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:

labor of love
The phrase labor of love refers to a work that brings you great pleasure.

John helps street children get basic education as a labor of love.

Category | work

lame duck
Someone or something that is disabled, helpless, ineffective, or inefficient.

What do you expect from a lame-duck mayor?

Category | animals

larger than life
Very imposing, renowned, or impressively influential.

He is such a special man; somewhat larger than life.

Category | life

laugh up your sleeve
to be secretly amused.

They're very polite in your presence, but you get the feeling they're laughing up their sleeves.

Category | clothes

law of the jungle
This expression means survival of the strongest or the fittest.

The origin of the phrase can be traced back to "The Jungle Book" by Rudyard Kipling. He uses the term to describe an actual set of legal codes used by wolves and other animals in the jungles of India.

Some economists think that capitalism is governed by the law of the jungle.

Category | law

law unto oneself
This idiomatic expression describes a person who behaves in an independent way, ignoring rules and what is generally accepted as correct.

Leila is a law unto herself; she doesn't want to abide by the rules.

Category | law

lay down the law
tell people what they should do in a forceful and stern way.

Please don't lay down the law; we know what we have to do.

Category | law

lay something at the feet of someone
If you lay something at the feet of someone, you make or hold someone, especially a group of people, responsible for something.

A related idiom is the following:

lay the blame​ or responsibility for something on something or someone.

Here is a quote by Sentinel and Enterprise using this idiom to talk about how Virginia lawmakers ban guns at state Capitol:

"GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of rushing through an unnecessary policy and then trying to lay it at the feet of Capitol Police."

The country is suffering from a severe financial crisis combined with a deep recession. The opposition is laying the blame at the feet of the government.

The manager laid the company's failure at the feet of our team.

The mass media ar laying the murder at the feet of the FBI.

The politician lay the social crisis at the feet of the schools. He thinks that our children haven't been taught about responsibility and hard work.

Category | parts of the body

learn by heart
(also learn by heart) to memorize something.

She learned the poem by heart.

Category | parts of the body

leave the nest
The phrase leave the nest means to move from one's parents' home. Such a move is mainly motivated by a desire for independence.

Another variation of this idiom is:

fly the nest

My son left the nest at the age of 21 and the house seems empty without him now.

Category | age

let sleeping dogs lie
If you let sleeping dogs lie, you leave things as they are to avoid trouble.


This phrase refers to waking up sleeping watchdogs who could be aggressive if they are awakened.

The first author to allude to rousing a potentially fierce watchdog was Geoffrey Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1380:
"It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake."

- It would be best to let sleeping dogs lie and not discuss the problem any further.
- Don’t call him! It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.
- We decided to let sleeping dogs lie during the meeting and not mention the unresolved problems we had with our partners.

Category | animals

let the cat out of the bag
to reveal a secret, usually accidentally.

She wasn't supposed to know about it. Someone must have let the cat out of the bag.

Category | animals

licence to print money
If a company or activity is a licence to print money, it generates a lot of money without much effort.

Licence or license?
In American English, the noun and the verb are spelt similarly: license. However, in British English, the noun is spelt licence while the verb is spelt license.

Advertising companies are just a licence to print money.
Real estate companies are given a license to print money.
The newly adopted law is just a license to print money.

Category | money

lick someone's boots
The phrase lick someone's boots means to act in a servile or obsequious way toward someone, especially to gain favor from them.


Shakespeare used the phrase ‘lick someone's shoe’ in The Tempest (3:2) when Caliban wants to serve Stephano rather than Trinculo, offering to lick his shoe
How does thy honour? Let me lick thy shoe.
I'll not serve him; he's not valiant.

The phrase describes a person who treats someone powerful with too much respect to get approval or some favor.
Other related expressions are the following:
- Boot-licking: the act of licking someone’s boots.
- Buttering up someone: pleasing someone, especially by praising that person in order to get him or her to agree to something.

She seizes every opportunity to lick the boss's boots.
He was served by some obsequious employees ready to lick his boots to get promotions.

Category | clothes

lie like a rug
To lie like a rug means to tell lies shamelessly.

She says she didn't kill him, but the detective knows she's lying like a rug.

Category | furniture

lie low
To hide; not to draw attention to oneself.

Synonyms of lie low:

conceal oneself, hide, lurk, hole up, keep out of sight, keep a low profile, take cover.

Why don't you lie low! The cops are going to spot you, idiot!

It would be advisable for you to lie low.

She chose to lie low instead of being outspoken and noticeable.

Category | general

life begins at 40
The phrase life begins at 40 means that when one reaches the age of forty, life becomes better, maybe because one has the skills, experiences, and means necessary for an enjoyable life.


As life expectancy has increased during the twentieth and twenty-first century, it has become common to consider middle-aged people young enough to enjoy their lives to the fullest.

The phrase has become popular thanks to the American philosopher, Walter B. Pitkin, who published a self-help book in 1932 entitled "Life Begins at Forty".


Here is a famous quote by Helen Rowland using the phrase:

Life begins at 40 - but so do fallen arches, rheumatism, faulty eyesight, and the tendency to tell a story to the same person, three or four times.

Alan: "Why are you so depressed?"
Jane: "Tomorrow's my fortieth birthday."
Alan: "Come on Jane! Don't you know that life begins at 40?"

Today, people in their 40s are now able to get married, have children and prosper. As the saying goes: life begins at 40.

Category | age

life is like a box of chocolates
The phrase 'life is like a box of chocolates' means that life is unpredictable and that it is full of surprises; you never know what will happen next.

A related idiom is the following:

life is a bowl of cherries

which means that life is very pleasant.

The origin of the idiom

The idiom was popularized in the 1994 film Forrest Gump when the lead character Forrest Gump (played by Tom Hanks) says:
“My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.”

He got seriously ill, but hey, life is like a box of chocolates.

Category | food

lift the curtain
To lift the curtain on something means:
1. to start.
2. to make something known or public; disclose.

1. It's time to raise the curtain, guys. Let's start working.
2. The company decided to lift the curtain on their new product.

Category | furniture

light skirt
The phrase light skirt refers to a loose woman, a prostitute.

Don't call her a light skirt. She is a respectable woman.

Category | clothes

like a moth to a flame
If you are attracted to someone or to something like a moth to a flame, you are irresistibly attracted to them.

Other forms of this idiom include:

Like a moth around a flame.
Like a moth around a candle.

The origin of the phrase

The phrase "like a moth to a flame" refers to the well-known attraction that moths have to bright lights, which could include those harmless lights, such as the light from flashlights, as well as dangerous ones, such as fire. The phrase was first used to emphasize a type of attraction that might cause someone's destruction. It indicates that sometimes things that seem familiar and irresistibly inviting might hurt you.

There is a reference to this phrase in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", 1596:

Thus hath the candle singed the moth.
O these deliberate fools! When they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.

Hollywood drew young girls like a moth to a flame.

He was so popular that he attracted women to him like moths to the flame.

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Category | animals

like chalk and cheese
(Also as chalk and cheese)

When things or people are like chalk and cheese, they are different although they are superficially alike.

His two sons are like chalk and cheese.

Category | food

like Chinese arithmetic
If something is like Chinese arithmetic, it is very hard to understand.

The origin of Chinese arithmetics

This expression is apparently not widely used in English speaking countries. It probably describes the difficulty or rigidness of something because of the assumed intricacy of the Chinese language. The term 'arithmetic' probably adds more complexity to the meaning. It is interesting to note that a similar meaning is conveyed with the phrase 'it's all Chinese to me'. (Compare it to the phrase 'it's all Greek to me'.)

I couldn't finish the test; it was like Chinese arithmetic.

Category | nationalities

like clockwork
If something happens like clockwork, it means that it happens predictably, without any problems.

The idiom describes something that goes as planned, with precision and without delays.
like clockwork

Other variations of this phrase:

  • Something is as regular as clockwork.

  • It works like clockwork.

  • It runs like clockwork.

'Like clockwork' synonyms

- Precisely
- With (complete) precision
- With (complete) regularity
- With clockwork precision
- With unfailing regularity
- Cyclic
- Periodic
- On a regular basis
- Without any problems
- timely
- in a regular manner
- with no delay

The origin of the phrase

The term 'clockwork' refers to the machinery that runs a clock. Comparing something to the clockwork means that it happens in a perfect manner, without any unpredictable issues, that is with machinelike regularity and precision.

The launching of the new product went like clockwork.
When a plan does not go like clockwork from the outset, there are calls for it to be abandoned.
The meeting went like clockwork.
We planned the holiday to go like clockwork.

Category | technology and science

like father, like son
The phrase like father, like son is an idiomatic expression that indicates that fathers and sons resemble each other or that sons tend to behave like their fathers.

Another variation of this idiom is:

like mother, like daughter.

Alan decided to start a business online - like father, like son.

Category | relationship

like mother, like daughter
This is a proverb which means that daughters resemble their mothers.

Related idioms:

Like father like son
To be cut from the same cloth
To be a chip off the same block
To run in the family

1. My mother was mad about chocolate. Every time my father saw me eating chocolate, he would say, "Like mother, like daughter."

2. Nancy: "Liza has an eye for fashion. She always looks for the latest trends."
Kate: "Like mother, like daughter. Her mother is mad about fashion, too."

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Category | relationship

like water off a duck's back
Without any effect.

He has always been criticized for many things, but he didn't care. It would be like water off a duck's back.

Category | animals

lion's share
If someone gets the lion's share of something, they get the largest part of it.

The origin of lion's share

The phrase comes from Aesop’s fables. Aesop was a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece. In these fables, the lion, being the king, gets the largest portion of the spoils. The other animals receive only a very small part.

The way the lion divides the kill in the fable is funny. He divides it into equal parts but then provides different reasons why he should keep each part. Some of the reason he suggests are that:

- He is the king of the jungle
- He is the strongest.
- An accident will befall anyone who dares to take the spoil.

- The gang stole a lot of money from the bank. But the lion's share of the money went straight into the leader's pocket.
- They have a successful company that gets the lion’s share of every transaction.

Category | animals

live on borrowed time
What does the idiom living on borrowed time mean?

The phrase "to live on borrowed time" means to exist only thanks to good fortune.

The phrase is used to describe a person who continues living when everybody expected him to die.

The origin of the phrase

This idiom refers to time borrowed from death as if death was a person.

The expression has been used since the nineteenth century.

All the doctors that he visited informed his family that he was going to die soon. But against all odds, he continued living on borrowed time.

If I were you, I would enjoy every minute I live. You are living on borrowed time.

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he feels as if he is living on borrowed time.

Category | life

live on borrowed time ​
The phrase to live on borrowed time means to continue living after the time you would have expected to have died. The idiom may also refer to something that continues to exist longer than expected.

He is ninety years old; he feels as if he's living on borrowed time.
The company lost a lot of money. It is living on borrowed time.

Category | time

live out of a suitcase
The phrase to live out of a suitcase is an idiomatic expression that means to stay very briefly in several places, with only the belongings in your suitcase.

I travel so much and am always living out of a suitcase.

Category | travel

loaded language
The phrase loaded language refers to a wording that aims at exerting an influence on an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes.

Other related phrases are:

- high-inference language.
- language persuasive techniques.

Loaded language may be used to control people’s behavior.
Don't be fooled by commercials; they use a lot of loaded language.

Category | language

lock and load
The phrase lock and load means to prepare for an imminent event.

This idioms comes from military jargon referring to the preparation of a weapon for battle.

The phrase was used in 1949 by John Wayne in the movie Sands of Iwo Jima.

It's time to lock and load.

Category | war

lock horns
to come into conflict.

I don't want to lock horns with you. Let's settle this peacefully.

Category | music

long in the tooth
very old.

I think he is a bit long in the tooth to be a romantic hero in that play.

Category | age

look like mutton dressed as lamb
Said about a woman who tries to look much younger.

Her skirt is too short. She looks like mutton dressed as lamb.

Category | animals

loose cannon
The idiom "loose cannon" refers to a person who is unpredictable or uncontrolled and who is likely to cause unintentional damage.

He is considered a loose cannon because he is unable to control himself.

Category | war

lose count of
If you lose count of something, you fail to remember how many of it there is because the number is so high.

Origin of the phrase

The term 'count' comes from Old French "conter" meaning “add up" or "tell a story”. In English, the word count has different meanings:

- To recite numbers in sequence as in "can you count to a hundred?";
- To take into account or include as in "ten dogs, counting the puppies";
- To matter as in "your views don’t count here".
- To consider or be considered as in "I count myself fortunate".

Jane has lost count of the number of application letters she's sent.
I've lost count of the businesses he's started.
There have been so many accidents here, the police have lost count of them.
I've lost count of the books I've read.

Category | numbers

lose your shirt

If you lose your shirt, you lose all your money as a result of gambling or bad investment.


This phrase appeared during the 20th century, probably during the great depression. The expression is an exaggeration of what one may lose. When people lose their home, money, or relationships, it would be said that they are left "with nothing but the shirt on your back". However, if they lose even the shirt on their back, then it is an extreme loss that they are experiencing.

A related idiom is to take ‘the shirt of your back’, meaning to take everything one owns or has to offer, as in the following examples:
- He’s so generous that he would give the shirt off his back if he thought it would help.
- They hired a contractor who took the shirt off their back.

- He lost his shirt yesterday playing poker in a casino for the first time.
- Many investors lost their shirts during the last economic recession.

Category | clothes

love at first sight
an instantaneous attraction

It was love at first sight when we met.

Category | love

love is blind
The idiom love is blind means that a person who is in love can see no faults or imperfections in the person who is loved.

A: I can't see why Leila likes Tim. He isn't even good-looking.
B: Love is blind.

Category | love

love me, love my dog
The phrase love me, love my dog
means that if you love someone, you must be willing to accept everything about them.

Alan decided to get married to Lisa although her brother was a drug dealer. When they started their relationship, she often insisted: "love me, love my dog."

Category | love

love nest
a place where a couple can enjoy each other's company.

They rent an apartment which has become their love nest.

Category | love

love somebody to death
To love somebody very much.

He loves her to death.

Category | death

love someone to bits
The idiom to love someone to bits means to love someone very much.

She is the woman I love to bits.

Category | love

love-hate relationship
an interpersonal relationship involving simultaneous or alternating emotions of love and hate.

He has a love-hate relationship with his mother.

Category | relationship

love-hate relationship
A love-hate relationship refers to a relationship that involves both love and hatred.

Nancy has a love-hate relationship with her mother.

Category | love

lovely weather for ducks
Rainy weather.

A: What's the weather like there?
B: It's a lovely weather for ducks.

Category | weather

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

He's not the man to talk to. He's just the low man on the totem pole.

Category | religion

low-hanging fruit
The phrase low-hanging fruit refers to something that is easily achieved or obtained or to something that can be obtained by readily available means.

After they started their small company, they wanted to go after the low-hanging fruit.

Category | food

(Also lowlife)
A low-life is a person who is considered morally unacceptable by their community such as thieves, drug dealers, drug users, alcoholics, thugs, prostitutes and pimps.

I saw him with a bunch of lowlifes.

Category | life

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