Former teacher who enjoys English idioms and created this page to help understand common idioms with this list of idioms & their meanings.
What are Idioms? List of Idioms in English
Idioms are expressions or phrases that have meaning not implied directly by the literal use of words. They are part of an evolution of dialect that has no direct translation. Such strange dialect and idiom figurative language is especially challenging to those learning English as a second language (ESL). No wonder those trying to become fluent in the English language would be confused. These idiomatic expressions have literal meanings which are quite different from the actual English words used.
For example 'beating around the bush' means nothing having to do with a beating or a bush. Quite literally, this idiom figurative language means to avoid the truth or to keep talking about things having nothing to do with the point. So telling someone to 'quit beating around the bush' meaning get to the point is another idiom example meaning to quit talking about unrelated stuff and just SAY it.
Other examples of American idioms include 'eating crow' meaning to admit fault as in for example, he's making a mistake and will be 'eating crow' on that. Also 'barking up the wrong tree' meaning looking the wrong way to find an answer. It's like saying what you need is over here, so why are you looking over there? Find more common idiom examples below that will help to define idioms and understand their meaning.
'Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water' Idiom Definition
During the 1500s, taking a bath meant sitting in a big tub filled with hot water. The tub was filled once and ONLY once - for the entire family! The man of the house had the privilege of the first tub and the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. (Perish the THOUGHT, yet true.)
By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water." So this idiom definition would be translated as don't throw away something good while you discard something considered worthless.
'It Will Cost You an Arm and a Leg' Idiom Meaning Expensive
In George Washington's day, there were no cameras. The only personal images that existed were either painted or else sculptures. Some paintings of George Washington showed him standing behind a desk with one arm behind his back while others showed both legs and both arms.
Prices charged by painters were not based on how many people were to be painted, but by how many limbs were to be painted, because limbs were much more difficult to create. Arms and legs are limbs, therefore painting them would cost the buyer more. Hence the expression, 'It will cost you an arm and a leg' meaning it will be very expensive. See image below.
'Big Wig' Idiom Meaning Important Person
As incredible as it sounds, long ago men and women took baths only twice a year! (in May and October). Women kept their hair covered, while men shaved their heads (because of lice and bugs) and wore wigs. Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool.
They couldn't wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term 'big wig.' So that evolved to the current figurative language among American idioms meaning when we say 'here comes the Big Wig' that means here comes the boss or here comes someone who appears to be or powerful, wealthy or important.
'Mind Your Own Bees Wax' & 'Crack a Smile' & 'Losing Face' Idioms Meaning
Personal hygiene left much room for improvement in early days. As a result, many women and men had developed acne scars by adulthood. The women would spread bee's wax over their facial skin to smooth out their complexions. When they were speaking to each other, if a woman began to stare at another woman's face she was told, 'mind your own bee's wax' meaning to stop staring at me or mind your own business.
Should the woman smile, the wax would crack, hence the similar figurative language 'crack a smile'. Also, sitting too close to the fire can make wax melt, hence the idiom figurative language 'losing face' which has evolved to mean to be embarassed or ashamed.
These are similar idioms meaning:
- mind your OWN business (mind your beeswax)
- be ashamed or embarassed (lose face)
- smile when trying NOT to smile (crack a smile)
'Not Playing with a Full Deck' Idiom Meaning Not Very Smart
Long ago, playing cards was very common entertainment. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards that was only applicable to the 'Ace of Spades.'
To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, so these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren't 'playing with a full deck' or not very smart.
'Straight-Laced' Idiom Meaning Proper or Dignified
Long ago ladies wore tight corsets, which would lace up in the front. Woe be the 'lady' who wore a corset that was laced up in a loose and sloppy fashion. A proper and dignified woman was the lady wore a very tightly laced and tied corset. This has evolved into the idiom figurative language expression of 'straight laced' meaning proper or dignified.
'Mind Your Ps and Qs' Idiom Meaning to Pay Close Attention
Long ago it was common at local taverns and pubs for people to drink from pint and quart sized containers. A bar maid's job was to keep an eye on the customers drink levels and to always keep the drinks coming. So they had to pay close attention and remember who was drinking in 'pints' and who was drinking in 'quarts'. This phrase later evolved to the idiom figurative expression 'mind your Ps and Qs' meaning to pay close attention.
'It's Raining Cats & Dogs' Idiom Meaning a Heavy Rainstorm
Houses in the 1500s had thatched roofs of very thick straw that was piled high. The roof had no wood nor structure underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and dogs and other small animals spent much of their time perched inside the warmth of the thatched straw roof.
When it rained, the straw roof became wet and slippery. Sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the idiom figurative language: 'It's raining cats and dogs' meaning this is one intense rainstorm.
'Gossip' Once Meant to 'Go Sip' (and Listen to People Talk)
This might be considered more of a word origin than an idiom meaning, but the word 'gossip' has an interesting history. Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV, radio or other media at that time, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars.
So assistant of politicians were told to 'go sip some ale' and listen to people's conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. 'You go sip here' and 'You go sip there.' The two words 'go sip' were eventually combined when referring to listening in on the local opinion to eventually evolve into the term 'gossip.'
'The Graveyard Shift' & 'A Dead Ringer' & 'Saved by the Bell' Idioms Meaning
Long ago in England the local folks started running out of places to bury dead people. So they would dig up coffins and take the bones to a bone-house, and then reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized these people had actually been buried alive. (!!!)
So they began to tie a string on the wrist of the dead corpse. The string lead through the coffin and up through the ground and was tied it to a bell. Someone would then have to sit out in the graveyard all night ('the graveyard shift') to listen for the bell.
Therefore a dead person could be literally 'saved by the bell' or might be considered 'a dead ringer'
This true story in old England was the origin of these American idiom figurative expressions. Graveyard shift means working nights, and saved by the bell would describe someone who barely made it out of a situation alive.
'Dirt Poor' and 'Threshold' Idioms Meaning
In many homes centuries ago, there were no structural floors. The floors in most home were simply dirt. Only the very wealthy had anything other other than a dirt floor, hence the American idiom 'dirt poor' which means having very little or no money.
Wealthy families usually had floors made of slate. The slate floor would get slippery when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the wet weather continued, they added more thresh until when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. So a piece of wood was placed in the entrance way at the door. This practice evolved into the American idiom figurative language 'threshold' or thresh hold which now means simply the floor in an exterior doorway.
'Ship High In Transport' - LOL Hilarious Idiom Definition
During the 16th and 17th centuries, everything had to be transported by ship. This was before commercial fertilizers were invented, so large shipments of manure that was shipped aboard vessels was common practice. The manure was always shipped dry, since in dry form it weighed a lot less than when wet.
However once water hit the manure at sea, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again. A by product of this fermentation process is methane gas. As the manure was stored below decks in bundles, this created a smelly problem.
Even worse, methane gas began to build up below decks. So sometimes when someone came below deck into the hold at night with a lantern, the methane produced huge fatal explosions! Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined just what was causing these explosions and fires at sea.
After that, the manure was shipped in bundles that were always labeled with the phrase "Ship High In Transit" on them. This was a safety reminder for the sailors to stow the manure up high and far away from the lower decks of the vessel while in transit. That way, any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and avoid starting the production of methane while in transport.
So the safety message: 'Ship High In Transport' was later shortened to bags labeled S.H.I.T. - Yes, really. So that sh*t term (originally for huge bags of manure) has evolved through the centuries to be a derogatory word now used commonly in American English. LOL, betcha never knew jack about that sh*t!
Technically this term (SH*T) would be considered an acronym rather than an idiom. However it often gets included on a list of idioms and is an interesting and hilarious true story, one that few have heard.
'Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey' Idiom Definition
In the heyday of sailing ships, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons. Those cannons fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. However, how to prevent them from rolling about the deck?
The best storage method devised was a square-based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine, which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem...how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding or rolling from under the others.
The solution was a metal plate called a 'Monkey' with 16 round indentations. However, if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make 'Brass Monkeys.'
Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts more and much faster than iron when chilled. So when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannonballs would come right off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.' (All this time, you thought that was an improper expression, didn't you.)
So this is an idiom meaning seriously cold weather temperatures.
POLL: Your Favorite Idiom? - Idiom Poll Added August 2012
'Once in a Blue Moon' Idiom Meaning RARE
A 'blue moon' happens whenever there's a full moon TWICE in the same month. For example, when the moon is full early in a month and then completes the cycle to become full again before that month ends, this is known as a blue moon. This does not mean that the moon is actually blue (usually) but that If you missed it, you will likely have to wait many years to witness another blue moon.
The idiom 'blue moon' originated because a few times that HAS happened, the moon actually DID appear with a tint of blue. However that only happens when certain atmospheric conditions exist, and is very rare. Still the phrase 'blue moon' refers to the rare times there is a full moon twice in the same month, even though it rarely actually LOOKS blue.
'Let the Cat Out of the Bag' Idiom Meaning
Long long ago a trick of street fraud was common. Back then, (1700s) pigs were quite valuable, but cats were not. Street vendors would carry around small pigs in bags for sale. Some would replace valuable pigs with common cats and trick customers. So when you reveal a secret by mistake, you might have 'let the cat out of the bag'.
English as a Second Language: ESOL and Other Acronyms
Many acronyms are now used referring to the study of English for non English speakers. These titles differ in various countries and regions.
- ESL = English as a Second Language
- TESOL = Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
- TEFL = Teaching English as a First Language
- TESL = Teaching English as a Second Language
- ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages
Top Rated FUN Game for ESOL Students
English Language Trivia
- What is the longest English word without a vowel?
- Of all the words in the English language, which one has the most definitions in the dictionary?
- What word is still pronounced the same way when the last four letters are removed?
- What is the longest word in the English language with all the letters in alphabetical order?
1) rhythm 2) set 3) queue 4) almost
More Reasons WHY English is a Hard Language to Learn
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Carolan Ross
Manar Moussa from Egypt on October 26, 2018:
great job! thanks alot for sharing these information with us.
Aunt-Mollie on March 18, 2013:
I've always liked reading about the origins of words and expressions. Idioms are so difficult to explain to people who do not have English as their mother-tongue. I once tried to explain an expression, and could do it: 'You got me.'
Pat Moire from West Village, New York City on November 29, 2012:
Idioms make language so much fun to learn. Now I know where they come from.
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on September 28, 2012:
Very interesting history of idioms. Really enjoyed learning the origins of these phrases. The students in our literacy and ESL programs used to really shake their heads in wonder and amazement when discussing idioms.
Chris-H LM on July 04, 2012:
I had fun reading these. It's a lot of fun discovering the origins of phrases we use without a second thought.
Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on May 30, 2012:
I love idioms and your explanations are great!
norma-holt on November 28, 2009:
The dead ringer, that caused me to have a laugh. Imagine being buried alive and having to remember to ring the bell. Great lens, very informative and well presented. 5* fave and lens rolled
MarinaKuperman on September 07, 2009:
Great idea for a lens and very interesting... But the one about The baby in the bath water was a little shocking... is that real...??? Anyway i fived you and fanned you, great job