Common English Idioms with Meanings

Hello everyone!

Today we’re going to dive into the wild and wacky world of idioms.

You know, those weird little phrases that don’t quite mean what they literally say?

English is full of them, and they can really trip you up if you take them too literally.

But don’t worry, I’m here to be your trusty guide through the madness. Let’s get started!

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Let’s kick things off with a classic: “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

No, the skies aren’t actually raining furry felines and canines. It just means it’s raining really, really hard.

Like bucketsful of water are pouring down from the heavens.

The origins of this one are a bit murky, but some say it comes from old Norse mythology where cats and dogs were associated with storm clouds and rain.

Weird, but hey, at least it paints a vivid picture!

Break a Leg

You’ve probably heard actors telling each other to “break a leg” before a performance.

And no, they aren’t being sadistic freaks who want their friends to suffer compound fractures on stage.

It actually means “good luck.” The most commonly accepted origin story is that back in the old days of Greek theater, audiences didn’t applaud.

Instead, they stomped their feet and kicked their legs to show appreciation.

So telling an actor to “break a leg” was like saying “go out there and wow them so much that they kick their legs off!”

Costs an Arm and a Leg

Calling something “costs an arm and a leg” is just a colorful way of saying it’s super expensive.

Like, you’d practically have to sell one of your limbs to afford it.

This one probably comes from the days when injured soldiers returning from war sometimes had to pay for their own medical care out of pocket.

And what’s the most valuable thing a soldier has other than their life?

Their arms and legs that allow them to, you know, soldier.

So, paying an arm and a leg’s worth for something was about the highest price imaginable.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag

Ah, our feline friends make another appearance with “letting the cat out of the bag.”

This means spilling the beans on a secret.

The most plausible origin is that it refers to the old Con of trying to sell a pig at the market, but sneakily putting a cat in the bag instead to pass it off as a piglet.

Once that cat inevitably gets let out, the jig is up, and the secret deception is out in the open.

Shady, but hey, at least it gave us a handy new idiom!

Kick the Bucket

Talking about death brings us to “kick the bucket,” meaning to die.

There are a few possible roots, but most historians think it comes from the French phrase “kisser le bucket,” where a “bucket” referred to the beam that was kicked away during hangings to let the trap door open beneath the condemned person’s feet.

Morbid, yes, but people sure had a flair for descriptive euphemisms back then.

Pull Someone’s Leg

On a lighter note, “pulling someone’s leg” means to tease or joke with them in a playful way.

Like you’re tugging on their pant leg to get their attention and have some fun at their expense.

There are a few theories on this one’s origins, but my favorite is that it came from 18th-century thieves who would literally pull a person’s leg from under them to trip them up and rob them more easily.

Ahhh, folklore could be so charming sometimes.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Ever “bark up the wrong tree?” No, you’re not literally a dog confused about which tree to pee on.

It means you’re pursuing the wrong course of action, making accusations toward the wrong person, or generally heading in the wrong direction.

The saying likely comes from hunters who sometimes mistook which tree their prey was hiding in and wasted time and effort barking (following a false lead) up the wrong one.

A Piece of Cake

On the flip side, when something is “a piece of cake,” it’s a total breeze.

No sweat, super easy to accomplish. Most linguists think this saying refers to the simple task of cutting and serving a piece of cake, one of the easiest culinary jobs around.

Ahh yes, it’s great when life’s metaphorical tasks are as straightforward as slicing through some sweet, sweet frosted goodness.

Fit as a Fiddle

Speaking of feeling good, when you’re “fit as a fiddle,” you’re in tiptop shape.

Healthy, energetic, the whole nine yards. Makes sense, as fiddles are finely tuned instruments that need to be, well, fit for optimal playing performance.

One theory also connects it to the fact that fiddles used to commonly be made out of sturdy yet pliable wood like maple or willow, so they were quite resilient little things.

Just don’t take this one too literally and start doing calisthenics with your violin.

Speak of the Devil

And now for a devilishly good one: “speak of the devil.”

We use this when the person you’ve just started talking about shows up or is somehow metaphorically summoned by the mention of their name.

The “devil” here doesn’t necessarily refer to The Prince of Darkness himself.

It could also come from an old Celtic riff on the advice “to avoid attracting evil by invoking its name.”

So maybe be a tad more judicious about which friends you gossip casually chat about, just in case.

At the Drop of a Hat

“I’d do [insert selfless act of humble service here] at the drop of a hat.”

This one means being ready and willing to do something at a split second’s notice, no hesitation.

Popular wisdom takes the hat imagery quite literally, saying it refers to an old tradition where a man would drop his hat to accept a challenge or impulsively take off to start anew journey, no questions asked.

Either way, it’s a quaint way of pledging your eagerness with some old-timey flair.

Bob’s Your Uncle

On the other hand, if “Bob’s your uncle,” it means the difficult part is all over with and you’ve reached your goal, usually by employing some easy shortcut or hack.

The closest anyone can figure, this super British-sounding idiom comes from the scandalized appointment of Sir Robert Gascoyne-Cecil as Britain’s Prime Minister in 1887, due in large part to nepotism from his uncle, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury.

Because you know, landing one of the top government jobs in the country via your uncle’s connections and influence is just that easy.

Kill Two Birds With One Stone

Now here’s an efficient little phrase: “kill two birds with one stone.”

It means accomplishing two goals with a single action.

Most etymologists believe this comes from the literal practice of using a slingshot or rifle to, well, kill two birds that happened to be hanging out together with one well-aimed projectile.

Sure, it may speak to the violent roots of some idioms, but you’ve gotta admit it’s a handy one for the workplace.

“With this reorganization and new tracking system, we can reduce costs and increase productivity—two birds, one stone!”

The Elephant in the Room

Anyone notice that huge metaphorical pachyderm just lumbering around the room, making everything awkward yet no one wants to acknowledge it?

That would be “the elephant in the room,” referring to a major issue or dilemma that everyone is consciously avoiding or ignoring.

The visual metaphor of having a literal large elephant intruding in a normal room setting, yet no one pointing out the obvious, makes for quite the vivid picture.

Cry Wolf

But say you do decide to finally address that elephant in the room honestly, only for others to dismiss you because you’ve previously raised too many false alarms.

Well, that’s just “crying wolf.” The expression refers to the ancient fable of the young shepherd who repeatedly tricked nearby villagers into thinking a wolf was attacking his flock, only for there to be no real threat.

Then of course, one day an actual wolf did show up and no one believed his cries for help.

So ironically, the phrase means making an excessive number of false warnings until you’re not believed when a real issue arises.

The Whole Nine Yards

Alright, we’ve covered quite a few already, but let’s go “the whole nine yards” and squeeze in a couple more, shall we?

This one means giving or doing something in its entirety, with no omissions or half-measures.

There are a few potential origins, from awfully British tailoring customs to military terminology for the full length of a machine gun’s ammunition belt.

But most likely, it simply refers to the full 9-yard length of cloth that would have been purchased to make a suit or dress back in the golden era of dressing well.

Hear It Through the Grapevine

I bet you’ve heard some juicy gossip “through the grapevine” before.

This means learning insider info or rumors through the metaphorical “grapevine” of gossip circles, rather than an official or direct source.

The phrase is thought to have originated in the 1800s with an actual grapevine telegraph system used by civilians to bypass official military communications and spread rumblings about the latest war news faster via the vineyard’s twisting vines.

A Dime a Dozen

If something is super common and available in excess, we say it’s “a dime a dozen.”

As in, why pay more than a dime (10 cents) for any dozens of those things when they’re so plentiful?

This one has its roots in the late 1700s when items like cookies, eggs, or pencils could literally be purchased for the rock-bottom price of 10 cents per dozen due to their ready supply and low production costs back then.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

For an issue or grievance that’s died down over time, the wise advice is often to “let sleeping dogs lie” rather than dredge it all back up again unnecessarily.

The visual of a currently calm dog that you don’t want to poke and provoke into attacking makes for a vivid warning about leaving well enough alone.

The earliest written record of the phrase dates back to the 1300s, so folks have been wary of rousing metaphorical canines for quite some time now.

Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch

On the other hand, this timeless nugget cautions against getting overconfident about a potential future success and celebrating the rewards prematurely before you’ve actually achieved the thing.

Because until those chicks literally hatch out of their eggs, you can’t count on having a full brood of chickens to sell or benefit from, now can you?

Prudent farmers have been repeating this advice for centuries to keep perspective.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

But hey, even when the metaphorical outlook seems gloomy, we can stay optimistic that “every cloud has a silver lining.”

Meaning that even the darkest, stormiest situations have a bright spot or potential for a positive outcome buried within them.

This one is believed to emerge from a time when the edges of rain clouds were literally tinted silver by the sun, providing the visual inspiration for seeing the uplifting rays of hope peeking through the greyness.

Steal Someone’s Thunder

This quirky phrase means taking away someone else’s praise or recognition by pre-empting their accomplishment or moment in the spotlight.

The commonly accepted origin is that it refers to the rumblings of staged thunder sound effects in the theater that would be “stolen” by the more impressive real deal of naturally occurring thunder from an actual storm.

Someone’s about to make a grand debut and then BOOM—the show gets upstaged by Mother Nature herself.

Miss the Boat

We’ve all metaphorically “missed the boat” on an opportunity or upcoming event at some point in our lives, allowing said proverbial boat to sail off into the horizon without us on board.

Most historians credit the phrase’s inception to the days of steam-powered shipping, when being late to the dock meant quite literally missing your transportation and having to await the next available vessel weeks or months later.

Cut to the Chase

On the flip side, sometimes we just want folks to “cut to the chase” and skip over all the superfluous preamble or backstory and just get to the meat of the matter already. The chase in question?

That would be the exciting pursuit scenes towards the end of early 20th century films, with audiences calling for writers and directors to ditch the slower buildups and simply fast forward to the juicy action and resolution they craved.

Beat Around the Bush

And we can’t let people keep unnecessarily “beating around the bush,” now can we?

This means taking a long, aimless, circuitous route through the metaphorical bushes to eventually make your point, rather than directly stating your intended message.

Most etymologists chalk it up to the straightforward but less charming task of quite literally poking around dense shrubbery with a stick when hunting small game to rouse it into the open.

Hang In There

Hey, I know this was a long winding road through the forests of idioms, but I’m glad you hung in there with me to the end!

When we say “hang in there,” we’re encouraging someone to persevere through a difficult situation or period of adversity without succumbing or quitting.

The vivid imagery of someone clinging onto a literal cliffside for dear life lends the expression a visceral sense of grit and determination.

Just a few more idioms to go before we can rest!

Take It With a Grain of Salt

Whenever you encounter some juicy bit of gossip or dubious claim that seems just a bit too farfetched to be the full truth, it’s wise to “take it with a grain of salt.”

In other words, don’t swallow that information whole, but sprinkle a dash of skepticism over it first.

The phrase refers to an old-timey practice of taking a pinch of salt with any questionable drink or medication in order to counteract potential poisons or undesirable effects.

Salt of the earth wisdom for evaluating the validity of intel!

The Last Straw

We’ve all had those moments where one final slight or indignity was simply “the last straw” that breaks the camel’s back, the culmination of annoyances that finally pushes our patience over the edge.

The metaphor pictures a burdened camel being loaded up with one straw too many until the stack literally shatters the animal’s spinal column under the excessive weight.

An appropriately visceral idiom for those times when we’ve simply had enough!

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