An idiom can best be described as a group of words established by usage and as having a meaning not inferred from those of the individual words. Idioms are really expressions, and sometimes life-savers in that they fill in the blanks for thoughts that we think but don't dare say or share out loud.
English idioms, proverbs and many of the expressions we use are an important part of our everyday language. They come up all the time without us even noticing, both in written and spoken English. Idioms don't always make sense literally, so it’s important for you to familiarize yourself with the meaning and usage of each idiom before you think of literally biting a bullet, going back to the drawing board (with a Sharpie or marker), or crouch down to pull someone’s leg. It’s not hard to familiarize yourself with these. Some are funny and some have interesting (and historical) backgrounds that can make it even easier for you to remember their meaning.
If English is not your first language, it can be a lot of fun, especially when you compare English idioms to the idioms in your own language or translate them literally. But if you do know your idioms really well, we challenge you to test your knowledge. Can you tell us what these idioms mean? Take this quiz and find out!
If you say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, what are you implying?
If you tell someone that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, what you’re basically telling them is that what you have is worth more than what you might have later. So, if you have something good going for you but are hesitant, think about it twice. You might end up losing everything if you don’t appreciate it now.
If you’re making a bad situation worse, what are you doing?
If you’re making an already bad enough situation even worse, then you are actively adding insult to the injury. This expression comes from the fables of Phaedrus in the first century, when the bald man tried to kill a fly that landed on his head but ended up hitting his own head and missing the target.
If you got away with a lie by the skin of your teeth, did you get away with it?
When using the expression “by the skin of one’s teeth,” what you’re saying is that you just barely made it. The phrase originates from the Book of Job, where he is subjected to horrible trials presented by Satan only to be relieved by God.
Why do good things “cut the mustard”?
If you cut the mustard, you succeed and meet expectations. It is believed that the phrase derives from the relation to the pungency of the spice mustard as a superlative or as something that adds zest to a situation.
If two contestants are “level pegging,” what are they?
If two opponents or competitors are level pegging, that only implies that they are equal with each other. Back in the day when darts were played in public houses, players used pegs in an old cribbage board to keep score. Once the scores were equal, then the pegs were level and the idiom "level pegging" was born.
What are you doing if you’re about to go hit the sack?
If you’re about to hit the sack, get your pillow ready because you’re about to go snooze. People used to sleep on a cloth sack stuffed with hay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before they went to bed, they would actually ‘hit the hay’ to make the “mattress” comfier and ensure there were no bugs. Hence the expression, "hit the sack," was born.
If your boss lets you off the hook, how would you feel?
If your boss lets you off the hook, then congrats, you have a great boss! Your boss literally is not holding you responsible for something that happened (and that you may or may not have been involved with, which doesn’t matter because it’s no longer a worry!).
If you need to calm down, what do you need to do?
If you’re freaking out and need to calm down once and for all, then you need to pull yourself together for good. Think about it. If you’re freaking out, crying, hyperventilating and all over the place, then you just need to slowly change each aspect and put yourself together into a more serene state.
You don't you notice how long something lasts when _______.
When time flies when you’re having fun, you don’t notice how long something lasts. In the 19th century, Shakespeare used a similar phrase, “the swiftest hours, as they flew,” and so did Alexander Pope, when he said, “swift fly the years.”
How do you feel if you’re under the weather?
If you’re feeling under the weather, then you’re not feeling your best, more like sick instead. Back in the day, when a sailor was unwell, he would be sent below deck and away from the weather to recover.
If your friends agree to do something without asking what they’re expected to give in return, what would you tell them?
If your buddies are about to do something and don’t ask what they’re supposed to give in return, you would likely tell them that they can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. So, basically, you’re telling them that there is always a cost involved when doing that something and that they should think twice before knowing all the details.
You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. When should you tell that to someone?
If someone wants something badly and can only get it by being nice, you would let them know that they can catch more flies with honey (being nice) than they can with vinegar (being rude or bitter). Plain and simple, you can always win more people to your side more easily by gentle persuasion rather than by being hostile and fighting them.
What would you say in a situation in which you are trying to help someone, but they’re still being stubborn so it’s better to just walk away?
If you’re trying and trying and cannot get through to a person, then you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. This metaphoric term goes back to the12th century and was in John Heywood's proverb collection of 1546.
If you are weathering the storm, what are you doing?
You weather the storm when you’re going through rough times. This means you are enduring a challenging time while it passes and you remain unharmed. The expression is believed to allude to a ship sailing safely through bad weather.
What does it mean that you will cross a bridge when you come to it?
If you don’t have all the details, why stress about it? To cross a bridge when you come to it implies that you will deal with a problem if and when it comes necessary to do so, but not before.
“Don’t they know that a house divided can’t stand?” When would you use that expression?
A house divided can’t stand is an idiom used to imply that failure is certain if those on the same side continue to argue without coming to an agreement. This phrase goes way back to a verse in the Bible found in Mark 3:25 and was popularized in a 1858 speech by Abraham Lincoln.
“Larry’s boat crashed and suddenly went up in flames. He really bought the farm.” What does “bought the farm” mean?
“Bought the farm” is an idiom that originated in the U.S. in the 20th century. It is used to imply the death of someone, especially a violent one that may give rise to an insurance claim.
“I saw them all over each other last night and then they left together. I expect they’ll be discussing Uganda.” What does “discussing Uganda” mean?
“Discussing Uganda” is a euphemism for sex. After all, the two people were all over each other and left together, so it’s likely it wasn’t to converse about anything in specific. This idiom originated in Britain in the 1970s and was popularized in Private Eye, a satirical magazine.
If you get Hobson’s choice, what did you get?
If you got Hobson’s choice, then the choice was forced upon you without much say or input in it. This British idiom origin the 17th century and derives from Thomas Hobson, a stable owner who offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest to the door or taking no horse at all.
“Only a few cows are pregnant this season. We need a visit from the bull in the bowler hat.” What will the bull in the bowler hat do?
The bull in the bowler hat is a humorous term that makes reference to artificial insemination. It is mainly a British idiom and makes reference to an actual hat, which was created for Edward Coke, who was the younger brother of the second Earl of Leicester in 1849.
“I told him to bring an umbrella but, doubting Thomas that he is, he checked the weather first.” Who is a doubting Thomas?
A doubting Thomas makes reference to a sceptic person who doesn’t accept a widely believed truth until seeing the evidence for himself. This idiom originates from the Biblical story of Thomas, the apostle who doubted the resurrection of Jesus.
What idiom would mean a persistent and difficult to ignore annoyance?
A thorn in one’s flesh is an idiom often used to make reference to an annoyance that is persistent and difficult to ignore. The idiom originates from Britain and is related to the fact that, like the thorn of a rose (or anything else, really), something that annoys you or bothers you would be hard to ignore.
When the Titanic kept going full speed near the iceberg, the crew didn’t realize they were headed for hell in a handbasket. What does it mean to be going hell in a handbasket?
If you’re going to hell in a handbasket, congrats, you got a VIP seat reserved to absolute disaster! This American idiom dates back to the 19th century and was used when making reference to a situation that was deteriorating or headed for complete disaster, like that of the Titanic.
He broke his ankle just a mile away from the finish line, but he was hell bent to finish. What does it mean to be hell bent?
If you are hell bent, you are determined to achieve something at all costs. It is an American idiom that dates back to the 18th century and is used worldwide, though it’s more common in the U.S. than it is anywhere else.
If you can barely keep body and soul together, what are you implying?
If you can barely keep body and soul together, you’re implying that you barely make enough money to keep yourself alive. It is an idiom that originates from the 17th century in Britain and is commonly used worldwide to refer to someone who’s struggling to just make it.
What would you say if you are in a bad situation and relying on luck to get out of it?
If you are in a bad situation and relying on luck to get out of it, you are on a wing and a prayer, hoping for the best outcome possible.
If you’re an enthusiastic Christian believer, what are you?
If you’re an enthusiastic Christian believer, then more likely than not you are part of the God Squad. It is an idiom used worldwide that originated in the U.S. in the 1960s to refer to Christian fanatics and followers.
What are you implying when you say that a fool and his money are soon parted?
A fool and his money are soon parted makes reference to a foolish person who is likely to lose money. The idiom is used worldwide, although it originated in Britain in the 16th century when it was expressed in rhyme by Thomas Tusser in Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie in 1573.
“You didn’t invent that. That’s a load of cobblers, I tell you!” What does it meant if something is a load of cobblers?
A load of cobblers is an idiom used to imply that something being said is just absolute nonsense. This idiom is especially used in the U.K. and it’s slang, borderline swearing, so don’t use it around grandma.
If you got a baby brain, what’s your current situation?
If you got a baby brain, you are experiencing confusion or forgetfulness caused by lack of sleep when you are caring for a newborn. This in an American idiom used in the 20th century and it’s a term used to describe the idea that pregnancy or early motherhood can impact a woman's memory and ability to think.
“You iron your coat? You’re a real fuddy-duddy.” What’s a fuddy-duddy?
A fuddy-duddy makes reference to an old-fashioned and foolish type of person. Do you need to iron your coat? No, not really, but if that’s your style, go for it!
Who is someone who’s not playing with a full deck?
Someone who’s not playing with a full deck makes reference to someone who lacks intelligence. Not playing with a full deck is one of many phrases that emerged in the U.S. during the 1980s to describe someone “missing something upstairs."
Ozzy Osbourne can best be described as a rocker who is off his rocker! What does that really mean?
Someone who’s off his rocker is someone who is crazy or out of his mind. It is a more common idiom used in Britain and originated in the 1890s to refer to a person who would do something crazy or out of the norm.
If you’re doing something at stupid-o’clock, what time of the day are you doing it?
If you’re doing something at stupid-o’clock, then you’re doing something at a ridiculous early hour in the morning. Young British adults are the users of this phrase, which originated in the 20th century as slang to talk about something being done early in the morning.
Old people seem to enjoy being surrounded by ankle biters. Who are ankle biters?
Ankle biters is an idiom that makes reference to a slang term for small children. It makes reference to children so small that they can only reach a person's ankles. The term emerged around the 1950s.
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!