50 Common English Idioms and their Meanings (with Examples)

July 5, 2023

I studied German as an undergrad. I memorized the cases and disorienting verb placement, and after four semesters, I felt pretty slick. But then I went to Germany and didn’t understand a thing. My theory is that my cluelessness had something to do with the prevalence of idioms in German. Before we look at common English idioms and 50 idom examples, I’d encourage you to hold your horses (which is also #24 below) and first read the definition of precisely what an idiom is.

What is an idiom?

Idioms are phrases that can’t be understood by looking at the meanings of the words individually. Idioms are therefore an example of figurative language. What were people talking about when they said, “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” (literally: I only understand train station), or, “Ich hab Schwein gehabt” (literally: I had a pig)? I knew what the words meant, but the meanings of the sentences as whole units remained a mystery. Of course, Germans aren’t the only ones who use idioms to get their points across (hey—there’s an idiom!). English is chock full of them (there’s another). What follows is a list of common English idioms, their meanings, and their sometimes funky backstories.

50 Common English Idioms

1) A dime a dozen: If something is a dime a dozen, it’s common, easy to come by, or not of much value—you can get a dozen of them for just ten cents! Fitness YouTubers are a dime a dozen these days.

2) A slap on the wrist: A slap on the wrist is a mild or inconsequential punishment, especially when a more severe punishment is warranted. The company had to pay a fine after causing the oil spill—a slap on the wrist!

 3) All Greek to me: I thought I was going to understand German after studying it for years, but once I was in Berlin, it was all Greek to me. I didn’t understand a word of it. When something is all Greek to you, you can’t understand what is being said.

 4) A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: This is one of the many common English idioms that are intuitive when you break it down. It typically stands alone, and means that it’s better to keep something you already have than it is to risk it by trying to get something better.

Examples of Idioms (Continued)

 5) Achilles’ heel: An Achilles’ heel is a weakness or vulnerability that could lead to failure. For example: I’ve been trying to reduce the time I spend on my phone, but YouTube is my Achilles’ heel. The idiom comes from Greek mythology. Thetis, Achilles’ mom, grabbed her big boy by the heel and dipped him in the River Styx, which was said to confer the power of invincibility. But because she was holding his heel, that part of Achilles didn’t get wet. Fast forward to the Trojan War: Achilles takes an arrow to the you-know-what, and that was that.

 6) At the drop of a hat: If something’s done at the drop of a hat, it means it was done quickly, without hesitation. My friend John, for example, will start singing at the drop of a hat. The phrase has its roots in the 19th century when the drop of a hat was used to signify the start of a fight or race.

7) Barking up the wrong tree: If you’re barking up the wrong tree, you’re wrong, or mistaken about something. When I ask a coworker if I can take Friday off, he might tell me that I’m barking up the wrong tree—he doesn’t have the authority to give me a day off; I’d need to ask my manager instead.

Examples of Idioms (Continued)

8) To beat around the bush: To beat around the bush is to avoid an important, or difficult, part of a conversation. When you implore someone not to beat around the bush, you’re asking them to be direct, to get to the issue. As far as historians know, the phrase was first used in a hunting context in the 1440s. Hunters would beat around a bush to lure out their prey in the bush.

9) To be behind the eight ball: If you’re behind the eight ball, you’re at a disadvantage, or in trouble. I’m really behind the eight ball; my project is due in two days and I haven’t even started it.

10) (To be stuck) between a rock and a hard place: When you’re between a rock and a hard place, you’re in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between two equally unappealing or difficult options. If, for example, you hate your job, but don’t want to quit because you’d lose your insurance, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

11) Beyond the pale: When something is beyond the pale, it’s unacceptable or immoral. “Pale” has an obscure meaning—“a wooden stake, fence, or area within a certain jurisdiction.” This suggests that anything beyond the pale is uncivilized. His behavior has been beyond the pale lately.

Common English Idioms (Continued)

12) To bite the bullet: When you bite the bullet, you decide to do something unpleasant that you’ve been avoiding. I really don’t want to go to the DMV today, but I’ll bite the bullet and get it over with.

13) To break a leg: This is one of those common English idioms that’s super specific and, at first glance, completely nonsensical. It’s really only used to wish someone luck before they perform—a play, concert, etc. It’s thought that the theater community, being a bit superstitious, believed saying “good luck” was actually bad luck. Somehow, they landed on “break a leg” instead. Break a leg! I can’t wait to hear your new songs.

14) To break the ice: To break the ice is to ease the tension or awkwardness amongst people who’ve just met. Let’s play a game to break the ice.

Common English Idioms 50 Examples (Continued)

15) (To score) brownie points: Brownie points are imaginary, but they’re doled out when someone has done a good deed, or earned favor in the eyes of another. Personally, I earn my brownie points by offering to do the dishes whenever I’m a guest in someone’s home. The phrase is a common American idiom—it goes back to the youngest class of Girl Scouts, called Brownies.

16) By the skin of your teeth: I’m including this one because it’s one of those totally bizarre common English idioms. When you do something by the skin of your teeth, you’ve just barely managed to do it. The sitting senator won reelection by the skin of her teeth—she won by an extremely close margin. The idiom goes all the way back to the Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Bible.

17) Butterflies in my stomach: When you have butterflies in your stomach, you’re nervous. Nervy anticipation really does feel like butterflies flapping around in your belly. I always get butterflies in my stomach before I go on a long trip.

Examples of Idioms (Continued)

18) To bury the hatchet: When you make peace, settle a dispute or fight, or come to an agreement to end a conflict, you’ve buried the hatchet. The phrase has its roots in Native American custom: it was Iroquois tradition to bury their weapons—literally—in times of peace.

19) (To have) a chip on your shoulder: When someone has a chip on their shoulder, they’re angry or indignant because they believe they’ve been treated unfairly in the past. Gary’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since he was passed over for that promotion.

20) To get cold feet: If you get cold feet, you’ve lost the courage to do something. True story: I once convinced my dad to get a tattoo with me, but he got cold feet at the last moment and backed out.

21) (To quit something) cold turkey: To quit something cold turkey—or go cold turkey—is to stop doing something abruptly. It’s not quite known where the phrase comes from, but there are several compelling theories. One suggests that the withdrawal symptoms experienced when coming off certain drugs—goosebumps, chills—evoke images of a cold, raw turkey. I’m a bit of a coffee addict, and when I tried to quit cold turkey, I started to get nasty headaches.

Examples of Idioms (Continued)

22) Elephant in the room: The elephant in the room is a problem that everyone knows about but that no one wants to acknowledge. The fact that the politicians had flown on private jets to the conference on carbon emissions was the elephant in the room.

23) Grasping at straws: When someone grasps at straws, they’re attempting to do something that has a low probability of succeeding. I kept looking for the ring, but I was grasping at straws; deep down, I knew it was gone. The phrase comes from Thomas More, who wrote, “A drowning man will clutch at straws.” Here, “straws” probably refer to reeds growing in the water—not much use to that drowning man.

24) Hold your horses: This common English idiom means to be patient or wait. Hold your horses! I’m not ready to go yet.

25) Tongue in cheek: When you say something tongue in cheek, you’re being sarcastic, ironic, jokey, or otherwise unserious. The idiom’s roots are literal-ish: it’s thought that pushing one’s tongue into the cheek was a gesture used to indicate sly irony or humorous insincerity.

26) There are more ways than one to skin a cat: This common English idiom is brutal, but one that I find myself using often. It means that there is more than one way to accomplish something. For example: My doctor told me I need to lose some weight, but there are more ways than one to skin a cat. She said I could either change my diet, take up jogging, or begin lifting weights.

Common English Idioms 50 Examples (Continued)

27) To think outside the box: When you think outside the box, you’re thinking in a creative, innovative, or unconventional way. The company prided itself on its ability to think outside the box, but in reality, it was just recycling a decades-old idea.

28) To strike while the iron is hot: It’s usually a good idea to strike when the iron is hot, which means to take advantage of an opportunity. Picture a blacksmith: they’ve got to shape the iron while it’s still hot, before it cools. We should strike while the iron is hot and make an offer before the price goes up.

29) To push the envelope: Pushing the envelope is approaching or going beyond the limits of what is possible. This common English idiom can have a positive connotation—The artist has been pushing the envelope in her recent work—or a negative—The unruly student was really pushing the envelope with his teacher.

30) Silver lining: A silver lining is a benefit or advantage that comes from a negative or difficult situation. Accidentally dropping my phone in the toilet had a silver lining: I stopped spending so much time on social media.

31) To move the goal posts: Moving the goal posts means changing the rules or expectations to advantage oneself. The administration said it was going to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. But, now they’re saying that’s too high—they’re moving the goalposts!

Common English Idioms Examples (Continued)

32) To have skin in the game: If you have skin in the game, you’re personally invested (financially, emotionally, etc.) in its success. He kept telling me how I should be spending my money, but he has no skin in the game.

33) The ball is in (your, someone’s) court: When the ball is in someone’s court, it’s up to them to make the next move. The ball is in their court. I said my offer was final, so now they can either choose to accept or decline.

34) In the ballpark: When you’re in the ballpark, you’re approximately correct. As you can see, a number of common English idioms are sports-derived. My first guess wasn’t even in the ballpark—I was way off!

35) Like pulling teeth: When something is like pulling teeth, it’s extremely difficult to do because you—or someone else—doesn’t want to do it. Forcing myself to sit down and write is like pulling teeth sometimes.

Common English Idioms 50 Examples (Continued)

36) To play it by ear: When you play something by ear, you’re doing it without plan; you’re improvising. The phrase comes from music: when musicians play something by ear, they’re playing without reading sheet music. When I travel to a new place, I don’t like to make an itinerary. I prefer to play it by ear.

37) (To jump, get, or be) on the bandwagon: When you jump on a bandwagon, you begin to participate in a popular activity or trend. This common American idiom has a bit of a negative aftertaste: it suggests doing something just because everyone else is. I urged my friends not to jump on the TikTok bandwagon.

38) Six of one, half dozen of the other: When two choices are six of one, half dozen of the other, they will both result in the same outcome. Whether we take an Uber or drive ourselves is six of one, half dozen of the other—we’re going to be sitting in traffic for a while.

39) To pass the buck: To pass the buck is to shift the responsibility or blame to someone else. It’s usually used in a pejorative way. For example: Don’t try to pass the buck; paying the electric bill was your responsibility, not mine.

Common English Idioms 50 Examples (Continued)

40) To shoot the breeze: Shooting the breeze is chatting, making small talk, conversing aimlessly without a serious subject. The two old friends sat on the porch and shot the breeze.

41) To spill the beans: If you’ve spilled the beans, you’ve revealed a secret. One origin story goes back to ancient Greece, where votes were cast using white or black beans. If someone spilled the beans, onlookers could easily figure out who’d won the election. I was planning a surprise party for my brother, but my parents spilled the beans.

42) To be a piece of cake: When something is a piece of cake, it’s super easy. The homework assignment was a piece of cake.

What is an Idiom? (Continued)

43) To take a rain check: To take a rain check is to politely decline an invitation, with the implication that you might accept later. Can we take a rain check on that? I’m busy this week.

44) To get something off one’s chest: When you get something off your chest, you publicly admit to something that’d been worrying you or making you feel guilty. Wow, it feels great to get that off my chest.

45) (To feel) under the weather: When you feel under the weather, you’re sick, not feeling well. I can’t come in to work today; I’m feeling under the weather.

46) To not see the wood for the trees: If you don’t see the wood for the trees, you’re failing to assess the whole situation or problem because you’re too focused on minute details. He was so focused on the design of the wallpaper, but the entire house was about to crumble—he couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

47) Once in a blue moon: When something happens once in a blue moon, it happens rarely. This is a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity!

48) To put your foot in your mouth: When you put your foot in your mouth, you say something embarrassing, inappropriate, or tactless. I shouldn’t have mentioned that—I really put my foot in my mouth.

What is an Idiom? (Continued)

49) Rule of thumb: A rule of thumb is a heuristic, or approximate guide for doing something. For example: my partner and I just adopted a kitten, and the vet told us, as a rule of thumb, to expect the kitten to start eating solid food by the age of 5 weeks. That might not always happen, but it’s a good general guideline.

50) To take (someone’s advice) with a grain of salt: This is one of those common English idioms that has a not-so-clear backstory. It means to be skeptical because the information one is getting could be faulty or dubious. She always exaggerates—take what she says with a grain of salt.

Common English Idioms 50 Examples – Additional Resources:

If you enjoyed our list of the 50 idioms high school students must know, you may also wish to check out the following College Transitions blogs: