Words at work

– 9 min read

35 Common idioms and their meanings

Masooma Memon

Masooma Memon

Before I shifted my house, I had a full list of idioms in English that I printed out and referred to whenever I put pen to paper. This was about a decade ago, around the time I finished college. Now, I frequently look up idioms online. If I like an idiomatic phrase in a movie or show, I quickly jot it down in my pocket-sized notebook or a sticky note.

You could say I’m obsessed with idioms. But, it’s a healthy obsession to be honest. Because idioms add life to your writing and help you succinctly explain things, there’s no reason not to use them.

Interested in coloring your writing with idioms? Let’s give a bookmark-worthy list of idioms alongside why you should be as obsessed with idioms.

On we go.

What is an idiom?

Idioms are phrases or expressions that don’t literally mean what the individual words in the phrase stand for. Idioms emerge from an incident or past story. Overtime, however, they lose their meaning and become figurative.

For example: a piece of cake

The literal meaning of this is cake slice (lava cake, anybody?). But, when you use it as an idiom, you mean something that’s easy to do — that’s this phrase’s figurative meaning

With the formal idioms definition out of the way, let’s look at some examples of idioms that you’ve probably already heard or used before:

Break a leg Devil’s advocate Cry over spilt milk Add fuel to the fire

Speak of the devil Go down in flames It takes two to tango Once in a blue moonMake a mountain of a molehill Between a rock and a hard place Actions speak louder than words You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs

Fun fact: There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in English language. Talk about variety!

Why do we use idioms?

The short answer is: idioms add life to your writing. But exactly how do these groups of words polish your English?

Here are five ways idiomatic expressions help you:

1. Idioms paint a visual picture for your readers

Even if it’s plain content that you’re working on – you can up your writing’s description game by using idioms.

Look at this example:

Mara’s choice was a tough one as her position left her between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The idiom means having to choose from equally difficult paths. By using it, not only does the sentence sound better, but the particular idiom creates a visual picture in the readers’ mind. They can imagine Mara having to choose between sinking in the dark sea and the devil itself. Either way, Mara’s dead.

2. They add impact to your writing

In the example above, there’s a third favor that this idiom does to the sentence: it adds meaning.

Think of it like this: saying ‘choosing between equally unpleasant scenarios’ is dull and boring, even meh. And, it doesn’t leave much of an impact. But, when you, as a reader, imagine Mara standing between the ‘devil and the deep blue sea,’ you can tell things are gettin’ serious.


3. These expressions add humor to your writing

Besides adding flavor to otherwise dull writing, some idioms can help you brighten your readers’ mood.

Frankly, humor isn’t easy to work into your writing. Unless, you’re a master at cracking jokes. Most of us, however, aren’t good at that. So, instead of making a fool of ourselves, it’s better to pull out an idiom like the one below:

After the birth of her second baby, Sophie was running around at work like a headless chicken.

Literally, Sophie isn’t a chicken and, of course, she has her head intact. The idiom just means that like a panicked chicken, Sophie is running around in a haphazard manner. This is a funny, light-hearted way of explaining Sophie’s situation.

4. Idioms make you sound like native speakers

This is another good reason for slipping idioms into your writing. Every language has its own idioms that emerge from its culture. Or, they originate from stories specific to a region.

This means that if you want to impress a Brit English speaker, for example, you should use idioms of British origin. Some of these are:

A penny for your thoughts

Meaning: Asking someone to share their thoughts with you.

Back to the drawing board

Meaning: A plan that didn’t work, requiring you to sketch it from the start.

If you’re into novel writing, you can draw on these region-specific idioms to write dialogue for a character from a particular region. So that’s another plus of using idioms.

5. They help you explain complex ideas simply and succinctly

Lastly, idioms can help you simplify ideas. Use an idiom instead of going into unnecessary details. In all the examples you’ve read so far, you’ll note that the idioms make it easy to explain something.

Take the idiom ‘back to the drawing board.’ Using it means you don’t need to rely on tons of words to explain that a plan went bust and now you’ve got to regroup and plan again. You can simply say, let’s go back to the drawing board.

Similarly, when you want someone to get to the point, you can simply say: stop beating about the bush.

Tips on using idioms

Convinced you need to work more idioms into your writing? Cool. We’ll give you a list of common English idioms in the next section to make things easy for you.

Plus, here are some things to keep in mind as you dabble into the use of idioms, an essential part of learning English:

 Don’t overdo them

Some idioms are so over used they turn into clichés. Your writing is always better off without clichés as they’re unoriginal. So use idioms sparingly, where they help you summarize or deliver any of the benefits discussed above.

See if a specific detail would be better

For example, once in a blue moon is a good idiom. But, if you find that your readers can benefit from a detail like ‘someone visited on the third of every month,’ skip the idiom. Be specific instead.

35 popular idioms and their meaning

Ready to use idioms? Use this list:


  1. Beef up: To strengthen or increase something.
  1. Turn turtle: Turn turtle means to turn upside down or flip the side.
  1. Eager beaver: Someone who is all charged up or enthusiastic about a job is an eager beaver.
  1. Spill the beans: To tell something that was supposed to stay hidden or under wraps (yep, another idiom).
  1. Couch potato: Someone who binge watches Netflix, sitting on a couch all day – popcorn in hand.
  2. Hit the sack: This idiom is a fancy way of saying that someone’s tired and they’re going to sleep. You can also say hit the hay.
  1. Bite the bullet: To do something no matter how unpleasant it is.
  2. In the doldrums: When you’re sad or depressed, you’re in the doldrums. Once out of it, you can write: out of the doldrums.

Want another idiom for feeling sad or depressed? Feeling blue.

  1. In fine fettle: In good health.
  1. A hot potato: A controversial topic that no one wants to discuss – same as no one wants to hold a hot potato.
  1. Go bananas: Go bananas is a fun way of saying someone’s excited or angry.
  1. An arm and a leg: When something’s overpriced, you can say it costs an arm and a leg. Alternatively, you can say: it costs a fortune or it costs a bomb.
  1. Under the weather: Slightly unwell or feeling low.
  1. Lose your touch: Literally, that’s losing your sense of touch. But the idiom doesn’t mean that, of course. It means you lose some skill or talent you previously had.
  1. Twist someone’s arm: To twist someone’s arm is to convince them to do something like a kid twisting their mum’s arm to get ice cream.
  1. Pie in the sky: Something that’s unlikely, therefore, wishful thinking.
  1. The ball in your court: Have two or more people or parties deciding on something and one side has made their move? Great, there’s only one party that’s to decide now and a good way to say that is: the ball in their court.
  1. Curiosity killed the cat: Sometimes prodding too much into a situation or question can get you into trouble. That’s what this idiom means.
  1. Bark up the wrong tree: Barking up the wrong tree is blaming the wrong person, following a wrong thought/plan, or looking in the wrong place.
  1. Hit the nail on the head: When you get something done perfectly, you hit the nail on the head. After all, it’s only when you hit the nail on the head that you can drill it in the right spot.
  1. The elephant in the room: The story behind this idiom is that a man walked into a museum and noticed every tiny thing there except for an elephant. Today, the phrase denotes a chief issue that everyone knows is present, but no one addresses it.
  1. Taste your own medicine: It’s when someone gets treated the way they’ve been treating others (good time to think of karma, no?).
  1. Steal someone’s thunder: Taking someone else’s credit or taking the spotlight when you don’t deserve it.
  1. Stab someone in the back: This one’s a snazzy way of saying you’re backbiting or planning against someone in their absence.
  1. Kill two birds with one stone: When you get two things done in one shot, you’re killing two birds with one stone. Example, I’m writing this piece and revising idioms too.
  1. Best thing since sliced bread: The idiom means hyped up enthusiasm in someone, something, or some idea.
  1. Bite more than you can chew: When you commit to more than you do/deliver, you’ve officially bitten more than you can chew.
  1. Every cloud has a silver lining: A good result after bad things.
  1. Look at the bright side: When you choose to see the positive in an overall bad situation (or may I say, shituation).
  1. You can’t judge a book by its cover: This means you can’t jump to conclusions only by looking at the cover or outward appearance.
  1. More holes than a Swiss cheese: Seeing holes in a story or plan? Congratulations, Sherlock! Now, voice your concern using this idiom.
  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: It’s when you put all your resources or hopes (figuratively: eggs) in one source (basket).
  1. Get up on the wrong side of the bed: When you wake up in a bad mood.
  1. Everything but the kitchen skin: It means everything imaginable including the unnecessary stuff.
  1. Pick a bone with someone: To discuss something at length with someone.