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40 Popular Idioms and Their Meanings

What Are Idioms?

Idioms are a collection of words, phrases, or sentences that portray a different meaning than the literal meanings of the words or the phrase itself. Most of the common idioms used in the English language are made up of five to 8 words and they are used as emotional expressions, warnings or used as a means to describe certain situations without saying it directly.

Facts About Idioms

Here are some facts about idioms that might interest you:

  • Idioms are one of the few aspects of language that do not change in structure or meaning as time passes.
  • An idiom can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
  • Idioms are most meaningful in the target culture of the language in which it is formed. Therefore, an English idiom would make more sense in the English language and English-speaking community than anywhere else.
  • Some idioms have universal meanings that can be applied in almost any language or society.
  • Most of the time, you cannot translate the meaning of an idiomatic expression with the normal grammatical rules of the language. Most idioms have hidden meanings to them.

Many of the famous idioms are made up of short and incomplete sentences. When an idiom is composed of long or even complete sentences, it is called a proverb.

40 Popular Idioms and Their Meanings

Here we have compiled a list of idioms and their meanings when used in most situations.

1. Speak of the devil

Meaning: This is used when a person that is being talked about at the moment suddenly appears.
Example: and he never talked about it again. Oh! Speak of the devil. I was just telling jerry about the other day at the beach.

2. A blessing in disguise

Meaning: This is used to refer to something that was initially perceived as being bad that then turns out to be good.
Example: I guess Johns girlfriend getting pregnant in high school was a blessing in disguise. Their son is the best thing that has happened to them.

3. A hot potato

Meaning: This is used to describe an issue or even a person that is currently being talked about and is surrounded by a lot of controversies.
Example: World War III is suddenly a hot potato in 2020.

4. Back to the drawing board

Meaning: It is usually used to mean starting over again, especially when everything else has failed.
Example: After Jennys startup failed, she had to go back to the drawing board.

5. Beating around the bush

Meaning: This means avoiding the main topic or situation by saying or doing something else.
Example: Quit beating around the bush and tell me exactly what happened to my money.

6. Beating a dead horse

Meaning: Trying to add energy to revive a situation that is hopeless or dead.
Example: Trying to get Angela back is like trying beating a dead horse, she is already married to that tech billionaire guy.

7. Bite more than you can chew

Meaning: This means to take on more challenges or responsibilities than you can handle.
Example: Hey, John, you have so much work on your hands already, do not bite more than you can chew by taking on more responsibility.

8. Judge a book by its cover

Meaning: This means judging a person or situation on the first encounter or how they appear.
Example: Bella is not a bad person just because of how she dresses, you are just judging a book by its cover.

9. Through thick and thin

Meaning: This means in Good and bad situations.
Example: His wife stuck with him through thick and thin, it is no wonder he loves her so much.

10. Weather the storm

Meaning: This means to endure hardship or a difficult situation.
Example: I am sure that things will get better for you, all you have to do is weather the storm till it's over.

11. Stir the hornets nest

Meaning: This means doing something that you know can get you in trouble or make someone angry.
Example: Driving your wifes car to work on a Monday is like stirring the hornets nest, I hope you are ready for what comes next.

12. Head over heels

Meaning: This means to be completely in love with someone.
Example: Jessica is head over heels in love with her neighbor, I hope she gets to marry her.

13. Keep at arms length

Meaning: This means avoiding a person or a situation by staying away from them.
Example: I am a very quiet person, and this is why keep Ben at arms length.

14. Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: This means to follow a wrong course or take the wrong action that might end badly for you.
Example: If you are saying all these lies about me just to provoke me, stop now because you are barking up the wrong tree.

15. A chip off the old block

Meaning: This means that the person being referred to is similar to their parent or a mentor in some distinct way.
Example: Musa is a chip off the old block, you can tell by how he talks.

16. An apple doesnt fall far from the tree

Meaning: This means the character of a person is expected to resemble or be similar to that of ones parents.
Example: I actually Rebecca would be different from her mum, but then an apple doesnt fall far from the tree.

17. Once in a blue moon

Meaning: This means the situation being talked about rarely happens.
Example: Getting praise from my father is something that happens once in a blue moon.

18. Best of Both worlds

Meaning: This is used to say a situation has the advantages of two unrelated things.
Example: If you get this item, you get to spend less on a product that is also of high quality, it is the best of both worlds really!

19. Burn the Midnight Oil

Meaning: This means working late into the night to get something done.
Example: She burned the midnight oil on multiple occasions to makes sure that she got this deal. She clearly deserved it.

20. Dont count your chickens before your eggs have hatched

Meaning: This is used to tell someone to avoid making plans for something that has not happened yet, or might not happen.
Example: Really, you went out and bought a car when your client has not paid. I thought you knew better than counting your chickens before they have hatched.

21. Cut somebody some slack

Meaning: This is used to say, you should go easy on somebody or stop being so critical about a persons performance.
Example: Hey, John, could you at least cut peter some slack, at least we can all see that he is trying his best to impress you.

22. Put all your eggs in one basket

Meaning: This is used to mean a person is depending on a single source of income, or an opportunity, or depending on a single thing for support when they could have more.
Example: Ruby has been miserable since she lost her day job, she has no other source of income because she put all her eggs in one basket.

23. Feel a bit under the weather

Meaning: This is used to mean a person or thing is feeling slightly ill.
Example: I had to stay home yesterday because my cat was feeling a bit under the weather.

24. Hanging by the skin of your teeth

Meaning: This is means you are barely hanging on in a situation.
Example: Tabita doesnt like this new job, she is just hanging by the skin of her teeth.

25. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Meaning: This is used to say there is no easy choice or that you have to choose between two hard choices.
Example: Telling your Indian mother that you are gay or telling her that you are quitting med school is hard. It seems like you are caught between a rock and a hard place.

26. Fit as a fiddle

Meaning: Being in a very good state of health.
Example: Even at 50 years of age, my father is as fit as a fiddle.

27. Give the cold shoulder

Meaning: Ignoring a person or a thing.
Example: I tried talking to my girlfriend yesterday, but she gave me the cold shoulder.

28. Hit the nail on the head

Meaning: This means being correct or precise.
Example: When he said the problem of my community is bad governance, he hit the nail on the head.

29. Let a person or thing off the hook

Meaning: Letting go of wrongdoing or not holding someone responsible for a situation.
Example: I thought Jacksons mum would kill him after that stunt he pulled, but she let off of the hook.

30. Keep your eye on the ball

Meaning: This is used to tell someone to stay focus or keep their eyes on the prize and work hard.
Example: You cant give up just after one try, you need to keep your eyes on the ball.

40 Popular Idioms and Their Meanings

31. Steal a persons thunder

Meaning: Taking credit for someone elses work or stealing the spotlight from a person.
Example: Even though Rahim made the drone work, Janet stole his thunder and said she did it all by herself.

32.The last straw that broke the camels back

Meaning: The last action or event that makes an already difficult situation totally unbearable.
Example: I could live with her wanting to keep the dog beside the bed in the room, but her wanting to adopt four dogs was the last straw that broke the camels back.

33. You guess is as good as mine

Meaning: This is used to say a person knows just as much as the next person knows.
Example: hey dont look at me like I know anything about what happened, your guess is as good as mine.

34. Every dog has his day

Meaning: Rveryone gets a stroke of good luck no matter how bad they might have had it, or everyone gets to do something important once in a while.
Example: Dont take this as anything meaningful, every dog has his day, and this one is yours.

35. Heads in the clouds

Meaning: not paying attention because a person is lost in their own thoughts.
Example: Of course, you did not hear me, since you had your heads in the clouds.

36. At the drop of a hat

Meaning: To do something immediately.
Example: That cop is a very good man, whenever I call for help, he arrives at the drop of a hat.

37. Taste of your own medicine

Meaning: This is used to say a person is being treated the same way they used to treat others (it usually has a negative meaning).
Example: When I saw Lilly being bullied, I was glad she was getting a taste of her own medicine.

38. Spill the beans

Meaning: To tell a secret.
Example: This suspense is killing me, Jane, just spill the beans already.

39. A slap on the wrist

Meaning: Getting less punishment than a person deserves.
Example: Even though Wale had been stealing meat from the pot for ages, all he got was a slap on the wrist when he got caught.

40. All bark and no bite

Meaning: Used to describe a person as non-threatening. It is also used to mean a person that can only talk but not do.
Example: You have nothing to be worried about, Melissa is all bark and no bite.

Common Idioms Used in English

Here are some of the idioms you might encounter in English:

Break new grounds

Meaning: Doing something that has not been done before.
Example: We are breaking new grounds in game technology with these new computer chips.

Take your breath away

Meaning: surprises or astonishes you in a good way.
Example: The new Mercedes Benz took my breath away when it was unveiled yesterday.

Sell like hot cakes

Meaning: Something sells very fast.
Example: The new Nvidia GPUs are selling like hot cakes.

Separate the Wheat/beans from the chaff

Meaning: Separate the useful/valuable from the useless/unworthy.
Example: The first stage of the hacking competition is meant to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Run around in circles

Meaning: Doing a lot of work but not really achieving any meaningful result.
Example: The new project had him running around in circles because in the end there was nothing to show for it.

Against the clock

Meaning: Doing something in a hurry because you are out of time.
Example: if you are going to make it to the finals, then you are going to have to race against the clock to finish this project.

Chicken and egg situation

Meaning: Two situations that are impossible to exist without the other, therefore making it impossible to have just one of them.
Example: The game company said I need at least 2 years working in a game company before I can be employed, but I want to work with the company to have some years of experience with a game company. It is a chicken and egg situation.

40 Popular Idioms and Their Meanings

Understanding Idioms

Sometimes, it is easy to confuse idioms as just another form of Aphorism. An Aphorism is an observation or statement that can be accepted as a general truth. Many proverbs are born out of Aphorisms but thats not the same for idioms. For a statement to be called an idiom, it must have a peculiar meaning in the language with which it was formed, and the true meaning of such statement cannot be deduced directly from the statement.

For Example

Idioms like

Raining cats and dogs makes no logical sense as a statement, but it is used to mean that it is raining very heavily.

Pulling my leg or pulling *a persons* leg is used to saying a person is being teased.

An example of a cross-cultural idiom is Youre winding my clock. This idiom is an English translation of a German idiom that is used to mean you are teasing me.

Therefore, you can see that the meaning of an idiom is particular to the culture in which it was formed and not the words themselves.

What is the major difference between popular idioms and common proverbs?

Proverbs are mostly used as wise sayings, and they employ the use of generally accepted concepts in society. While idioms are not usually wise sayings nor always made up of generally accepted concepts, idioms are usually just used to get the point across with emphasis placed on the meaning of the idiom.

Unlike idioms, proverbs are usually well-known sayings whose meanings can be directly obtained from the sayings themselves. Proverbs usually dont have hidden meanings (some of them do), instead, proverbs are usually used as forms of motivation, warning or advice to someone. Idioms on the other hand, are used for exaggeration. Idioms are used to show the severity of a certain situation by using statements that depict them as being more than just statements.

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