100 Common English Idioms with Examples and Meanings

Whether you write for a living, are a small business owner who needs content writing help, or just want to know more about idioms, you’ve come to the right place. Idioms can help improve all kinds of content writing, as you’ll find out below!

What Is an Idiom?

An idiom is a group of words that are used as a common expression whose meaning is not easily deduced from the literal words within.

Idioms are often put into the class of figurative language, which is when words are used in an imaginative or unusual manner.

To put it simply, idioms mean something different than the words do individually.

For example, the phrase: “writing an idiom is a piece of cake” does not mean that writing an idiom is a literal ‘piece of cake’ that you can eat.  Instead, ‘piece of cake’ is a figurative expression for saying that something is easy to do.

While idioms are more commonly used in America, idioms are also often used in the English language on TV shows, movies, written literature and other media.

Familiarizing yourself with the meaning behind common idioms is important as idioms don’t often make literal sense. Here is a list of the most popular and commonly used idioms in American English along with examples and meanings.

Why Are Idioms Important To Learn?

The main reason why idioms are important to learn is because of how often they are used in casual, everyday speech. Using idioms helps you to:

  • Sound More Natural: Using idioms in your speech helps you to fit in and speak more like a native or fluent speaker.
  • Better Expression: Sometimes trying to explain complex ideas can be hard, but idioms help to do this in a fun and colorful way.
  • Better Understanding: Because people use idioms so often, understanding common idioms will help you to better understand what someone else is saying.
  • Gain Insight: Understanding idioms can give you a small peek into the cultural window of the place you are in and give you a better appreciation of the language.

Common English Idioms and Their Meanings

A blessing in disguise
Meaning: A good thing that initially seemed bad

Example Usage: “Cancelling the camping trip due to rain turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

A dime a dozen
Meaning: Something that is very common, not unique

Example Usage: “With all the new bakeries opening up, cupcakes are a dime a dozen these days.”

Adding insult to injury
Meaning: To make a bad situation even worse

Example Usage: “Not only did her phone die before her interview, but to add insult to injury, they informed her the position had already been filled.”

Beat around the bush
Meaning: Avoid sharing your true viewpoint or feelings because it is uncomfortable

Example Usage: “When asked if Sarah like spaghetti, she started beating around the bush, talking about her busy schedule instead.”

Bite the bullet
Meaning: To get an unfavorable situation or chore over with now because it will need to get finished eventually

Example Usage: “Instead of procrastinating, Henry decided to bite the bullet and do his homework.”

Best of both worlds
Meaning: The choice or solution has all of the advantages of two contrasting things at the same time

Example Usage: “Living in the city gives you the best of both worlds: you get to experience the culture with easy access to downtown.”

Biting off more than you can chew
Meaning: Committing to do something that you don’t really have the time, resources or ability to do

Example Usage: “Overwhelmed by deadlines, Sarah realized she had bitten off more than she could chew by volunteering for both the school play and the charity fundraiser.”

Don’t judge a book by its cover
Meaning: Don’t judge someone or something by how it looks

Example Usage: “While the food looked gross, it actually tasted really good, which is why you don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Doing something at the drop of a hat
Meaning: Doing something at a moment’s notice

Example Usage: “They kept their backpacks in the back of the car, ready to travel at the drop of a hat.”

Caught between a rock and a hard place
Meaning: Making a choice between two unpleasant choices

Example Usage: “Faced with two hard choices, Henry was caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Cutting corners
Meaning: Taking risky shortcuts to save time and/or money

Example Usage: “The contactor’s decision to cut corners is what ultimately led to the instability of the structure.”

Devil’s advocate
Meaning: To argue for the other side in an argument in order to encourage further debate

Example Usage: “Playing devil’s advocate, Sarah stood up for the bad decision her brother made.”

Getting a taste of your own medicine
Meaning: Being treated the (usually negative) way that you have been treating others

Example Usage: “Sarah got a taste of her own medicine when she was made fun of at school.”

Giving the benefit of the doubt
Meaning: Believing someone’s story without proof even though it may seem unbelievable

Example Usage: “The mother gave her sone the benefit of the doubt when he explained that the cookies magically disappeared from the cookie jar.”

Hitting the nail on the head
Meaning: To be exactly right

Example Usage: “The witness gave a testimony that hit the nail on the head.”

Letting someone off the hook
Meaning: Not holding someone responsible for something

Example Usage: “After hearing the facts, the judge let the defendant off the hook. “

No pain, no gain
Meaning: You have to suffer to see results

Example Usage: “Sarah’s gym trainer yelled “No pain, no gain!” during spin class.”

On the ball
Meaning: Attentive and doing a good job

Example Usage: “Jim appreciates employees who are on the ball at work.”

Once in a blue moon
Meaning: Something that doesn’t happen very often

Example Usage: “When Sarah was asked how often she cleans her room, she replied “once in a blue moon.”

Speak of the devil
Meaning: When the person you have just been talking about arrives

Example Usage: “When Jim saw Sarah enter the room, he said “speak of the devil” and then continued to share a story about Sarah.”

The last straw
Meaning: The last act that makes an entire situation unbearable

Example Usage: “After falling down, Sarah yelled “This is the last straw!” and immediately tied her shoe laces.”

Your guess is as good as mine
Meaning: I have no idea

Example Usage: “When asked a question in school, Jim said “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Dead ringer
Meaning: Someone who looks extremely similar to someone else

Example Usage: “While walking though the hall at school, Sarah turned to her friends and said, “Julie is a dead ringer for Brittany Spears.”

The whole nine yards
Meaning: Everything. All of it.

Example Usage: “Since Sarah wanted to impress her in-laws for the first time, she went the whole nine yards with the dinner party.”

Get down to brass tacks
Meaning: Get down to business

Example Usage: “It’s time to get down to brass tacks and figure out the problems our business is facing.”

Burning bridges
Meaning: Damaging a relationship beyond repair

Example Usage: “Instead of parting ways amicably, Sarah burned bridges and gossiped about her ex-boyfriend.”

Fit as a fiddle

Meaning: Excellent health

Example Usage: “Jim is fit as a fiddle.”

Go down in flames
Meaning: To fail in a spectacular manner

Example Usage: “The family watched as their relative seemed to go down in flames while performing at the piano recital.”

He/She is off their rocker
Meaning: Someone who is acting crazy or not thinking rationally

Example Usage: “Sarah sat in unbelief as her mother yelled at her. Later, Sarah told her friend that her mom was off their rocker when asking her to do her homework.”

It’s always darkest before the dawn
Meaning: Things always get worse before they get better

Example Usage: “Jim put his arm around his depressed friend and said, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

It takes two to tango
Meaning: One person usually isn’t the only responsible party

Example Usage: “After the plaintiff accused the defendant, the judge said, “It takes to to tango.”

Like riding a bike
Meaning: Something that you never forget how to do

Example Usage: “Although Sarah hadn’t driven in years, sitting in the drivers seat felt like riding a bike, and she was able to drive herself to the store without issue.”

Through thick and thin
Meaning: Everyone experiences hard and good times

Example Usage: “Despite years of disagreements, they had always been there for each other through thick and thin.”

Time is money
Meaning: Work faster or more efficiently

Example Usage: “The boss reminded his employees that time is money.”

Food Idioms

Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs
Meaning: You can’t make everyone happy

Like two peas in a pod
Meaning: Two people who are always together

An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Meaning: Apples are healthy and good for you

Heard it through the grapevine
Meaning: Hearing rumors about someone or something

Piece of cake
Meaning: A task or job that is easy to complete

Bread and butter
Meaning: Something you do or use to survive or thrive in a situation

Bring home the bacon
Meaning: Make money, specifically money to live on

Crying over spilled milk
Meaning: Worrying about the past or things that are already done or settled

Not my cup of tea
Meaning: Something that you don’t like

Take it with a grain of salt
Meaning: Believe it at your own risk

Top banana
Meaning: The most powerful or important person in a group or organization

Bad apple
Meaning: A troublemaker

Bad egg
Meaning: Like a troublemaker but worse; someone who seems fundamentally dishonest or otherwise ill-behaved

Good egg
Meaning: The opposite of a bad egg; someone who is honest and trustworthy

Bigger fish to fry
Meaning: More important things to do

Cool as a cucumber
Meaning: Calm, especially under pressure

Couch potato
Meaning: A sedentary person who spends a lot of time seated, often watching TV

Can’t cut the mustard
Meaning: Can’t keep up with the competition

Hard nut to crack
Meaning: Something or someone that’s difficult to figure out

Big cheese
Meaning: The person in charge

Bun in the oven
Meaning: Pregnant

Apple of someone’s eye
Meaning: To be loved and adored

Buttering someone up
Meaning: Being super-nice to someone because you want something from them

Egg someone on
Meaning: Encourage someone to do something, typically something that they shouldn’t be doing

In a nutshell
Meaning: To sum things up

Spill the beans
Meaning: Divulge secret info

Animal Idioms and Their Meanings

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Meaning: Not to count on something happening until after it’s already happened

Going on a wild goose chase
Meaning: Doing something that is pointless

Killing two birds with one stone
Meaning: Accomplishing two different tasks in the same undertaking

The elephant in the room
Meaning: An issue, person, or problem that someone is trying to avoid

Straight from the horse’s mouth
Meaning: Reading or hearing something from the source

Letting the cat out of the bag
Meaning: Sharing information that was intended to be a secret

Beating a dead horse
Meaning: Giving time or energy to something that is ended or over

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Meaning: You can’t force someone to make what is seemingly the right decision

Every dog has his day
Meaning: Everyone gets their chance to do something big

A leopard can’t change its spots
Meaning: People don’t change

Wag the dog
Meaning: Divert attention from something important to something trivial

The birds and the bees
Meaning: Sex education

Ants in one’s pants
Meaning: Being nervous and unable to sit still

Chicken out
Meaning: To decide not to do something, usually at the last minute

Clam up
Meaning: Stop talking

The cat’s got someone’s tongue
Meaning: That person is oddly quiet

Have a cow
Meaning: Get extremely upset, usually about something that’s not worth it

Hold your horses
Meaning: Be patient

Pig out
Meaning: To eat a lot of food

Take the bull by the horns
Meaning: To show initiative

Until the cows come home
Meaning: Forever, or at least a mighty long time

Smell a rat
Meaning: To suspect that somebody’s up to no good.

Nest egg
Meaning: Sum of money saved for later

Raining cats and dogs
Meaning: Raining heavily

Get the lion’s share
Meaning: Get the biggest portion

Weather Idioms and Their Meanings

Feeling under the weather
Meaning: Not feeling well, or feeling sick

Stealing someone’s thunder
Meaning: To take attention away from someone by doing or sharing something before that person can do so

Clouds on the horizon
Meaning: Trouble is coming or is on its way

Run like the wind
Meaning: To run really fast

Weather the storm
Meaning: Enduring a trial or hardship

Getting a second wind
Meaning: Having energy again after being tired

A snowball effect
Meaning: Something has momentum and builds on each other, much like rolling a snowball down a hill to make it bigger

Throwing caution to the wind
Meaning: Being reckless or taking a risk

Body Idioms and Their Meanings

Having your head in the clouds
Meaning: Day dreaming, not paying attention

By the skin of your teeth
Meaning: Just barely making it

Costs an arm and a leg
Meaning: Something that is overpriced or very expensive

Giving someone the cold shoulder
Meaning: Ignoring someone

Pulling someone’s leg
Meaning: Joking with someone

Cold feet
Meaning: Getting nervous before a big event, to the point of backing out

Face the music
Meaning: Face the consequences of your actions

Get something off your chest
Meaning: Vent or complain

Head over heels
Meaning: In love

Makes my blood boil
Meaning: Makes me extremely angrily

Rule of thumb
Meaning: A basic rule or principle

Stick your neck out
Meaning: Support someone or something, even if it may have negative consequences for you

Wash your hands of something
Meaning: Abandon a problem or responsibility

See eye to eye
Meaning: Agree

Neck of the woods
Meaning: A location and its immediate surroundings

Keep your chin up
Meaning: Don’t give up

This Is Just a Small Sample of Common Idioms

Idioms are everywhere. They’re how we make everything from casual conversation to roadside advertising more colorful, and they convey a certain level of cultural understanding and kinship. What are some of your favorite commonly used idioms? Share the wealth in the comments below!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.