It alludes to a method used to entice a horse or donkey to move by hanging a carrot before it and/or pushing it forward by hitting it with a stick. The carrot serves as the attractive offer and the stick symbolizes the threat. The idiom is first thought to appear in the mid-1800s.

The carrot-and-stick method is widely used in politics. For instance, it was used by Joseph Stalin during and after World War II to establish stronger control over the states of the Soviet Sphere of Influence.

The president took a carrot and stick approach to the protests against his new laws.
The government intends to use a carrot and stick method to force both parties to negotiate.


Category | food

carry a tune
The phrase to carry a tune means to sing a melody accurately.

I can't carry a tune, but my sister sings very well.

Category | music

carry the ball
to take charge and control of an activity and be considered reliable enough to do a job.

He can't carry the ball. He isn't reliable.

Category | sport

case in point
an example that illustrates a point

Plaing with these toys can be dangerous. For a case in point, look at what happened to our neighbor's child.

Category | general

case-by-case
Separate and distinct from others of the same kind.

All applications are scrutinized on a case-by-case basis.

Category | law

cash cow

A cash cow refers to someone or something that generates a steady return of profits; a moneymaker.

Origin


The phrase 'cash cow' makes reference to farm dairy cows raised to produce milk and cheese, providing a regular stream of income with little maintenance.
Female cows give birth to calves and continue to provide milk. Farmers sell that milk with little work and maintenance for a regular income.
In business, a cash cow is an investment that generates a steady stream of income with little effort or maintenance.

See wikipedia...

1. Typewriters, which had been their cash cow for so many years, witnessed a collapse of sales.
2. The young actress turned out to be the cash cow for most Hollywood studios.
3. The YouTube channel he created is a cash cow that generates a 6-figure income.


Category | animals

castles in the air
Plans that are unlikely to happen.

Before you start building castles in the air, just think how much all this is likely to cost.

Category | nature

cat burglar
A cat burglar refers to a thief who enters a building by skillfully climbing to a building without attracting notice.

He was known for being a cat burglar who only stole from apartments in high buildings

Category | crime

cat got your tongue
Why aren't you speaking?

Tell us about the trip. What happened? What's the matter? A cat got your tongue!

Category | animals

catch someone's eye
The phrase to catch someone's eye means to get someone's attention.

It was her beautiful hair that caught my eye.

Category | parts of the body

caught in a time warp
The phrase to be caught in a time warp is an idiomatic expression that means to remain unchanged from a time in the past although everything else has.

Another variation of this idiom is to be stuck in a time warp or to be in a time warp.

The town seems to be caught in a time warp. People there are living as if they were still in the middle age.

Category | time

caught in the crossfire
This phrase is an idiomatic expression that literally means to be trapped between two lines of enemy fire. Figuratively, the phrase refers to a situation in which one is caught between opposing people arguing about something, making it difficult to remain neutral.

1. A young girl is killed in crossfire after a routine arrest.
2. John and Mary were arguing. Their little girl was caught in the crossfire.


Category | war

chalk something up to inexperience
To attribute a failure to inexperience and learn from that particular experience.

Chalk it up to inexperience, I guess, but he made a very poor decision.

Category | general

charity begins at home
Charity begins at home is a proverb. It means that, before deciding to take care of other people, one's family should be one's foremost concern.

Origin


Since ancient times, the term has been used in many ways in the English language.

Contrary to popular belief, the phrase "charity begins at home” did not originate in the Bible. But the idea that one should put one’s family as a priority has been mentioned in many instances in the bible:
“But if any provide not for his owne, & specially for those of his owne house, hee hath denied the faith, and is worse then an infidel.” 1 Timothy 5:8, King James Bible, 1611

And in the Quran:
"They ask you, (O Muhammad), what they shall spend. Say: That which you spend for good (must go) to parents and near kindred and orphans and the needy and the wayfarer. " (2:215).


Sir Thomas Browne, in his book Religio Medici, published in 1642, was the first to use the idiom in its current form:
Charity begins at home, is the voice of the world: yet is every man his greatest enemy.


Take care of your children before volunteering in any association. Charity begins at home.

Category | home

Charley horse
If you get a Charley horse, you develop a cramp in the arm or the leg muscle because of excessive muscular strain or a blow.

Origin


The phrase is mostly used in American English. Its origin is unclear though. Some sources suggest that it comes from the baseball sport during the 1880s.

According to one theory, the expression was coined to describe a lame horse named Charley who drew the roller at the Chicago White Sox field.

Another origin attributes the phrase to Charley Radbourne, better known as Old Hoss, a baseball pitcher who experienced a muscle cramp during a game in the 1880s.

According to other sources, John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a baseball player adopted this term from his father, who looked after a horse named Charley. When Jack Glasscock's father saw his son hobbling due to a leg injury, he allegedly said:
“Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go like the old Charley horse?”

Neither of the above accounts can be proven, and the origin of the phrase "charley horse" is still a mystery.

He left the game with a terrible charley horse.
She got a charley horse while swimming.


Category | health

charmed life
The phrase "charmed life" refers to a life protected as if by magic charms. It describes a person who is very lucky and is strangely unaffected by dangers and difficulties.

The phrase was first used by Shakespeare in his play, Macbeth in 1605.

"Thou losest labor.
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmd life, which must not yield
To one of woman born."

The two lines:

"I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born"

mean:

"I lead a charmed life, which cant be ended by anyone born from a woman."

Everybody believes that he leads a charmed life. He was lucky enough to survive after a terrible car accident.

Category | life

chase rainbows
This idiom is used when someone tries to pursue unrealistic or fanciful goals, things that are impossible.

He thought he could convince the boss to appoint him as the new manager, but in fact he was chasing rainbows.

Category | weather

chew the cud
The idiom chew the cud means to ponder over or meditate about something; to think carefully about something.

Cud refers to the food regurgitated from the stomach to the mouth of a ruminant animal such as a cow and chewed again.

She wanted to chew the cud before she could let them know about her decision.

Category | food

chew the fat
To waste time talking or to chat idly.

As she had nothing to do, she wasted time chewing the fat with the neighbor.

Category | food

chicken out
To refuse to do something because of fear.

He chickened out just at the time they were taking him to operating theatre.

Category | animals

chicken-hearted
not brave.

They are just chicken-hearted boys. They can't defend themselves from any attacks.

Category | animals

chin music
talk, conversation

When they meet, there will be plenty of chin music.

Category | music

Chinese whispers
The phrase Chinese whispers refers to any situation where information is passed on from person to person, becoming distorted in the process of transmission. This phrase is mainly used in the UK.

The origin of the 'Chinese whispers'


The phrase 'Chinese whispers' is originally a children's game in which players form a line, and the first player whispers a message to the ear of the second person in the line. This message is transmitted in this way from one player to another. The message that the last player receives is compared to the initial version. The fun comes from the fact that the final version is often distorted from the original one.

In the UK this game used to be called the 'Russian scandal'. In the US, however, it is called 'telephone'.

When information leaks out, it is difficult to beat the dreaded Chinese whispers. No matter how you try, people will always create nuisance and mischief by adding in more detail that suits their purpose and goals.

It is so mean to make up stories about people. The internet is more like an immense Chinese whispers group. Once the information is transmitted, it becomes distorted in the process.


Category | nationalities

choose your battles
If you choose your battles wisely, you are selective of the problems, arguments, and confrontations that you get involved in. Sometimes, it is wiser to save your time and effort only for the things that matter than to choose to fight every problem.

Another variation of this phrase:

- Pick your battles

Other related phrases:

- Keep your powder dry
- Not a hill worth dying on


The origin of the idiom


The origin of the phrase is unknown. The use of the term 'battles' may refer to the fact that it is wiser to fight 'battles' that are important and let go of the rest.

To live a healthier life, you have to learn to choose your battles.

Be wise and pick your battles - fight the most important battles and let go of the rest.

Successful politicians choose their battles wisely.


Category | war

clean as a whistle
If someone is as clean as a whistle they are perfectly clean.

She's clean as a whistle.

Category | music

clear your throat
If you clear your throat, you cough slightly so as to speak more clearly, attract attention, or to express hesitancy before speaking.

Literally, clearing one's throat means to cough so that one can relieve a blockage in the throat.

They immediately stopped talking when their father cleared his throat and started speaking.
The boss cleared his throat and started talking about the company's new marketing policy.


Category | parts of the body

click with someone or something
The phrase to click with someone or something means to immediately like someone or something.

1. His idea clicked with Leila at once.
2. I just don't click with mean people.


Category | technology and science

clock on
To register one's arrival at work

They clocked on as soon as they arrived at work.

Category | time

clock out
(Also clock off) To register one's departure from work.

They clocked out early in order to be on time for the concert.

Category | time

close shave
If a situation is described as a close shave, it means that you came very close to a dangerous situation and you avoided it at the last minute.

Origin of the idiom


Literally, the phrase 'a close shave' refers to a shave in which the hair is cut very short. The meaning has been extended to have a figurative meaning that denotes a narrow escape.

I had a close shave yesterday. Someone almost knocked me off my bike.
What a close shave! They almost identified me.
I have had so many close shaves lately.
Mike's had three car accidents, plus a few other pretty close shaves.


Category | parts of the body

close to home
If something is close to home, it affects you personally.

His criticism was a bit too close to home. She couldn't bear the way he talked about her work.

Category | home

Clothes make the man
The phrase clothes make the man ids a proverb that means that people are judged according to the way they are dressed.

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society."
Quote attributed to Mark Twain


Category | clothes

cloud nine
This idiom is used to mean that you are in a state of extreme happiness.

He was on cloud nine after he passed the exam.

Category | weather

cock-and-bull story
The phrase a cock-and-bull story is an idiomatic expression that refers to a story or explanation which is obviously not true.

The origin of the phrase probably comes from some fable in which a cock and bull figure.

Jane came home very late last night and gave her mother some cock-and-bull story about how she had to help her friend find her keys.

Category | animals

cog in the machine
(also a cog in the wheel) said about one part of a large system or organization

He was just an important cog in the machine of organized crime.

Category | technology and science

coining it
(also coining money) to be earning a lot of money quickly.

The company has been coining it since the new boss took over.

Category | money

coining money
(also coining it, mintining it) earning a lot of money quickly.

The company has been coining money since the new manager took over.

Category | money

cold day in hell
This idiom is used to mean that something will never happen.

Idioms with similar meaning:

when pigs fly
until hell freezes over.

It'll be a cold day in hell before I accept his apologies.

Category | religion

cold piece of work
If someone is a cold piece of work they are difficult to deal with.

Did you see how she treats her husband? She is a cold piece of work.

Category | work

come at a price
If something that you get comes at a price, something negative or unpleasant occurs as a consequence.

Another variation of the idiom is the following:

come at a cost.

You say that you want to be famous, but you have to know that fame comes at a price.

He made it, but his success came at a price.

She got what she wanted, but this came at a cost.


Category | money

come clean
to be honest and tell the truth.

She came clean about what she had done.

Category | general

come down on somebody like a ton of bricks
to hit or punish somebody.

I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks if you do that once again!

Category | sport

come from behind
to win after being in a losing position in a game.

The young boxer came from behind to beat the world champion.

Category | sport

come hell or high water
said when you are determined to do something despite difficulties.

I'll finish my report by midnight, come hell or high water!

Category | religion

come into bloom
to blossom, to start to produce flowers.

Look at the roses are just coming into bloom.

Category | nature

come into money
If you come into money, you get some money unexpectedly, usually by inheritance.

Other variants of this idiom:

come into some money
come into a small fortune


He came into a lot of money.

Category | money

come of age
The phrase come of age means to reach adulthood.

His son has come of age.

Category | age

come out of the closet
The phrase come out of the closet means to admit publicly one's homosexuality.

He came out of the closet when he went to university.

Category | sexuality

come out of the woodwork
The phrase to come out of the woodwork is an idiomatic expression that means to emerge suddenly and unexpectedly

The woodwork refers to the wooden parts of a building, especially a house.

Another variation of this idiom is:

crawl out of the woodwork

The idiom comes from the idea of insects crawling out from inside the woodwork where they have been hiding.

He came out of the woodwork to disturb my quiet night.

Category | home

come rain or shine
(Also rain or shine) Regardless of the weather or circumstances.

Don't worry! I'll be on time come rain or shine.

Category | weather

come to a head
The phrase come to a head is an idiomatic expression. It is used to indicate that a situation suddenly becomes worse.

Another variation of this idiom is:

bring to a head

They didn't like each other and things came to a head when she asked for divorce.

They had been in a stormy relationship and his drug addiction brought everything to a head.


Category | parts of the body

come to blows
to have fight or an argument with someone.

Negotiators are trying not to come into blows over their territorial dispute.

Category | sport

come to fruition
The phrase come to fruition means to become reality or to be completed as planned.

The term fruition refers to the state of bearing fruit and is used figuratively to refer to something that occurs as intended or something that reaches the final phase of realization.

Another variation of this idiom is:

bring something to fruition

I hope our hard work to bring effective change in our educational system will soon come to fruition

My plans have not come to fruition yet.

I have never been able to bring my dreams to fruition.


Category | food

come to terms with
to gradually accept a sad situation.

I think he will come to terms with the death of his wife.

Category | general

come to your attention
(also come to your notice) said when you notice something.

It has recently come to the workers attention that changes are taking place in the company because of financial problems.

Category | general

come true
said when something happens although it was unlikely that it would.

Her dream of buying a new car finally came true.

Category | general

come under fire
to be subject of criricism.

The president has come under fire for his decision to postpone the elections.

Category | nature

common as an old shoe
(also (as) common as dirt) low class; unrefined; ill-mannered; uncouth.

That girl is common as an old shoe.

Category | general

company man
The phrase company man refers to a worker who is more loyal to his employer than to his fellow workers.

He's never criticized the boss; he has always been a company man.

Category | men and women

con artist
The phrase con artist refers to a person who makes a living by swindling people.

Many con artists target the elderly by trying to gain their confidence.

Category | art

cool as a cucumber
very calm.

It's amazing that he never shows his emotions even when he has a lot of problems. He's cool as a cucumber.

Category | food

coon's age
The idiom a coon's age refers to a very long period of time.

A dog's age is another variation of this idiom.

It's been a coon's age since I last went to the theater.

Category | age

cost a bomb
The phrase cost a bomb is an idiomatic expression that refers to something that is extremely expensive.

Other variation of this idiom include:

1. cost an arm and a leg.
2. cost the earth.
3. cost a packet.
4. cost a small fortune.


Alan: How much did you buy your car?
John: It cost me a bomb.


Category | parts of the body

cost an arm and a leg
Video


If something costs an arm and a leg, it is extremely expensive.

Other variations of this idiom include:

1. cost a bomb.
2. cost the earth.
3. cost a packet.
4. cost a small fortune.


The origin of the phrase may refer to the high cost that some soldiers paid in world war II when they had their arms and legs amputated.

Another theory about the origin of the idiom comes from earlier expressions that refer to the high cost of something:

1. 'I would give my right arm...'
2. 'It takes a leg...

1. He bought a new house. It cost him an arm and a leg.
2. I'd love to buy that new car! I know it would cost me an arm and a leg.


Category | money

couch potato
The phrase a couch potato refers to a lazy person, who likes to watch TV while lying on the couch and probably eating chips.

Origin


The phrase was introduced by Robert D. Armstrong in 1976. A few years later, he and a small group of media hoaxers trademarked and popularized the term couch potato. Jack Mingo popularized the expression in the book The Official Couch Potato Handbook.

The phrase compares people who like to spend most of their time sitting or lying down on a couch (i.e., sofa) while watching television and probably eating potato chips to a potato. This kind of people are likely to be overweight

It should be noted here that the term “Potato” is used in this expression because it's presumably inactive, shapeless and, plump.

The phrase couch potato is often contrasted with the other idiom “mouse potato” which refers to someone who spends large amounts of leisure or working time operating a computer.

Synonyms


- idler;
- layabout;
- do-nothing;
- loafer.

He is just a couch potato puts the burden of bringing home the bacon on his wife’s shoulders.
Please, don’t be a couch potato. Get up and do something productive!


Category | food

count one's chickens before they hatch
To assume success too early, before it is certain.

It's too soon to cry victory. Don't count your chicken before they hatch!

Category | animals

count to ten
If someone asks you to count to ten, they are advising you to take a moment to calm down. The phrase is often used when someone is angry.

Origin of the idiom


This phrase may not necessarily mean to, literally, count to the number ten. It only means that if someone takes the time to calm down, this may prevent them from reacting angrily to something.

Count to ten before you do something silly.
Don't make hasty decisions! Count to ten so you don't end up screwing things up.


Category | numbers

count your blessings
When you count your blessings, you are grateful for what you have.

Origin


Being grateful is a spiritual practice which consists of appreciating and being thankful for the people, circumstances and material possessions in our lives. Gratitude, according to spiritual leaders, enables us to embrace our present in forms that create a feeling of abundance rather than a feeling of deprivation.

Counting my blessings is a routine I adopt every morning.

If you want to feel happy, count your blessings every day.

A great antidote to depression is to count your blessings.


Category | religion

cream of the crop
If you describe things or someone as the cream of the crop, you mean they are the best of all.

Origin


When you leave milk to sit for a while, the cream rises to the top. The cream is said to be the most delicious portion of milk. This meaning was transferred to describe things and people figuratively.

Since the 16th century, the term "cream" has been used to indicate "the best." In French, the expression “la crème de la crème” which means "the cream of the cream” has become common in English since the year 1800.

By the year 1678, John Ray added the phrase "That's the cream of the jest," in his collection of English proverbs. The specific phrase mentioning “the best of the crop” was most likely chosen for its alliterative appeal.

Don't worry about your studies; you are the cream of the crop.
He is the brightest student – the cream of the crop of our school.


Category | food

crime doesn't pay
This idiom is used to suggest that crime will ultimately not benefit a person.

Doing something illegal to get money may be tempting for some, but in fact crime doesn't pay.

Category | crime

cross one's mind
If a thought crosses one's mind, it occurs to one, especially transiently.

Here are some synonymous phrases of this idiom:

- occur to one
- come to one
- come to mind
- spring to mind


It had not crossed my mind that she was in fact a crook.

Did it cross your mind that you are hurting your beloved ones with your drug addiction?


Category | parts of the body

cross swords
to quarrel or argue with someone; to have a dispute with someone.

The boss didn't want to cross swords with the workers' union.

Category | war

crux of the matter
The phrase crux of the matter refers to the most important point of an issue.
Another related idiom is heart of the matter

Crux has a Latin origin referring to a real cross and its association with torment. In English the term means difficulty.

I think his new revelations about the company is the crux of the matter.

Category | religion

cry wolf
to ask for help when there is really no danger.

Because he cried wolf too often, people stopped believing that he needs help.

Category | animals

cuckoo in the nest
A cuckoo in the nest is an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation which crowds out everything else.

Origin


The cuckoos are a family of birds. They lay their eggs in the nest of another, smaller bird, often a hedge sparrow, or a meadow pipit. When the cuckoo egg hatches, the baby cuckoo pushes out the eggs of the host from the nest, one by one. Not realizing that they have been tricked, the host pair then feed the baby cuckoo. Because the baby cuckoo is much bigger than the hosts' usual offspring, feeding the cuckoo egg might be very tiring.


Common cuckoo parasitic brood

When the whole dossier is finally analyzed, the rural policy regulation appears to have become the cuckoo in the nest. (<a href="http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+CRE+20030703+ITEMS+DOC+XML+V0//EN&language=EN" target="_blank">europarl.europa.eu</a>)

These issues will become cuckoos in the nest and this will be damaging.


<img src="/images/voc/idioms/cuckoo-in-the-nest.jpg" title="What does cuckoo in the nest mean?" alt="What does cuckoo in the nest mean?"/>


Category | animals

cupboard love
The phrase cupboard love refers to affection that is given purely to gain something from someone.

The phrase comes from the way in which a cat will give the person who feeds it superficial "love".

It was just cupboard love, and what she really wanted was the money she used to get from him.

Category | love

curiosity killed the cat
Curiosity killed the cat is a proverb used to warn someone not to be too curious about something and ask too many questions because this can get you into trouble.

Alan: I wonder who killed that wealthy man?
Bill: Curiosity killed the cat.


Category | animals

curl your lip
an upward movement of the side of the mouth to show dislike and disrespect.

He asked her not curl her lip at him.

Category | parts of the body

cut a rug
To dance.

The couple impressed everybody when they cut a rug at the party.

Category | furniture

cut one's throat
The phrase to cut one's throat or to cut one's own throat means to bring about one's own ruin and downfall.

Corrupt cops are cutting their own throats.

Category | parts of the body

cut someone dead
If you cut someone dead, you ignore them because you are angry or you are displeased with them.

Other related idioms:

To give someone the cold shoulder
To turn one's back on

She just cut her ex-husband dead when he approached her.


Category | death

cut your losses
This idiom is used to mean that you should do something to avoid losing any more money.

When he felt that his project was failing, he had to sell everything to cut his losses.

Category | money

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