English idioms

English idioms

Find out the meanings of English idioms and common sayings

Idioms are words or phrases that are frequently used in informal daily conversation. Find a list of English idioms below, along with their origins.

Food themed idioms

Food idioms are common in many languages. Here are some in English:

  • A piece of cake – if something is ‘a piece of cake’ it means it is very easy.
  • Apple of your eye – a person (usually a child), who is ‘the apple of your eye’ is someone you have great affection for.
  • Full of beans – someone who is ‘full of beans’ is very lively and has a lot of energy.
  • Butter someone up – if you ‘butter someone up’ you flatter them, usually when you want to influence them.
  • Big cheese – the ‘big cheese’ is a very important and successful person.
  • As useful as a chocolate teapot – something that is ‘as useful as a chocolate teapot’ is something that is not at all practical.
  • In hot water – if someone is ‘in hot water’, they are in trouble and are likely to be punished.

Winter idioms

Winter related idioms are common in English. Here are just a few:

  • Give someone the cold shoulder – to behave in an intentionally unfriendly way towards someone
  • Break the ice – to make conversation to help break down social formality
  • Feel under the weather – to feel unwell
  • Walk on thin ice – to be in a risky or uncertain situation
  • In cold blood – without feeling or mercy
  • Snowball effect – one action causing many other similar actions

Royal idioms

Royalty feature in quite a few English idioms, here are just a few examples:

  • A royal pain – an annoying person or thing
  • Battle royal – an extremely heated argument
  • Drama queen – a person who exaggerates situations
  • King’s ransom – a large sum of money
  • Prince charming – a woman’s perfect partner
  • Right royal – very enjoyable or excellent
  • Royal treatment – extravagant attention and care
  • Queen bee – a woman who has authority over her peers

Shakespearian phrases

Shakespeare introduced more phrases into the English language than any other individual. Do you recognise any of the following?

  • A sorry sight – a sight that you regret seeing, also someone or something of unpleasant or untidy appearance.
    Origins: Macbeth, 1605
  • All that glitters is not gold – just because something is attractive does not mean that it is valuable.
    Origins: The Merchant of Venice, 1596
  • Fight fire with fire – to defend oneself with a similar method as the attacker.
    Origins: King John, 1595
  • In stitches – to laugh very hard.
    Origins: Twelth Night, 1602
  • Wild goose chase – a hopeless endeavor.
    Origins: Romeo & Juliet, 1592

Common idioms

  • Push the boat out – to spend generously, more than one would normally spend.
    Origins: This saying comes from when people would help seaman push their beached boats out into the water, as they were often too large to move alone. This act of generosity from individuals is where the term of phase originates.
  • Tip of the iceberg – a small part of a bigger problem.
    Origins: This saying comes from the fact that what you see floating on the surface of the water is just a very small part of something much bigger, as the majority of the iceberg is hidden beneath the surface.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining – there’s a good side to every bad situation.
    Origins: The phrase literally means, that even when a dark cloud passes in front of the sun, you can often still see the glow of the sun behind. It is traced to John Milton’s “Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle” in 1634 and was found frequently in literature after this.
  • Pear shaped – when plans go horribly wrong and out of a person’s control.
    Origins: The exact origins are unknown but some sources say that the pear relates to the shape of a collapsed hot air balloon. Others suggest it was RAF slang, referring to when pilots attempted to perform a perfectly circular “loop the loop” and the shape of the unsuccessful outcome.


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