As an essential skills practitioner, the author has significant experience of tutoring literacy, numeracy and digital literacy to adults.
What Is an Idiom?
An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be deduced by the literal translation of the individual group of words. For example, 'it's raining cats and dogs' means that it is raining heavily, not that domestic pets are falling from the sky. Similarly, 'pulling someone's leg' means to joke or tease someone, not to physically tug on their lower limb.
Idiomatic phrases, expressions and colloquialisms can be extremely daunting and confusing for non-native speakers of the English language. They are frequently encountered in informal conversations, but can easily be remembered once their meaning is understood.
Examples of Common Idioms in Sentences
My lips are sealed.
I can be trusted to keep your secret.
She hit the nail on the head when she said the low pay raise was affecting employee morale.
She pinpointed the exact problem that was affecting staff morale. (I.e., the low pay rise.)
He heard on the grapevine that the house had been sold.
He heard a rumor that the house had been sold.
Our old car cost an arm and a leg to get repaired.
It was extremely expensive to repair our old car.
Louis didn't go to work as he was feeling under the weather.
Louis didn't go to work as he was feeling unwell.
How Do Idioms Originate?
Idioms arise from figurative language, and most commonly from metaphors. Over a slow and lengthy process, metaphors or figures of speech that once made complete sense can get 'short-circuited.' People stop imagining the image in the original metaphor and stop thinking through it, and begin to just skip from the phrase's literal content to a meaning that always seems to have been associated with it.
Idiom differs from slang because slang usually always ends up going out of use over time. This has to do with the fact that most slang is used by small groups that aren't necessarily mainstream. Idioms, on the other hand, get picked up by a majority of speakers in a language for one reason or another. A newer English idiom is 'let's hug it out,' meaning 'let's stop arguing and make up.'
'Let's hug it out' was popularized by the character Ari on HBO's show Entourage, though Chandler once said it to Phoebe on the famous show Friends. Magazines, clothing companies, and television shows have picked the phrase up and begun incorporating it into articles, designs, and dialogue. 'Let's hug it out' has become an English idiom.
#1: Christmas Came Early
When something good happens, especially if it was unexpected. To receive some good news, a gift or a pleasant surprise. You may also hear similar expressions such as Santa came early this year.
Did you hear that Rachel has got a new company car? Looks like Christmas came early for her.
#2: Christmas Comes but Once a Year
Used as an excuse to overindulge, particularly regarding food and gifts.
As Christmas occurs only once a year, it is implied that it should be enjoyed and enjoyed to its fullest. Hence, the phrase is typically used as an excuse to indulge oneself by overeating and overspending.
"Would you like another piece of cake Anna?" "Why not? Christmas comes but once a year."
#3: To Trim the Tree
To decorate a Christmas tree, typically with lights and ornaments. While 'trim' can also mean to cut, such as in hair or fabric, that is not its meaning here.
We always trim our Christmas tree with gold tinsel and ribbon.
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#4: Holiday Spirit
This describes the euphoria people feel when they are looking forward to the holiday season.
It's only November, but I am already in the holiday spirit.
#5: On Ice
In his amusingly illustrated book, 101 American English Idioms: Learn to Speak Like an American, Straight From the Horse's Mouth, Harry Collis refers to putting something on ice as being, 'to set aside for future use.' It typically means to delay or to stop following a particular course of action until either further information is known, or circumstances change or become more favorable.
Their relocation plans were put on ice when Jenny discovered she was pregnant.
#6: Skating on Thin Ice
You are said to be skating on thin ice when you place yourself in a precarious situation that may have disastrous consequences.
He was skating on thin ice when he accused his wife of cheating.
#7: Giving Someone the Cold Shoulder
To ignore, be disrespectful or indifferent to someone.
The idiom to give someone the cold shoulder is believed to have originated from medieval English times when lavish banquets were hosted over several days. To signal the end of the gathering, the host would instruct the kitchen to serve slices of cold meat to everyone, to indicate the party was over.
In the present day, to give someone the cold shoulder is considered rude, whereas historically, it was considered a polite gesture.
Alternative theories are that unwanted guests were served cold meat, as a means of letting them know that their presence was unwanted, whereas welcome guests received a hot meal.
She tried to make amends for her mistake, but her boss still gave her the cold shoulder.
#8: Good Things Come in Small Packages
You should never judge something based upon its size, because smaller items may be of superior quality or higher value. It may also be used to describe someone of small stature. Sometimes the term, best things is used instead of good things.
The twins may have been born premature, but good things come in small packages.
#9: Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
You should never be ungrateful when you receive a gift or opportunity, even if it is not exactly what you want.
Author Andrew Thompson writes that this idiom is derived from racehorses, which were once considered a significant asset. A reliable method of determining the age of a horse is to examine its teeth. This was typically done before someone purchased a horse. However, if you were gifted a horse, it was deemed rude for you to look in its mouth, as this meant you were calculating the horse's monetary value.
Related idioms include, straight from the horse’s mouth, to describe first-hand information, and also the phrase long in the tooth, meaning that someone is old.
It wasn't the job I really wanted, but I accepted it anyway, as I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
#10: Stocking Stuffer or Stocking Filler
A small or inexpensive gift that is typically placed in a Christmas stocking. As it would be impractical to fill a Christmas stocking with expensive gifts, cheaper items are purchased to bulk it out.
He had finished most of his Christmas shopping but just needed to buy some stocking fillers/stuffers.
#11: Saved by the Bell
A last-minute reprieve or rescue of something or someone.
Andrew Thompson, author of Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases, explains this idiom has several conflicting explanations:
- When a boxer is knocked down during a boxing match, they have ten seconds to get back up on their feet. However, if the bell is rung before the referee reaches the count of ten, the boxer is allowed to continue fighting. Hence, he has been saved by the bell.
- Another explanation relates to a guard at Windsor Castle in the 19th century who fell asleep while on duty. He denied the charge saying that he had been awake, because he had heard Big Ben chime thirteen times, instead of twelve, at midnight. The clock mechanism was found to have been faulty and the guard was proven to be correct. He too had been saved by the bell.
- The most common origin predates both of the above and is related to the idioms dead ringer and graveyard shift. In the Middle Ages, before medical comas were fully understood by the medical profession, people who displayed no signs of life were presumed dead and would be buried. However, when some coffins were later excavated, a number of them were found to have deep scratch marks on the inside. It was later discovered that these people had been buried alive. To stop this from happening to their loved ones, relatives would tie a piece of string around the wrist of the corpse. This, in turn, was connected to an aboveground bell. If the person woke up underground, they were able to ring the bell and be saved. (Hence, the phrase dead ringer.) During the nighttime, someone would be employed to sit in the graveyard, to listen out for any ringing bells, which is where the term graveyard shift originates. Several designs for safety coffins with bells incorporated were registered as patents during the 19th century, lending weight to this theory.
It was my turn to go next, but the phone rang, so I was saved by the bell.
#12: Be There With Bells On
Often said as an enthusiastic response to an invitation, meaning you will gladly attend.
"Are you coming to the Christmas party?" he asked. "I'll be there with bells on," she replied.
#13: To Go on a Wild Goose Chase
To pursue or do something that has little chance of success.
Used by William Shakespeare in his play, Romeo and Juliet, this idiom is derived from early forms of horse racing.
Typically, a horse race began with the lead horse and rider being free to take any route that they so chose. The other riders were then sent off in pursuit, departing at regular intervals. Not knowing which direction the lead horse had taken, the competitors all split off in different directions, like wild geese trying to follow their leader.
He knew he was going on a wild goose chase, looking for the perfect present on Christmas Eve.
#14: A Piece of Cake
When something is a piece of cake, it means that it was easy or quick to accomplish a task or challenge.
Fixing the shelves to the wall was a piece of cake.
#15: The Proof of the Pudding Is in the Eating
The proof of the pudding is in the eating means that the success of something can only be judged by testing or using it, often firsthand. It can also be used to disprove a claim. This idiom may also be shortened to; the proof is in the pudding.
Critics panned his latest movie and claimed it would be a gigantic box office flop; however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
#16: With a Pinch of Salt / Grain of Salt
To take something with a pinch or grain of salt, means you believe the truth is being embellished or exaggerated.
You should always take election promises with a pinch of salt.
#17: Like Turkeys Voting for Christmas
As turkeys are traditionally eaten at Christmas in the UK, this idiom refers to someone accepting or promoting an idea that is likely to cause them harm. In the USA, you may also hear the phrases, 'like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving' or 'like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.'
Accepting the staff restructuring proposals is like turkeys voting for Christmas.
#18: Be My Guest
Typically a polite response to a request for something, letting someone know that they should help themselves. However, it can also be used as a sarcastic or ironic reply, especially if someone takes something without asking.
"Do you mind if I have the last slice of cake?" "Sure, by all means, be my guest."
#19: The More the Merrier
The greater the number of people, the more enjoyable an event or situation will be.
Make sure you invite the entire family to the party. The more the merrier.
#20: Snow Job
I confess that I had not previously encountered this expression, as it is an American and not a British idiom. Author Harry Collis refers to a snow job as being insincere talk and making exaggerated claims.
Further research provides a slightly wider meaning encompassing deception, elaborate misrepresentation, overt flattery and an attempt to conceal one's real motives. In Mcgraw-Hills Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, Richard Spears better defines this idiom as, 'a systematic deception; a deceptive story that tries to hide the truth.'
The defendant tried to convince the jury he was innocent, but they believed he was giving them a snow job.
#21: Snowball Effect
A snowball effect refers to a relatively insignificant situation that rapidly gains momentum, akin to a snowball increasing in size as it rolls down a hill. It can also impact other events, thus having a knock-on effect.
The impeachment inquiry had a snowball effect.
Sources and Further Reading
- Thompson, A. (2017). Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red: The Curious Origins of Everyday Sayings and Fun Phrases. Ulysses Press, California.
- Spears, R. A. (2006). Mcgraw-Hills Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. McGraw-Hill Education, USA.
- Dictionary.com Staff. (2018). 'Are New Idioms Ever Created?' Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/e/use-idioms-new-ones-ever-created/.
- Collis, H. (2007). 101 American English idioms. McGraw-Hill, Chicago.
© 2019 C L Grant
NehA on December 24, 2019:
Very useful and meaningful
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 21, 2019:
Good article. Very interesting and good learning for us. Nice reading. Thanks.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 19, 2019:
You have come up with a great list. Most are familiar to me. The challenge comes when you translate them into a different language and then have to explain them.
Darin Waugh on December 18, 2019:
Fun info! Thanks!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on December 17, 2019:
Oh, what a good read. I throughly enjoy the lessons.