Idiomatic Expressions - List in Alphabetical Order


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:

hale and hearty
in a good health.

In spite of her old age, she looks hale and hearty.

Category | health

hand in the till
To have one's hand in the till, means to steal from one's employer.

The word till refers to a drawer, small chest, or compartment for money, as in a store.

Another variation of this idiom is:
have one's fingers in the till.

The boss fired him because he was caught with his hand in the till.

Category | crime

handle someone with kid gloves
If you handle someone or something with kid gloves, you treat them delicately or carefully, mainly because of a perceived sensitivity.

The origin of 'handle with kid gloves'

kid gloves were originally made from the skin of a young lamb or goat, a particularly fine, soft material. These gloves were first associated with aristocracy. By the end of the 19th century, the phrase ‘handle with kid gloves’ gained a figurative meaning, that is treating someone or something 'delicately’ or ‘carefully'.

The phrase is contrasted with other expressions containing the term gloves:

- Take off the gloves.
- The gloves are off.
- Handle without gloves.

All the above expressions refer to inflicting harsh treatment to someone or something.

- He has become so sensitive after his divorce. You need to handle him with kid gloves.
- Make sure you handle her kid gloves; she is suffering from depression and anxiety.

Category | clothes

hands are tied
If your hands are tied, you are unable to help, intervene or act.

Another variant of this idiom is:

something has tied someone's hands

I'm sorry. I can't help you. My hands are tied.

The new legislation has tied his hands.

Category | parts of the body

hat in hand
The phrase hat in hand means to ask someone for a favor with humility.

Another variation of the idiom is cap in hand

She came back hat in hand asking for forgiveness.

Category | clothes

have a card up your sleeve

If you have a card up your sleeve, have a secret plan that can be used when needed.

The origin of this idiom

The phrase comes from card games. It refers to cheating or dishonest card players when they secretly put a card up their sleeve to be used when it is required.
Now the phrase is used to refer to a backup plan, a sort of contingency plan - an advantage that others don't have.

Variations of this phrase include:

- Have an ace up your sleeve.
- Have something up your sleeve.

- She still has got something up her sleeve, and it should solve all her problems.
- Our team has been the weakest in this tournament, but I think they've still got one or two cards up their sleeve.
- Nancy must have an ace up her sleeve; otherwise, she wouldn't have rejected that offer.

Category | clothes

have a chip on your shoulder
The phrase to have a chip on one's shoulder means to be be angry about something that happened sometimes in the past or to hold a grudge.

The origin of the phrase comes from a north American custom. It became a convention during 1800s to place a chip on one's shoulder to show that they are ready for a fight if anyone dares to take the risk.

The New York newspaper Long Island Telegraph reported on 20 May 1830:

"when two churlish boys were determined to fight, a chip would be placed on the shoulder of one, and the other demanded to knock it off at his peril".

Although he has become a millionaire, he still has a chip on his shoulder about not going to university.

Category | parts of the body

have a cow
(also have kittens) to be very worried, upset or angry about something

My father had a cow when I stayed out late yesterday.

Category | animals

have a face like thunder
This idiom is used to describe a person who is angry or upset about something.

She had a face like thunder when she discovered the truth.

Category | weather

have a leg up on somebody
to have an advantage over someone.

She probably has a leg up on the other students because she is more studious.

Category | parts of the body

have a lot on ones plate
This idiom is used to mean that one is very busy and have commitments.

Another variation of this idiom is have too much on one's plate.

Alice: Are you coming to the party tonight, Jane?
Jane: No, I have a lot on my plate right now.

Category | furniture

have a short fuse
If you have or are on a short fuse, you have a tendency to lose your temper quickly.

She is rather a nice and calm person, but whenever her ex-husband calls her, she finds she is on a short fuse.
Don't make him angry! He has got a short fuse!

Category | technology and science

have a whale of a time
The phrase to have a whale of a time means to have an exciting or fun time.

In other words, if you say "I have a whale of a time", this means that you enjoy yourself very much.

Using the term whale in this idiom is a way of saying to have a big time.

I had a whale of a time at the party yesterday.

Category | time

have a word with someone
If you have a word with someone, you have a brief conversation with them.

The origin of the idiom

The origin of the idiom dates back to the late 1400s. Later in 1700s, the expression was used interchangeably with the phrase 'have words with someone', but now both phrases have different meanings.

Related idioms

have a word in someone's ear.
have a word with oneself.

If your son is a drug addict, have a word with him and offer practical help.
Can I have a word with you?
The principal wanted to have a word with the child's parents.
I have just had a word with Jane. she promised to join us tomorrow.
I think we should have a word.
She knew she was in big trouble when the teacher asked to have a word with her after class.

Category | language

have an axe to grind
to have a strong opinion about something.

The members of that association have no political axe to grind; they just want to help the street children.

Category | general

have ants in your pants
The phrase to have ants in your pants is an idiomatic expression that means
to be very excited, restless, anxious or worried about something.

It's the first time that he dates a girl. That's why he's got ants in his pants.

Category | clothes

have big ears
to be nosy and listen to other people's private conversations.

Speak quietly. Nancy has big ears you.

Category | parts of the body

have bigger fish to fry
If you say you have bigger fish to fry, you mean you have more important things to do.

Other variations of this idiom:

- Have other fish to fry.
- Have better fish to fry.
- Have more important fish to fry.


This phrase dates from the sixteenth century. It appeared in an early translation of Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1552) by Motteux. Later, John Evelyn in his Memoirs (1660) mentions the phrase as follows:
“I fear he has other fish to fry.”

The idiom however is believed to have been in use before these dates and in other languages although in different wordings. In French, the phrase, ‘avoir d’autres chats à foutter’ literally means ‘to have other cats to whip’.

- I can't answer your question. I have bigger fish to fry.
- I won't worry about what other people are saying about me. I have bigger fish to fry.

Category | animals

have egg on one's face
The phrase to have egg on one's face means to be embarrassed by something one has done.

There are different speculations about the origin of the phrase:

1. Because soft-boiled egg was a common breakfast dish, sometimes one would have accidental runny egg on one's face, causing some embarrassment.

2. When a performance was strongly disliked, the audience would pelt the performer with things, including raw eggs. This was obviously a source of embarrassment.

If the president doesn't keep his promises, he will end up having egg on his face.

Category | food

have friends in high places
to know powerful people.

Don't worry about the problem. I have friends in high places.

Category | relationship

have green fingers
If you have green fingers, you are skilled at gardening.

This idiom is primarily heard in the UK and Australia. The North American equivalent expression is the following:

have a green thumb.

Note that you can describe a person who is skilled at gardening as green-fingered.


The origin of the phrase 'have green fingers' dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The phrase has evolved to mean someone who is good at horticulture.

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions that the earliest use of the phrase was by Mary Stuart Boyd in her 1906 novel, The Misses Make-Believe:
What old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.

Green is the color of life, renewal, nature, and energy. It is connected to meanings of growth, peace, freshness, security, fertility, and the environment.

My wife has green fingers. She can take care of any type of plant.

You don't need to have green fingers to fill your home with beautiful plants.

You really do have green fingers. Your garden looks awesome.

My father had a green thumb. He could grow anything.

Although he is not green-fingered, he managed to grow beautiful flowers through summer and beyond.

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Category | colors

have kittens
(also have a cow) to be very worried, upset or angry about something.

My father had kittens when I stayed out late yesterday.

Category | animals

have money to burn
to be very rich and spend a lot of money on unnecessary things.

He seems to have money to burn. He always buys his girlfriend extravagant things

Category | money

have one's wires crossed
(also get one's wires crossed) to be confused.

You've really got your wires crossed! You don't know what you are talking about.

Category | general

have other fish to fry
(Also have bigger fish to fry; have more important fish to fry)to have other things to do; to have more important things to do.

I can't answer your question. I have other fish to fry.

Category | animals

have something down to a science
said when you are able to manage doing something very well.

They have the management of the concert down to a science.

Category | technology and science

have the hots for someone
To be strongly sexually attracted to someone.

He has the hots for her but he can't tell her. He's so shy.

Category | sexuality

have time on your hands
The phrase to have (too much) time on one's hands is an idiomatic expression that means that one has extra time.

I don't have much time on my hands. I'm too busy.

You waste too much time watching TV. Since you have time on your hands, start working out.

Category | time

have to face the music
accept or face the unpleasant consequences of one's actions.

Leila didn't manage to finish the job on time and had to face the music.

Watch the video:

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Category | music

have too much on one's plate
The idiom have too much on one's plate means to be too busy.

Another variation of this idiom is have a lot on one's plate.

I have too much on my plate right now. I can't help you.

Category | furniture

have words with someone
If you have words with someone, you argue, quarrel, or speak angrily with them.

The origin of the idiom

The origin of the idiom dates back to the late 1700s. The expression was used interchangeably with the phrase 'have a word with someone', but now both phrases have different meanings.

Related idioms

have a word in someone's ear.
have a word with oneself.

She had words with her son over his drug addiction.
I had to have words with her about that.
If he keeps on behaving like that, I'm going to have words with him.
My father often had to have words with me.

Category | language

he that would the daughter win, must with the mother first begin
This is a proverb which means that if you intend to marry a woman, first try to win her mother on your side.

Listen Joe, if you want to marry Nancy, try to impress her mother first and be sure that she is on your side. He that would the daughter win, must with the mother first begin.

Category | relationship

head over heels
completely in love.

They fell head over heels for one another at the very moment they met.

Category | parts of the body

heart of gold
A person with a heart of gold is a person who is very kind and has a good nature.

It is an idiomatic expression that alludes to gold as a precious metal. In this sense, a person with a heart of gold refers to someone who has a heart which is valued for its goodness.

She is so sweet; she has a heart of gold.

He is a good boy with a heart of gold. He would never break her heart.

Category | parts of the body

heavy weather
The phrase heavy weather refers to considerable difficulty.

The expression alludes to bad weather at sea.

An variant of this idiom is:

heavy going

See a related idiom:

make heavy weather of something

1. Because of the recession, I think it's going to be heavy weather for all of us.

2. My daughter found mathematics heavy going.

Category | weather

help a lame dog over a stile
said about someone who helps people who are in difficulty or trouble.

You can trust him. He always helps a lame dog over a stile.

Category | animals

high man on the totem pole
the most important person in a hierarchy or organization. (Opposite: low man on the totem pole)

I want to meet the hign man on the totem pole.

Category | religion

high time
If it's high time you did something, it is the appropriate time for it.

It's high time you began learning how to drive.

Category | time

highway robbery
This expression is used to refer to a price or a fee that is exorbitantly high.

The price for wine in this restaurant is simply highway robbery

Category | crime

highways and byways
major and minor roads.

They spent their holiday exploring the highways and byways of the country

Category | travel

hit a home run
to be successful.

They hit a home run with their excellent performance in the new play.

Category | home

hit and miss
If something is hit and miss, it is unpredictable and may produce good results or it may fail altogether.

This idiom is used as an adjective and can be hyphened.


a hit-and-miss method

another variation of this idiom is:

hit or miss

The service they offer in this company can be hit-or-miss.

The selected books were hit or miss.

It is a hit-and-miss affair to find a reliable doctor in this city.

Category | war

hit home
If something hits home, it makes sense or strongly affects or resonates with someone.


Some think that the phrase "hit home" is short for "hit a home run", which is a baseball expression. Hitting a home run means having impressive success. In baseball, this occurs when the batter has scored more points for his team without any errors.

However, although the two phrases have some common semantic traits (i.e., they both refer to something that had the envisioned consequence or that was done successfully), the usage is very different.

In its literal meaning, hitting home means hitting an intended target. Figuratively, the phrase refers to something that makes sense and causes some emotional reaction as in "his criticism hit home."

Alternative phrases include:

- Strike home.
- Strike a chord.

I don’t think the message really hit home with the crowd.
The manager’s remarks in the meeting clearly hit home because everybody started to make positive changes in their work since then.
The president's speech stroke home.

Category | home

hit the ceiling
to become very angry and start shouting.

He hit the ceiling when he knew the truth.

Category | home

hit the nail on the head
said to describe exactly a situation or a problem.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the Smiths lack a sense of cooperation in their family.

Category | parts of the body

hit the panic button
(also press or push the button)to panic suddenly.

Relax! Don't hit the button it's just the wind.

Category | technology and science

hit the road
To begin traveling; to leave a place; to go away.

1. We've got a long way to go. Let's hit the road to make it by sunset.
2. It's time for me to hit the road; it is getting late.

Category | travel

hit the roof
to become angry and start shouting.

The teacher hit the roof when the student was very late again.

Category | home

hitch one's wagon to a star
aspire to do something great or aim high, follow a great ambition.

he urged his students to hitch their wagons to a star.

Category | travel

hold someone accountable (for something)
to consider someone responsible for something.

I hold you accountable for whatever happens to my daughter.

Category | law

home away from home
(also home from home) a place where you are at ease as if you were at home.

When I used to visit her, it was really a real home away from home.

Category | home

home free
to be certain of being successful because you have finished the most difficult part.

Once you hand in the last part of your dissertation, you're home free.

Category | home

home truth
The phrase home truth refers to an unpleasant fact about oneself.

It is usually in the plural form: home truths.

It is high time I told him a few home truths.

Category | home

hop, skip, and a jump
If a place is a hop, skip, and a jump, it is only a short distance away.

A similar idiom:

hop, step, and jump.


According to The Free Dictionary, The phrase dates from the early 1700s. It originally referred to an exercise or game involving hopping, skipping, and jumping. Since the mid-1800s, the expression has been used figuratively to mean short distances.

Rouen is a hop, skip and jump from Paris.

The theater is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the library.

Be patient, we're just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

Category | sport

horse of a different color
(also horse of another color) a different matter.

If you want to invest in the stock market, it's ok. Gambling, however, is a horse of a different color.

Category | animals

Hot potato
An awkward or delicate problem with which nobody wants to be associated.

Gun control in the United States has always been a hot potato for politicians.

Category | food

house of cards
"A house of cards" refers to a situation structure, system, organization, or plan that is weak and is likely to fail or collapse


The phrase dates back to 1645 according to the Meriam-Webster dictionary. But the expression is thought to have gained popularity when the game of cards became a popular pastime towards the end of the 18th century.

In its literal meaning a “house of cards” refers to a structure created by piling playing cards on top of each other, often in the form of a tower or pyramid.

Figuratively, the phrase indicates that something is shaky and weak and is probably doomed to fail with the least provocation, very much like a house built of cards. It is something hardly able to sustain itself and so easy to fall.

The newly elected government will soon fall like a house of cards because it has not a clear majority in the parliament.
The whole plan is like a house of cards. It will fail with the first challenge.

Category | home

how come?
used to ask how or why.

So how come you missed the train?

Category | general

hungry as a bear
If you are as hungry as a bear, it means you are really hungry.

Other variations of this idiom include:

Hungry as a bear
Hungry as a hunter

I am always hungry as a bear after working out.

Poor kid! He hasn't eaten a bite for more than a day. He's hungry as a bear.

Eat something before we leave for the expedition. Otherwise, you'll be as hungry as a wolf.

Category | animals

hustle and bustle
The phrase hustle and bustle refers to a busy activity usually in a noisy surrounding.

I don't like the hustle and bustle of big cities.

I need to have a break from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

Category | work

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