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

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Learn English Idioms

A list of English idioms with definitions and examples:

take a deep breath
The phrase to take a deep breath is an idiomatic expression that means to pause, especially in order to make oneself feel strong and confident.

She took a deep breath before doing the hardest part of her work.

Category | health

take a dim view of
to disapprove of something.

My grandfather takes a dim view of the new law.

Category | general

take a stab at
The phrase to take a stab at means to attempt or try.

I know the question is difficult to answer. Yet, I'd like to take a stab at answering it.

Category | war

take for a ride
To deceive or cheat.

It was only when he discovered that his wallet was gone that he realized they had taken him for a ride.

Category | travel

take forty winks
The idiom take forty winks means to take a nap for a short period of time.

I'll just take forty winks before getting ready for work.

Category | numbers

take French leave
The phrase take French leave refers to the act of leaving a location or event without permission.

The origin of 'take a French leave'

The first record of this idiom dates back to 1771. It appeared in the English language at a point when the English and French cultures were profoundly linked.

Interestingly, there is a French equivalent of this phrase: 'filer à l'anglaise'. It literally means 'to leave the English way'.

I am so bored - I think I might take French leave this afternoon to meet Kate.

The soldier faces heavy charges after he took a French leave just before the deadly operation.

The only thing I could do was to take French leave and get out of there before someone could notice my presence.

Category | nationalities

take it on the chin
If you take an unpleasant event or a difficult situation on the chin, you accept it bravely and without complaining.

This idiom probably comes from boxing. It may be a metaphor that implies that one shouldn't shy away from difficulty.

During the recession, the car's manufacturers were taking it on the chin.
Taking it on the chin is one of her greatest strength.
I took the criticism on the chin and went on working on the project until I succeeded.

Category | parts of the body

take it on the lam
to run away.

The criminal had to take it on the lam.

Category | general

take it or leave it
said about an offer when you either accept it or reject it completely.

This is my offer; take it or leave it.

Category | general

take one's hat off to someone
said when you admire someone for an achievement.

If she manages to deal with three small children and a full-time job, I'll take my hat off to her.

Category | clothes

take someone's life
To kill someone.

The floods took hundreds of lives.

Category | life

take something or someone at face value
If you take something or someone at face value, you accept that they are as they seem without looking for a hidden meaning or ulterior motives.

Origin of the idiom 'take something or someone at face value'

The idiom 'take something or someone at face value' may originate from the phrase 'face value', which refers to the value printed or depicted on a coin, banknote, postage stamp, ticket, etc. The value of a coin or bill is clearly visible from the numbers printed on it. So, like a coin, taking something or someone at face value means taking them as they seem to be, without verifying, investigating, or looking for hidden meanings or secret motives.

The prime minister's speech should not necessarily be taken at face value.

Please, don't take what he says at face value! He clearly has an ulterior motive.

I think we can take Lisa at face value.

His story was unconvincing, but we took it at face value

<img src="/images/voc/idioms/take-someone-at-face-value.jpg" title="take something or someone at face value" alt="take something or someone at face value (idiom)"/>

Category | parts of the body

take the bit between one's teeth
to take charge.

The company needed a new manager for the project. So he took the bit between his teeth.

Category | parts of the body

take the bull by the horns
to deal with a matter in a direct manner, especially to confront a difficulty rather than avoid it.

He was ready to take the bull by the horns and settle the problem he had with his partners.

Category | animals

take the cake
The phrase take the cake is mainly an American idiom that means to be especially bad, outrageous, or objectionable.

The phrase dates back to the 5th century BC. In Aristophanes' The Knights (c. 420 BCE) a line refers to a cake as a symbolic prize:

"If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours."

John: Have you seen how she lies about her ex-husband?
Nancy: I've seen a lot of liars, but she takes the cake

Category | food

take the fifth
To decline to answer, especially on grounds that it might be incriminating.

The origin of the phrase dates back to the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which says that a person can't

"be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

If you ask me who stole the wallet, I will simply take the fifth.

Category | numbers

take to something like a duck to water
to have a natural ability to do something.

She took to motherhood like a duck to water.

Category | animals

talk a mile a minute
The phrase talk a mile a minute is an idiomatic expression that means to speak very fast; to talk in a very quick or hurried manner.

I can never follow everything he's tries to say. He talks a mile a minute.

Category | language

talk for England
The phrase talk for England describes someone who is talkative (i.e. talks a lot).

This idiom is primarily used in the UK.

I’m terribly sorry I’m late. I've just met Lacy and I couldn't get away from her. She can talk for England!

Category | nationalities

talk in circles
If you talk in circles, you keep repeating the same points and not arriving at any conclusions.

Origin of the idiom

To talk in circles refers to a situation in which a person is talking about something confusingly or indirectly that fails to make a point or directly answer something. A circular or recursive talk is suggestive of the form of a circle.

Related phrases:

- speak in circles
- go round in circles
- beating around the bush

I don't know why some politicians talk in circles about important issues.
I am not sure about what I am saying. I'm just talking in circles at this point.
If the facts do not support your argument, then you talk in circles, hoping to confuse the other person.

Category | language

talk is cheap
The phrase talk is cheap is a proverb that means it is easier to say you will do something than to actually do it.

My elder brother promised to help me with my homework, but talk is cheap.

Category | language

talk nineteen to the dozen
to speak very quickly.

I couldn't understand what he was saying because he was talking nineteen to the dozen.

Category | numbers

talk through one's hat
to talk nonesense

He was talking through his hat. I couldn't understand what he was saying.

Category | clothes

tall order
The phrase a tall order refers to something that is very difficult to do.


The adjective 'tall' probably comes from Middle English 'tal'. Its meaning has developed throughout centuries. Its primary sense is "high in stature", but other meanings have been attributed to it:

"handsome, good-looking; valiant; lively in speech; large, big; humble, meek."

Used in this idiom, the adjective refers to things large in amount or size. Thus, a tall order refers to a task or a job that is hard to accomplish.

Another instance of an idiom that uses the adjective 'tall' to mean considerable or exaggerated is the following:

tall tale.

A tall tale refers to a long and complicated story that is difficult to believe because some of its events are improbable or impossible.

To win the match against such a good team is a tall order for them.

Finishing the report before the deadline was a tall order but I did it.

Jane: Can you finish painting the house today?
Alan: That's a tall order.

Category | general

tar with the same brush
To tar somebody or something with the same brush means to describe them using the same undesirable attribute, especially unjustly.

We shouldn't tar all athletes with the same brush because not all of them resort to doping.

Category | art

tear your hair out
said when you are feeling a lot of anxiety over a problem.

He's been tearing his hair out over his deteriorated relationship with his wife.

Category | parts of the body

tempest in a teapot
The phrase tempest in a teapot is an idiomatic expression. It refers to a small event that has been exaggerated out of proportion.

There are other variations of this idiom:

A tempest in a teacup.
A storm in a teacup.
A storm in a cream bow.

The whole fight between the two companies is just a tempest in a teapot.

Category | nature

tender age
A young age.

It's easier to learn languages at a tender age.

Category | age

that beats everything
(or that beats all) expressions of surprise.

You mean he came very late again last night? Well, that beats everything!

Category | sport

that makes two of us
When you use the phrase "that makes two of us" you mean that the same is true for you.

Jane: I just bought a new car.
Anna: That makes two of us!

Category | numbers

that's the way the cookie crumbles
(also that's the way the ball bounces) said to show that things don't always turn out the way we hope.

In spite of her kindness she is the least popular in her class. But, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Category | food

the ball is in someone's court
When the ball is in someone's court they have to take action.

The ball is in your court now. You should decide what you want to do.

Category | sport

the battle of the sexes
The phrase the battle of the sexes refers to the conflicts and disagreements between men and women.

Gender equality is meant to end the battle of the sexes.

Category | sexuality

the boot is on the other foot
(also the shoe is on the other foot) said about a change of positions when someone whon was in a weaker situation is now in strong position.

Don't expect him to make any more changes in the manageement of the company, especially after his appointment as the new manager of the project. The boot is on the other foot.

Category | clothes

the chill wind of something
problems, trouble.

World economies are facing the chill wind of the recession.

Category | nature

the customer is always right.
In order to make profit, it is necessary for a business to satisfy customers' wishes and make them happy.

Look at that waiter! He always argues with customers. He doesn't know that the customer is always right.

Category | general

the dismal science
The phrase the dismal science refers to the discipline of economics.

The term drew a contrast with the phrase gay science which refers to song and verse writing

The phrase the dismal science first occurs in Thomas Carlyle's 1849 tract called Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, in which he argued in favor of reintroducing slavery in order to regulate the labor market in the West Indies:
Not a "gay science," I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.

Carlyle, Thomas (1849). "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XL., p. 672.

He is interested in history and the dismal science.

Category | technology and science

the home straight
The last part of a difficult work.

It was just suc a difficult project to work on, but we are on the home the straight.

Category | home

the home stretch
The last part of a difficult work.

We are in the home stretch after a year of hard work.

Category | home

the jury is out
an outcome or decision is still unknown and awaited.

The jury is out as to whether there is life anywhere else in the universe.

Category | general

the letter of the law
This idiom is used when one is obeying the literal interpretation of the law, but not the intent or the spirit of those who wrote the law.

Judges mustn't follow the letter of the law, but its spirit.

Category | law

the long arm of the law
This idiomatic expression refers to the far-reaching power of the authorities or the police.

Don't try to escape! The long arm of the law will catch you wherever you may go.

Category | law

the men in grey suits
The phrase the men in grey suits refers to the powerful and influential men in business or politics.

A variation of this idiom is:

the men in suits

The men in grey suits will decide the future of this nation.

Category | clothes

the milk of human kindness
idioms in English - Milk of human nature

The phrase the milk of human kindness refers to the quality of kindness and the innate sense of compassion towards other people.

The origin of the phrase

The phrase comes from Shakespeare's tragic play Macbeth:
Lady Macbeth:
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promis'd. Yet do I fear thy nature,
It is too full o' th' milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.

Lady Macbeth, who is very ambitious, complains that her husband is too kind to kill the king and achieve his goals. He is rather a person who acts as a good man and doesn’t have the type of nature needed to take action and get the throne.

The reference to milk in the phrase may refer to mothers' milk. When mothers breastfeed their babies, this is seen as an act of self-sacrifice, love, and compassion.

She is filled with the milk of human kindness.
John is quite rude and greedy; he lacks the milk of human kindness.
People take advantage of Alan because he is too full of the milk of human kindness.
I don't think she would do anything that evil; she has the milk of human kindness in her.

Category | food

the minute (that)
at the moment when

The minute he saw her, he fell in love.

Category | time

the mother of all
an extreme example which is the biggest, most impressive, or most important of its kind.

Failure is the mother of all success.

Category | relationship

the spirit of the law
When one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording. (See also letter of the law)

In one of the best known examples, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare introduces the quibble as a plot device to save both the spirit and the letter of the law. The moneylender Shylock has made an agreement with Antonio that if he cannot repay a loan he will have a pound of flesh from him. When the debt is not repaid in time Portia at first pleads for mercy in a famous speech:

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." (IV,i,185).

When Shylock refuses, she finally saves Antonio by pointing out that Shylock's agreement with him mentioned no blood, and therefore Shylock can have his pound of flesh only if he sheds no blood.

Source: Wikipedia

A judge who adheres to the spirit of the law is concerned with the intent and purpose of the lawmaker.

Category | law

the straw that broke the camel's back
A small and seemingly insignificant addition to a burden that renders it too much to bear; the small thing which causes failure, or causes inability or unwillingness to endure any more of something

When the boss saw him coming late to work. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. He fired her immediately.

Category | animals

the third degree
Give someone or get the third degree designates a close interrogation.

The use of the phrase is derived from the brutal form of police interrogation of the same name, well-known in the American crime fiction.

The origin of the phrase may refer to the third degree of Freemasonry and the rigorous procedures to advance to that level.

I don't know why you always give me the third degree every time I hang out with my friends.

Category | numbers

the weed of crime bears bitter fruit
The phrase the weed of crime bears bitter fruit means that nothing good comes from criminal schemes.

The idiom comes from The Shadow radio drama broadcasted in the 1930s. The program is well-remembered for those episodes voiced by Orson Welles. The episodes start with:
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of me. The Shadow knows"

At the end of each episode The Shadow reminded listeners that,
"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay... The Shadow knows!"

Don't mislead yourself. You will pay for your crimes one day; the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.

Category | crime

them and us
used when describing disagreements or differences especially between different social groups

There is a them and us situation in the company after the disagreement between the boss and his workers about the working conditions.

Category | relationship

there is honor among thieves
When you say there is honor among thieves, this means that even among criminals there is honor and that they do not commit crimes against each other.

The gangsters had a strong respect for their old boss which demonstrate that there is honor among thieves.

Category | crime

thick as thieves
intimate, close-knit.

Alan and John attended a boarding school together and were thick as thieves.

Category | crime

throw in the towel
(also throw in the sponge) to admit defeat.

After a long fight agaisnt his enemies, he finally threw the towel.

Category | sport

throw your hat into the ring
(also toss your hat into the ring) to show your intention to enter a competition.

Nearly a year before the elections, he threw his hat into the ring.

Category | clothes

thumbnail sketch
The phrase thumbnail sketch refers to a short description or small picture.

The accountant gave a thumbnail sketch of the financial situation of the company.

Category | art

thumbs down
The phrase thumbs downis an idiomatic expression that indicates rejection, disapproval or failure.

This idiom refers to a common hand gesture achieved by a closed fist held with the thumb extended downward in disapproval.

The opposite is thumbs up. This indicates satisfaction or approval.

The performance got the thumbs-down from the audience.

Category | parts of the body

thumbs up
The phrase thumbs upis an idiomatic expression that indicates satisfaction or approval.

This idiom refers to a common hand gesture achieved by a closed fist held with the thumb extended upward in approval.

The opposite is thumbs down. This indicates rejection or failure.

The audience gave the performance the thumbs-up.

Category | parts of the body

tighten your belt
If you tighten your belt, you try to spend less money or use fewer resources.


Some attribute this phrase to the consequences of the great depression. But one can safely imagine that the phrase might have existed much before the depression of the early 20th century. It was used at least a century before by David Stewart, a Scottish soldier and later author and antiquarian. In his book, Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland, David Stewart describes how the highlanders tightened their belts to stave off hunger:
"When pinched with hunger they experienced great relief from tightening the belt".

Literally, the phrase may also describe people who have very little money to buy food and lose so much weight that they have to tighten their belts to keep their pants from falling. Transferred to its figurative meaning, the phrase now means spending less money or using fewer resources.

- Going on holiday abroad will cost us a lot of money so we're all going to have to tighten our belts.
- She decided to tighten her belt because she was fired from her full-time job.

Category | clothes

till the cows come home
If someone asks you to do something till the cows come home, they mean you could do it for a very long time.


The phrase alludes to cows in a pasture where they are allowed to graze for a long time before they come back to the barn. These animals are generally not in a hurry making their way slowly through the pasture back home.

The phrase till the cows come home has been around since at least the sixteenth century. Beaumont and Fletcher used "till the cow come home" in a play—The Captain (circa 1609–1612):
Host. Good night!
Jacomo. Good morrow! Drink till the cow come home, 'tis all paid boys.

I haven’t finished the work yet. I think I’ll be working till the cows come home.
Don’t count on her to prepare the dinner. She will be talking on the phone till the cows come home.
You can try till the cows come home but you will never be able to persuade him to change his behavior.

Category | home

time flies
The phrase time flies means that time passes very quickly especially when you're having fun.

Its Latin origin is tempus fugit

Time flew while they were talking about the old beautiful days.

Category | time

time is money
a proverb which means that one should not waste time, because one could be using it to earn money.

I have to wake up and go to work - time is money

Category | money

to a fine art
The phrase to a fine art refers to something done in a way that is based on highly developed skill.

This company elevates web design to a fine art.

Category | art

to a man
The idiom to a man means without exception.

All the neighbors were present at the meeting and they all, to a man, agreed to help the poor family.

Category | men and women

to pull the trigger
1. To fire a gun.
2. To commit to a course of action.

Some traders are too afraid to pull the trigger and just watch the market without ever getting involved.

Category | general

to sell wolf tickets
to make empty threats or promises; to bluff

You're selling wolf tickets.

Category | animals

to the hilt
completely, fully, to one's limit

John has borrowed money from the bank to the hilt.

Category | war

to the last
until the completion of something or until death.

1. Don't worry I'll support to the last.
2. She was a great lady to the last.

Category | time

to this day
until now.

He disappeared and to this day nobody knows what happened to him.

Category | time

to wash one's hands of
to absolve oneself of responsibility or future blame for.

I wash my hands of this whole affair.

Category | parts of the body

toot one's own horn
(also blow one's own horn) to boast; to brag

She really likes to toot her own horn.

Category | music

tough love
A way of helping someone with compassionate use of stringent disciplinary measures. The aim is to attempt to improve their behavior.

The only way help him get rid of his drug-addiction is to adhere to the principle of tough love.

Category | love

track record
The phrase a track record is an idiomatic expression that refers to a person or organization's past performance in any type of endeavor.

The origin of the phrase comes from racing, referring either to the best performance of any racehorse or athlete on a certain track, or to the history of a certain racer's past performance.

They have a strong track record in creating successful websites.

Category | sport

traffic jam
a lot of vehicles causing slow traffic.

We got stuck in a traffic jam for more than an hour.

Category | food

trick of the trade
a clever skill related to a profession.

He is so skillful. He learned te trick of the trade from his father.

Category | general

trip the light fantastic
To dance.

We were tripping the light fantastic all night.

Category | travel

turn up like a bad penny
A person or thing which is unpleasant, disreputable, or otherwise unwanted, especially one which repeatedly appears at inopportune times.

He always turns up like a bad penny.

Category | money

turn back the clock
(also wind back the clock or roll back the clock) figuratively to return in time to an earlier period of history.

When their relationship had started deteriorating, he told her that they should turn back the clock and just go back to when things were simpler.

Category | time

turn in one's grave
To turn in one's grave or to turn over in one's grave is an idiomatic expression used to describe the anger or revulsion of a dead person if he or she were alive to hear of particular negative news or actions.

The origin of the idiom

One of the earliest known examples of the phrase dates back to a 4 November 1801 House of Commons speech by a Mr. Windham. In that speech, Mr. Windham warns Britain against yielding too much power to France during the peace talks following the revolutionary wars:
"Thus have we done a thing altogether unknown in the history of this country; a thing which would have scared all former politicians; a thing, which, if our old Whig politicians were now to hear, they would turn in their graves."

Your poor father would turn in his grave if he heard the horrible things you did to your mother.
I can't believe you went bankrupt after the generous inheritance you got after the death of your late mother. That's enough to make her turn over in her grave!

Category | death

turn one's back on
If you turn your back on someone you ignore, deny, or reject them.
To turn one's back on may also mean to abandon or forsake.

Other related idioms:

To give someone the cold shoulder.
To cut someone dead.

He couldn't turn his back on his ex-wife even if she cheated on him.

John turned his back on his old friends when he won the lottery.

Category | parts of the body

turn the tables
The phrase turn the tables is an idiomatic expression that refers to a change from being in a weaker position in relation to someone else to being in a stronger position by gaining the upper hand over a competitor, rival, or enemy.

Our team finally turned the tables on their old rivals.

Category | furniture

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

What are idioms?

Related materials

Recommended books: