Can You Identify More Than 11 of These Common Phrases?

Tasha Moore

Image: 10'000 Hours/DigitalVision/Getty Images

About This Quiz

If ever you've struggled to make out figurative phrases, this quiz will help loads! Try your best to identify these common phrases, most of which also have literal meanings and some of which have more than one metaphorical definition. The English language is rife with idioms that sum up just about every human emotion and practical phenomenon imaginable. Surely you will recognize many of the phrases in this quiz, but knowing their meanings is an entirely different story.

Let's face it, idioms are confusing. Studying a standard English language dictionary will barely prepare you for this wordsmith workout. A culture connoisseur is your best resource for decoding common English phrases. If you spot a literal explanation of a phrase on this test, chances are it's not the correct answer. Beyond that advice, things get even trickier. 

Set your sights on clever expressions, especially when describing emotions. English idioms often express vivid imagery that's meant to ignite a particular emotion. Another "rule of thumb" for figuring out idiom meanings is to think sarcastically, as with the phrase "working for peanuts," since working for very little (peanuts) is counterintuitive.

To sum up your newfound idiom strategy: literal = "probably wrong"; ironic or dramatic = "probably right." Armed with these rules, nail as many common phrases as you can!

"________ your tongue." What is suggested that you should do to your tongue if you speak a bitter truth?

Censorship may be implied by the phrase "Bite your tongue." If someone actually bites their tongue, they're probably unable to speak. The phrase is suggested immediately after a bitter truth is uttered.

Do you know the idiomatic phrase that is opposite in meaning to the word "remote"?

In the technology age, educators struggle to find a sound balance between online and face-to-face educational techniques. Many argue that the seemingly endless supply of online instructional tools should merely complement essential one-on-one student-teacher learning opportunities.

In the common phrase "make the best of [something]," what is the best way to describe "something"?

The phrase "bite the bullet" is similar to "make the best of [something]." Both idioms recognize that a challenging situation is at hand. Dealing with cumbersome issues in the best way instead of complaining about them is encouraged.

Who, among these choices, would probably use the phrase "not as young as I used to be"?

The phrase "not as young as I used to be" is spoken by older people or anyone attempting to make light of a diminished personal skill or trait. The phrase usually suggests that a person is getting older - which, of course, we all are.

What gets "cut both ways"?

"Cut both ways" concerns treating two sides of an issue the same way. For example, during 2013 trade negotiations between the United States and Belgium, at issue was fair market access. Both countries were held to the same trade restrictions, so the rules would cut both ways.

"Crazy" and "out of control" are words that describe the idiom ________?

This common phrase implies doing something impulsively, without good reason or consideration. In 1995, President Clinton characterized the U.S. House Republicans' collective choice to slash taxes for rich Americans while searching for Medicare savings as jumping "off the deep end."

How would you define the common phrase "not bat an eye," as in: "The banker did not bat an eye, in spite of the customer's insults"?

"Not bat an eyelid" is a variant of the idiom "not bat an eye." It is more reasonable to assume that people bat eyelids and not the eyes themselves. The shortened version of the phrase is a testament to how well the phrase is understood to mean rigid fearlessness.

Can you spot an acceptable synonym for the phrase: "take away from"?

To "take away from" has two figurative meanings. The phrase describes a situation in which someone attempts to understand something they have already observed, or it can mean the act of devaluing a sentiment, idea, condition or object.

Have you heard the correct missing word in this phrase: "________ ship"?

In biology, the "abandon-ship hypothesis" predicts that low-performing organisms subjected to stressful environments will increase sexual reproduction in order to strengthen the genetic material of future generations. In modern language, the phrase means to leave a bad situation, as you would abandon an actual sinking ship.

"Not born ________": can you finish this phrase?

If someone says that they were "not born yesterday," they are calling attention to their knowledge or experience. The phrase is used as a response when someone speaks nonsense or lies.

Is it a challenge for you to choose the word similar in meaning to the phrase "every nook and cranny"?

This idiom refers to remote areas that are not frequently accessed, along with easily accessible spaces. For example, if you thoroughly clean something by disassembling the item and cleaning every piece, you've cleaned "every nook and cranny" of it.

What is the missing word in this idiomatic phrase: "Exercise ________ over [something]"?

When exercising power over something, that "something" or person is subjected to an influential force or authority. Dictators, court judges and other entities can use their powers to considerably control the actions of others who are less powerful or even powerless.

Try to quickly select the synonym for the word "kowtow" in the phrase "kowtow to [something or someone]"?

To "kowtow" means to suck up to someone or something in an obvious way. At the same time, you are conceding to the demands of someone or some entity that you either deem more powerful or want to appease for whatever reason.

At what point in an endeavor would one "get off on the wrong foot"?

If you "get off on the wrong foot," you have started an endeavor poorly. The phrase is often expressed when people meet for the first time and one or more of them recognizes that the first encounter could have gone better.

For the phrase "get with the program," what is the best way to describe the word "program"?

"Get with the program" is a call to conform with the way things are conventionally done or to accept the reasons why something is perceived to be correct. "Get on board" is a similar expression.

"Knowing [something or someone] like the back of your hand" means you are ________ with it or them?

The phrase means that you know something or someone very well. Consider that you could easily recognize the back of your own hand, as compared with others. Senator Russ Feingold once campaigned with ads that included a photo of the back of his left hand and the slogan that he "knows Wisconsin like the back of his hand."

The common phrase "fly off the handle" speaks of which human emotion?

Anyone who "flies off the handle" loses their temper. The phrase comes from the notion that an axe head suddenly separating from its handle during a swing would be terrifying.

Can you recognize the common phrase that means "an opinion in favor of someone, in spite of the facts"?

In 2015, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott used this common phrase profusely when he took to social media to warn potential combatants. Abbott asserted that there would be no more benefit of the doubt, or blind consideration, for the prospect of entry at the country's borders.

What's a good example of a "look" in the idiomatic phrase "if looks could kill"?

The idiom has taken on a more appealing sense, referring to striking physical beauty. But the phrase was initially used as a reaction to someone who flashes a scowl - or "shoots daggers" - to communicate dissatisfaction.

Someone who is "able to fog a mirror" is ________?

The phrase "able to fog a mirror" is said in jest about someone who isn't very energetic or impressive - they function at a basic level. Holding a mirror under a sleeping person's nose to see if it fogs from breath condensation is an alternative to checking their pulse for a sign of life.

Can you recognize the type of man who enjoys spending time with multiple women?

"Saturday Night Live" character "The Ladies Man," also known as Leon Phelps, exaggerates the essence of the phrase. A ladies' man is typically well-liked by the requisite assortment of females he desires at any given time. Phelps' character attracts women that are just as hyperreal as he is.

What is the thing that "clock-watchers" are most concerned with?

Nursing mothers are encouraged to be avid clock-watchers so that feeding times might run as smoothly as possible. Of course, just about every kid in school could be called a clock-watcher as well.

If you have to "hack your way through [something]," what do you need?

"Hacking your way through [something]" literally means exerting yourself in order to cut through something dense, as when using a machete to move through a jungle. Figuratively, the phrase is used to describe the effort and willpower needed to complete a daunting task.

Can you guess the essence of the idiom "get your just deserts"?

"Just" in this context means "fair." "Deserts" describes what a person deserves, based on their actions. No pies are involved, as that would be "desserts."

How should you fill in the blank: "Ill-________ to [something]"?

Being "ill-disposed to [something]" means "possessing a strong dislike." We hope that you are ill-disposed to leaving quizzes unfinished.

Can you choose the idiomatic phrase that means "to shift one's orientation, to get into a better position"?

"Jockeying around" is not about avoiding or defending yourself from something; it is about improving your position. You might jockey around to get a better view at a concert.

Try to pick a synonym for "stake" in the common phrase "have a stake in [something]"?

To "have a stake in [something]" usually implies financial interest: an investor has a stake in the company they invest in, for example. The idiom also refers to interest in general. A person who is disinterested in a particular thing has no stake in it and, therefore, doesn't care about it.

Of these options, which is the best one to fill in the blank: "________ victory"?

A "landslide victory" usually pertains to political elections and describes a win by a very large margin. Following such an election result, the losing candidate probably won't request a recount.

Are you confident that you can choose the actual idiom from the made-up ones?

To "preach to the choir" means trying to convince someone who doesn't need convincing. Telling Sherlock Holmes fans that mysteries are entertaining would be preaching to the choir.

"Destined for greatness" describes someone's ________?

Someone who is "destined for greatness" is expected to be successful in the ventures they pursue. The phrase is usually attributed to young people who've demonstrated unique or exceptional talent.

Do you know the gist of the common phrase "make up for lost time"?

The phrase "make up for lost time" is often used in situations where people want to get reacquainted. The idiom can also apply to situations where prompt catching up is desired, due to a prior lag in performance or productivity.

What type of person might "rob the cradle"?

To "rob the cradle" is to date or marry a person who is considerably younger than you are. The phrase is more commonly associated with older males who date younger females, as opposed to older females partnering with younger males.

In the idiom "swear like a trooper," what is the verb "swear" equivalent to?

The phrase "curse like a sailor" holds similar meaning to "swear like a trooper." The two phrases emphasize a person's ability to not only use swear words boldly, but also to use them often, with skillful ease.

Which of the following emotions would you typically feel when "sweating [something] out," figuratively speaking?

"Sweating [something] out" concerns suffering through a physical or emotional ordeal that is unpleasant. The phrase also has a literal meaning, as when someone is ill and needs to "sweat a fever out," for example.

When someone is described as having "diarrhea of the mouth," what is the problem?

What an unpleasant picture the phrase "diarrhea of the mouth" paints! The phrase obviously describes the nonstop blather of a person who just can't ... stop... talking. Is there a pill for that?

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!

Explore More Quizzes