109 Popular Idioms And Their Meanings

by | Oct 17, 2021 | GrammarSpot | 92 comments

What Is an Idiom?

An idiom is a group of words that are used as a common expression whose meaning is not easily deduced from the literal words within. Idioms are commonly used in the English language on TV shows, movies, written literature and other media. 

Familiarizing yourself with the meaning behind each idiom is important as idioms don’t often make literal sense. Here is a list of the most popular and commonly used idioms in American English.

 

Commonly Used English Idioms

A blessing in disguise
Meaning: A good thing that initially seemed bad

A dime a dozen
Meaning: Something that is very common, not unique

Adding insult to injury
Meaning: To make a bad situation even worse

Beat around the bush
Meaning: Avoid sharing your true viewpoint or feelings because it is uncomfortable

Bite the bullet
Meaning: To get an unfavorable situation or chore over with now because it will need to get finished eventually

Best of both worlds
Meaning: The choice or solution has all of the advantages of two contrasting things at the same time

Biting off more than you can chew
Meaning: Committing to do something that you don’t really have the time, resources or ability to do

Don’t judge a book by its cover
Meaning: Don’t judge someone or something by how it looks

Doing something at the drop of a hat
Meaning: Doing something at a moment’s notice

Caught between a rock and a hard place
Meaning: Making a choice between two unpleasant choices

Cutting corners
Meaning: Taking risky shortcuts to save time and/or money

Devil’s advocate
Meaning: To argue for the other side in an argument in order to encourage further debate

Getting a taste of your own medicine
Meaning: Being treated the (usually negative) way that you have been treating others

Giving the benefit of the doubt
Meaning: Believing someone’s story without proof even though it may seem unbelievable

Hitting the nail on the head
Meaning: To be exactly right

Letting someone off the hook
Meaning: Not holding someone responsible for something

No pain, no gain
Meaning: You have to suffer to see results

On the ball
Meaning: Attentive and doing a good job

Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Something that doesn’t happen very often

Speak of the devil
Meaning: When the person you have just been talking about arrives

The last straw
Meaning: The last act that makes an entire situation unbearable

Your guess is as good as mine
Meaning: I have no idea

Dead ringer
Meaning: Someone who looks extremely similar to someone else

The whole nine yards
Meaning: Everything. All of it. 

Get down to brass tacks
Meaning: Get down to business

Burning bridges
Meaning: Damaging a relationship beyond repair

Fit as a fiddle
Meaning: Excellent health

Go down in flames
Meaning: To fail in a spectacular manner

He/She is off their rocker
Meaning: Someone who is acting crazy or not thinking rationally

It’s always darkest before the dawn
Meaning: Things always get worse before they get better

It takes two to tango
Meaning: One person usually isn’t the only responsible party

Like riding a bike
Meaning: Something that you never forget how to do

Through thick and thin
Meaning: Everyone experiences hard and good times

Time is money
Meaning: Work faster or more efficiently

 

Food Idioms

Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs
Meaning: You can’t make everyone happy

Like two peas in a pod
Meaning: Two people who are always together

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Meaning: Apples are healthy and good for you

Heard it through the grapevine
Meaning: Hearing rumors about someone or something

Piece of cake
Meaning: A task or job that is easy to complete

Bread and butter
Meaning: Something you do or use to survive or thrive in a situation

Bring home the bacon
Meaning: Make money, specifically money to live on

Crying over spilled milk
Meaning: Worrying about the past or things that are already done or settled

Not my cup of tea
Meaning: Something that you don’t like

Take it with a grain of salt
Meaning: Believe it at your own risk

Top banana
Meaning: The most powerful or important person in a group or organization

Bad apple
Meaning: A troublemaker

Bad egg
Meaning: Like a troublemaker but worse; someone who seems fundamentally dishonest or otherwise ill-behaved

Good egg
Meaning: The opposite of a bad egg; someone who is honest and trustworthy

Bigger fish to fry
Meaning: More important things to do

Cool as a cucumber
Meaning: Calm, especially under pressure

Couch potato
Meaning: A sedentary person who spends a lot of time seated, often watching TV

Can’t cut the mustard
Meaning: Can’t keep up with the competition

Hard nut to crack
Meaning: Something or someone that’s difficult to figure out

Big cheese
Meaning: The person in charge

Bun in the oven
Meaning: Pregnant

Apple of someone’s eye
Meaning: To be loved and adored

Buttering someone up
Meaning: Being super-nice to someone because you want something from them

Egg someone on
Meaning: Encourage someone to do something, typically something that they shouldn’t be doing

In a nutshell
Meaning: To sum things up

Spill the beans
Meaning: Divulge secret info

 

Animal Idioms

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Meaning: Not to count on something happening until after it’s already happened

Going on a wild goose chase
Meaning: Doing something that is pointless

Killing two birds with one stone
Meaning: Accomplishing two different tasks in the same undertaking

The elephant in the room
Meaning: An issue, person, or problem that someone is trying to avoid

Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: Reading or hearing something from the source

Letting the cat out of the bag
Meaning: Sharing information that was intended to be a secret

Beating a dead horse
Meaning: Giving time or energy to something that is ended or over

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Meaning: You can’t force someone to make what is seemingly the right decision

Every dog has his day
Meaning: Everyone gets their chance to do something big

A leopard can’t change its spots
Meaning: People don’t change

Wag the dog
Meaning: Divert attention from something important to something trivial

The birds and the bees
Meaning: Sex education

Ants in one’s pants
Meaning: Being nervous and unable to sit still

Chicken out
Meaning: To decide not to do something, usually at the last minute

Clam up
Meaning: Stop talking

The cat’s got someone’s tongue
Meaning: That person is oddly quiet

Have a cow
Meaning: Get extremely upset, usually about something that’s not worth it

Hold your horses
Meaning: Be patient

Pig out
Meaning: To eat a lot of food

Take the bull by the horns
Meaning: To show initiative

Until the cows come home
Meaning: Forever, or at least a mighty long time

Smell a rat
Meaning: To suspect that somebody’s up to no good.

Nest egg
Meaning: Sum of money saved for later

Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: Raining heavily

Get the lion’s share
Meaning: Get the biggest portion

 

Weather Idioms

Feeling under the weather
Meaning: Not feeling well, or feeling sick

Stealing someone’s thunder
Meaning: To take attention away from someone by doing or sharing something before that person can do so

Clouds on the horizon
Meaning: Trouble is coming or is on its way

Run like the wind
Meaning: To run really fast

Weather the storm
Meaning: Enduring a trial or hardship

Getting a second wind
Meaning: Having energy again after being tired

A snowball effect
Meaning: Something has momentum and builds on each other, much like rolling a snowball down a hill to make it bigger

Throwing caution to the wind
Meaning: Being reckless or taking a risk

 

Body Idioms

Having your head in the clouds
Meaning: Day dreaming, not paying attention

By the skin of your teeth
Meaning: Just barely making it

Costs an arm and a leg
Meaning: Something that is overpriced or very expensive

Giving someone the cold shoulder
Meaning: Ignoring someone

Pulling someone’s leg
Meaning: Joking with someone

Cold feet
Meaning: Getting nervous before a big event, to the point of backing out

Face the music
Meaning: Face the consequences of your actions

Get something off your chest
Meaning: Vent or complain

Head over heels
Meaning: In love

Makes my blood boil
Meaning: Makes me extremely angrily

Rule of thumb
Meaning: A basic rule or principle

Stick your neck out
Meaning: Support someone or something, even if it may have negative consequences for you

Wash your hands of something
Meaning: Abandon a problem or responsibility

See eye to eye
Meaning: Agree

Neck of the woods
Meaning: A location and its immediate surroundings

Keep your chin up
Meaning: Don’t give up

 

This Is Just a Small Sample of Common Idioms

Idioms are everywhere. They’re how we make everything from casual conversation to roadside advertising more colorful, and they convey a certain level of cultural understanding and kinship. What are some of your favorite commonly used idioms? Share the wealth in the comments below!

Follow me
Latest posts by Beth Sederstrom (see all)
Did you know we write awesome content?

Did you know we write awesome content?

Let us save you time and money by creating the content you need! Give us your email to learn more.

Thanks! We'll send you information shortly.