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:

sacred cow
anything someone believes in without ever being able to question or criticize.

He didn't like to discuss the sacred cow of his new religious beliefs.

Category | animals

safe and sound
safe and without injury or damage.

The kids returned from the excursion safe and sound.

Category | health

safety in numbers
safety in numbers is the hypothesis that, by being part of a large physical group or mass, an individual is proportionally less likely to be the victim of a mishap, accident, attack, or other bad event.

Nobody went sightseeing alone, knowing that there was safety in numbers.

Category | numbers

sail against the wind
to work to achieve something that is difficult because most people would oppose it.

The journalist is sailing against the wind in his attempt to change people's negative attitude towards that politician.

Category | nature

sail close to the wind
when you sail close to the wind you act just within the limits of what is legal or acceptable.

His business is doing well although he sometimes sail close to the wind.

Category | nature

sail through something
To pass or progress quickly and easily.

He sailed right through his homework.

Category | travel

salt of the earth
said about somone who is honest and good.

He is the salt of the earth. He always helps the poor.

Category | nature

save face
To take an action or make a gesture intended to preserve one\'s reputation or honor.

They tried to win their last match in the championship just to save face.

Category | parts of the body

save money for a rainy day
The phrase to save money for a rainy day is an idiomatic expression that means to reserve money for a time when it might be needed unexpectedly.

Variations of this idiom include:

put something aside for a rainy day;
hold something back for a rainy day;
keep something for a rainy day.

A good manager has to save a little money for a rainy day.
I Kept some extra money for a rainy day.

Category | money

save the day
The phrase save the day means to rescue someone or a situation from danger or failure.

The mother: Oh my God! The guests are coming soon and I haven't prepared anything yet.
Her daughter : Don't worry, I'll help you prepare the food.
The mother: Thank you very much my dear. You really saved my day.

Category | time

say uncle
to admit failure.

I'll show them how I can be a superstar. I'm not going to say uncle.

Category | relationship

say your piece
Tell what you have to say

Stop annoying us. Say your piece and go.

Category | general

scaredy cat
someone who is easily frightened.

Come on, scaredy cat. The dog won't bite you!

Category | animals

scarlet woman
The phrase a scarlet woman refers to a prostitute, an immoral woman, particularly one who commits adultery.

The phrase was first used in Revelation 17:5 where a sinful woman was described:

17:4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
17:5 And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. [King James Version; the New International Version uses "prostitutes" instead of "harlots"].

She was the scarlet woman of the town.

Category | men and women

scratch one's head
The phrase scratch one's head is an idiomatic expression that means to think hard or wonder about something.

Scratching one's head has literal and figurative meanings. Figuratively, the idiom indicates mental bewilderment or puzzlement.

Faced with the new evidence, the great detective scratched his head.

Category | parts of the body

scream bloody murder
If you scream bloody murder, you protest loudly and angrily as if something very serious has happened.

Another variation of the idiom is yell / cry bloody murder.

There is no point in screaming bloody murder about the new law.

Category | crime

scream blue murder
(also shout blue murder or scream bloody murder) to shout or complain loudly because you are annoyed about something.

Because he didn't get what he wanted, he screamed blue murder.

Category | colors

see a man about a dog
used as an excuse for leaving without giving the real reason (especially if the reason is to go to the toilet, or to have a drink)

Please, wait for me here. I won't be long. I'm just going to see a man about a dog.

Category | animals

see someone's point
To understand the meaning that someone is trying to convey.

Yes, I see your point and I think you are absolutley right.

Category | general

sell ice to Eskimos
To persuade people to go against their best interests or to accept something unnecessary or preposterous.

He's such a smooth talker, he could sell ice to Eskimos.

Category | nature

sell like hotcakes

The phrase sell like hotcakes is an idiomatic expression that refers to something that is sold very quickly and in large numbers.

The company have sold their new game like hotcakes.

The author's new book has sold hotcakes.

The store is selling the books like hotcakes.

Category | food

sell your soul to the devil
The phrase to sell your soul to the devil is an idiomatic expression that means to be willing to do anything for money or some other reward.

Another variation of the idiom is sell your soul.

I wouldn't sell my soul to the devil to get the promotion.
She sold her soul to get married to the old rich millionaire.

Category | religion

send love to someone
The idiom send love to someone refers to an affectionate greeting or message given to someone.

Lisa sent her love to all the family.

Category | love

send shivers down someone's spine
to terrify; to make someone feel extremely nervous.

Hearing that the killer escaped prison sent shivers down my spine.

Category | parts of the body

send up a trial balloon
to test public opinion and response to something.

They had an excellent idea for the project. They sent up a trial balloon but the response was very negative.

Category | general

separate the wheat from the chaff
to separate things of value from things of no value.

We got a lot of applicants for the job. But we are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Category | food

serve time
Saying that someone is serving time means that he is in prison.

After the gangster had served his time in jail, he got married and found a job.

Category | crime

set a thief to catch a thief
The best person to catch a thief is another thief, because he or she knows how thieves think.

The government set a thief to catch a thief. They hired a hacker to entrap other hackers who tried to break into the Pentagon's databases.

Category | crime

set the ball rolling
(also start or get the ball rolling) start something, especially a conversation or a social event.

There was a quiet atmosphere in the party so I decided to set the ball rolling and got up to dance.

Category | sport

set the wheels in motion
to initiate a chain of events necessary to help one achieve a goal (more quickly)

His contribution to the project will surely set the wheels in motion.

Category | general

shake a leg
used to tell someone to rouse themselves from sleep and get out of bed.

Shake a leg or we'll miss the party!

Category | parts of the body

shake in one's shoes
The phrase to be shaking in your shoes is an idiomatic expression which mean to be very terrified or anxious.

A variation of this idiom is:

to be shaking in your boots

He was shaking in his shoes when he was face-to-face with the criminal.

Category | clothes

shape up or ship out
To either improve one\'s behavior or else be required to leave; to either improve one\'s performance in an activity or else withdraw from that activity completely.

After his many serious mistakes, the boss warned him that he had to shape up or ship out.

Category | general

she'll be apples
everything will be all right.

'What about our trip to the mountain. They say it will snow all night long'
'Don't worry. She'll be apples.'

Category | food

shelf life
The length of time something will last.

This medicine has a short shelf life.

Category | life

shift gears
To change what you are doing in a sudden way.

I'd like to shift gears and start a new job.

Category | general

shiver down one's spine
The phrase a shiver down one's spine is an idiomatic expression that refers to a feeling of fear excitement, nervousness or anticipation.

Another variation of this idiom is to send shivers down someone's spine

The boy felt a shiver down his spine at the thought of the punishment he will get from his teacher.

Category | parts of the body

shoot the bull
The phrase shoot the bull means to chat and gossip.

The old ladies often get together and shoot the bull.
The boss fired them because he found them shooting the bull instead of doing the job they were paid for.

Category | animals

shoot the works
to spend all the money you have or to try as much as you can to do something.

We shot the works on our son's education.

Category | work

shot across the bow
The phrase a shot across the bow is an idiomatic expression that indicates a warning to stop doing something.

The origin of the phrase comes from the naval practices. It is a sort of a military and/or police warning shot which is an intentionally harmless artillery shot with intent to enact direct compliance and order to a hostile perpetrator or enemy forces.

The way the teacher scolded the kids after class is a shot across the bow.

Category | war

shot in the dark
The phrase refers to a hopeful attempt at something or a wild guess especially when you have no certain information or knowledge about the subject.

It was just a shot in the dark, but I was right!

Category | war

shotgun marriage
(also shotgun wedding) when the bridegroom is forced to marry the bride he made her pregnant.

It was a shotgun marriage. Nancy was three months pregnant when she married John.

Category | sexuality

shoulder to cry on
said about a person someone to whom you can tell your problems to and then ask for sympathy, emotional support and advice.

Lacy needs a shoulder to cry on. Her father died yesterday.

Category | parts of the body

show your true colors
If you show your true colors, you reveal yourself as you really are. You act in agreement with your real personality as opposed to how one has been portrayed or after having been deceptively and deliberately misleading.


This phrase dates back to the 1700s. It has a nautical origin and refers to the color of the flag which every ship is required to fly at sea. Pirates used to deceive other ships by sailing under false flags so that they would not excite suspicion. The other ships, thinking that the pirates were friendly, sailed close to them and fell under their grip. It was only after the attack that the pirates would show their 'true flag'.

She always thought he was completely honest, but he showed his true colors when he cheated on her.

False friends show their true colors when you badly need their help.

John pretended that the deal was in my best interest, but he showed his true colors when I realized that he got a big commission for getting me into an unprofitable sale.

I’ve known Sandra since we were high school classmates - she’s such a mean person. I am sure Alan will eventually discover her true personality. One day, she will show her true colors.

Everybody thought Bob was a cool guy. It was only when he was promoted as a chief manager that he showed his true colors.

<img src="/images/voc/idioms/show-your-true-colors.jpg" title="What does show your true colors mean?" alt="What does show your true colors mean?"/>

Category | colors

sick as a dog
If someone is sick as a dog, they are very ill.


This simile was first used back in 1705. Nowadays, dogs have become human companions but back then dogs were not well appreciated by humans. When they were sick, dogs were left to die in the open air.

This idiom compares a person to a sick dog. It's unclear why dogs were particularly considered sick. But many idioms make allusions to dogs negatively:

- a dog-eat-dog world.
- die like a dog.
- dog in the manger.
- a dog's breakfast.

I couldn't come because I was sick as a dog.

Category | health

signed, sealed and delivered
(Also sealed and delivered)
This expression refers to a document or an agreement which has been officially signed and completed satisfactorily.

John: "Hey, have you finalized the purchase of the estate yet?"

Leila: "Yes, I got all the documents... signed, sealed, and delivered!"

Category | law

sing the same tune
If people sing the same tune, they agree about a subject in public in spite of their disagreement.

Another variation of the same idiom is:

sing from the same hymnsheet/songsheet

He wanted his ministers to be singing the same tune before the press conference.

Category | music

sink or swim
If you are left to sink or swim, you are left on your own, without any help, and you have no choice but to fail or succeed. The idiom alludes to the choices available to someone who has fallen into the water.

It's sink or swim for her. It's too late to help her now.

Category | general

sitting duck
Said about someone or something vulnerable to attack.

Because of his unpopular opinions about foreign policy, he made of himself a sitting duck.

Category | animals

skin and bones
to be underweight and look bad, to be extremely thin.

Because of her illness she was nothing but skin and bones.

Category | parts of the body

skin someone alive
to punish someone severely.

My parents will skin me alive if they see my grades.

Category | parts of the body

slice of life
The phrase slice of life refers to a realistic representation of everyday experience in art and entertainment (e.g. a movie, play, book..)

The movie is a slice of life about the life of a group of students.

Category | life

snake in one's bosom
The phrase a snake in one's bosom refers to a person whom one has treated well and taken care of but turned out to be traitorous, untrustworthy, or ungrateful.

Other variants of this idiom:

a serpent in one's bosom
a viper in one's bosom

The viper is a family of venomous snakes.

This idiom usually collocates with verbs like cherish, nurture, nurse, nourish and warm:

cherish a snake in one's bosom
nurture a snake in one's bosom
nurse a snake in one's bosom
nourish a snake in one's bosom
warm a snake in one's bosom

1. "Lord, let me not warm a snake in my bosom, that will at last sting me to the heart." Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel, Volume 5, By John Flavel"
2. I had taken him into my care, but when he grew up, he stole all my money and fled away. I had nourished a snake in my bosom.
3. He loved her so much and treated her like a queen. But, after ten years of marriage, he found out that he had cherished a snake in his bosom. She run off with a younger man.

Category | animals

snake in the grass
The phrase snake in the grass refers to a treacherous or deceitful person.
A person who pretends to be your friend while secretly trying to do things to harm you.

He's a guy you can't trust, a snake in the grass.

Category | animals

snake oil salesman
The phrase snake oil salesman refers to a person who who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is himself a fraud, quack, or charlatan.

Another variant of this idiom:

snake oil saleswoman.

Don't believe those snake oil salesmen on TV selling holistic medicines.

Category | animals

soaked to the bone
The phrase to be soaked to the bone means to be completely wet or drenched.

Another variation of this idiom is:

soaked to the skin

It was raining cats and dogs. We knew we would be soaked to the bone, but we had to walk on to arrive on time to our destination.

Category | parts of the body

sour as vinegar
The phrase sour as vinegar very sour and disagreeable.

1. This cheese is sour as vinegar.
2. Mike is sour as vinegar this morning.

Category | food

sour grapes
The phrase sour grapes refers to something that one cannot afford and so speaks about it as if it were never desirable.

Criticizing the job is just sour grapes. You still really want it.
He thinks that it isn't a beautiful house, but that's just sour grapes because he can't afford it.

Category | food

speak of the devil
The phrase speak of the devil is the short form of the idiom speak of the devil and he shall appear. It is used about someone who appears unexpectedly while being talked about.

Speak of the Devil! look who's coming.

Category | religion

speak the same language
The phrase to speak the same language is an idiomatic expression that means to have the same ideas, tastes and attitudes as someone else.

Another variation of this idiom:

Talk the same language

Category | language

spike someone's guns
The phrase spike someone's guns means to ruin someone's plans or prevent someone's success.

The origin of the phrase

This idiom comes from the former military practice of inserting spikes or a nail into enemy guns to prevent them from firing.

The rain has spiked our guns. We cannot go for a picnic as planned.

Category | war

spill the beans
to reveal a secret.

Why did you spill the beans about our new project? It was supposed to be top secret.

Category | food

spring chicken
To be young; to be still a young and naive person.
This idiom is usually used in the negative form.

See the entry for:
no spring chicken

She is not a spring chicken. She wouldn't like to go partying with us.
At the age of forty, she is no spring chicken!
I'd like to remind you that, at forty-five, you're still a spring chicken.

Category | animals

Spuntnick moment
The phrase Sputnik moment refers to a moment of challenge when a society or person realizes they must work harder to surpass their competitors.

The phrase was popularized by Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in 2011.

The origin of the idiom comes from the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik 1, which was a great achievement at that moment, while the US were lagging behind in space technology. This caused the space race to start between the two countries. The US ultimately won the race in 1969 with the first human landing on the Moon.

This generation's "Sputnik moment" has arrived, President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address, referring to the United States' need to invest in research and development to revive the economy and ensure future stability.

See : <a href="http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/25/defining-a-sputnik-moment/" target="_blank">CNN</a>

Category | technology and science

stage whisper
If you say something in a stage whisper, you say it in a loud whisper with the intention of being overheard.

She told him in a stage whisper, "I am fed up with your behavior"

Category | art

stand the test of time
If something stands the test of time, it lasts for a long time.

Their marriage has stood the test of time.

Category | time

state of the art
The phrase state of the art refers to something that reflects the highest level of development, something that is very up-to-date.

This car reflects the state of the art in automobile industry.

Category | art

step into somebody's shoes
to take over someone's place or job.

Who do you think will step into Leila's shoes when she leaves?

Category | clothes

stick to one's guns
To stick to one's guns means to refuse to change one's convictions or beliefs; to maintain one's position in the face of opposition.

His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he stuck to his guns and followed a career as a writer.
They stuck to their guns and continued the fight for civil rights

Category | war

stiff upper lip
One who has a stiff upper lip displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or exercises self-restraint in the expression of emotion.

He always has a stiff upper lip. He never complains.

Category | parts of the body

stir up a hornets' nest
If you stir up a hornets' nest, you make trouble.

A hornet is a large stinging insect that typically nests in hollow trees.

Another idiom with the term hornet is:

  • as mad as a hornet

It means very angry as in:
he was as mad as a hornet when he discovered the truth about his wife.

Don't bring up that topic again in the meeting. You will be stirring up a hornets' nest.

Category | animals

stool pigeon
A decoy or an informer, especially one who is a spy for the police.

He was killed by a gangster because he was thought to be a stool pigeon.

Category | crime

stop the music
stop everything.

A: (Entering a room full of people doing various things) Stop the music!
B: What?
A: I have an important announcement!

Category | music

storm is brewing
The phrase storm is brewing is an idiomatic expression that means that there is going to be a storm. It may also mean that there is going to be trouble or emotional upset in the near future.

1. It is very cloudy today. A storm is brewing.
2. I may be smiling on the outside, but there's a storm brewing on the inside.

Category | nature

strapped for cash
The idiom strapped for cash to be short of money.

I'm strapped for cash, can you lend me ten dollars?

Category | money

strike a chord
If something strikes a chord with you, it reminds you of something, it seems familiar to you or you are interested in it.

That woman struck a chord with me. It seems to me that I had seen her before.

Category | music

sweat blood
to work very hard.

She sweats blood every day just to bring home the bacon.

Category | work

sweep something under the carpet
(also sweep something under the rug.) to hide or ignore something.

You've made a terrible mistake. Don't try to sweep it under the carpet!

Category | furniture

sweep something under the rug
To hide something because it's embarassing.

Because many famous people were involved in the affair, everything was swept under the rug.

Category | home

swim against the tide
The phrase swim against the tide means to do something that is in opposition to the prevailing opinion or tendency.

Another variation of this idiom is:

swim against the current

The phrase that expresses the opposite meaning is:

swim with the tide or current

Don't waste your time and energy swimming against the tide.

Category | sport

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