An idiom is a phrase, or a combination of words, that has developed a figurative meaning through frequency of use. Idioms are a staple in many different languages, and are often shared across languages through numerous translations. They can be useful and even fun to use, but are also bound to confuse any new speaker of a language who isn’t familiar with the phrase’s cultural relevance.
For instance, what does it mean to “spill the beans,” and why is everyone making such a fuss over someone doing it? Why are they telling that person to “break a leg” on stage? It doesn’t look like that person has a “chip on their shoulder.”
This guide will go over a large list of common American English idioms and their meanings, along with examples to help you better understand the context you need to use them in. Before you start to focus too much on silly phrases like idioms, it’d be worth it to work on your English language fluency with a course like this.
Idioms Are a Piece of Cake!
Perhaps even more embarrassing than not understanding an idiom is misusing it. Because of how nonsensical the phrases can be – piece of cake? – you don’t want to get caught using them in an incorrect context. Take the idiom used in the header above: “Idioms are a piece of cake.” When you refer to something as a “piece of cake,” you’re calling it easy. In this context, the header is saying that idioms are easy to understand and use.
While it might seem like idioms are definitely not a piece of cake, to someone first learning about them, I can assure you, the more of them you hear and study, the easier they’ll be to accept as just a natural part of the English language! Let’s take a look at some examples.
List of Idioms and Their Meanings
The following list of idioms will be in alphabetical order, with an explanation and contextual example provided for easier comprehension.
actions speak louder than words
- Definition: Refers to the idea that it’s better to do something than just talk about it.
- Example: “He always tells his girlfriend that he loves her, but he never actually does anything nice for her. Someone should teach him that actions speak louder than words.”
add fuel to the fire
- Definition: Something that worsens an already bad situation.
- Example: “I wanted to intervene when they were yelling at each other, but that would have just added fuel to the fire.”
all bark and no bite
- Definition: Being verbally threatening, but unwilling to do anything significant.
- Example: “He keeps threatening to shut down our paper after we ran that article about him, but I don’t think he will. In my opinion, he’s all bark and no bite.”
at the drop of a hat
- Definition: A willingness to do something right away.
- Example: “Our boss expects us to show up in her office at the drop of a hat, even when we’re in a meeting with clients.”
beating around the bush
- Definition: Avoiding the main issue.
- Example: “I kept trying to steer the conversation back to his alibi, but he wouldn’t stop beating around the bush, bringing up things totally off-topic.”
a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
- Definition: It’s better to have a small, secured advantage than the possibility of a bigger one. It’s better to stick with what you have than risk it for something greater.
- Example: “Someone offered me $100 to buy my old TV. I was hoping to sell it for $200, but I have a feeling this is the best offer I’ll get for a while, and I need that money now. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, right?”
blessing in disguise
- Definition: Something good and beneficial that did not initially seem that way.
- Example: “It was raining so hard that our cab was late, and we were late to our reservation at the restaurant. Turns out everyone who ate there that night got food poisoning. I guess the bad weather was a blessing in disguise!”
break a leg
- Definition: Something you say to someone you want to wish luck on.
- Example: “Is tonight your big performance? Break a leg!”
chip on your shoulder
- Definition: When someone is upset about something that happened a while ago.
- Example: “He has a chip on his shoulder from years of being bullied as a kid.”
come hell or high water
- Definition: Possible obstacles in your path.
- Example: “I promise you, come hell or high water, we are going to make it to your party tonight!”
cry over spilt milk
- Definition: Complaining about a loss or failure from the past.
- Example: “She was mad that he broke her vase, but it was an accident, and there’s no use crying over spilt milk anyway, so she forgave him.”
cut to the chase
- Definition: Skip the irrelevant parts, and go straight to the main point.
- Example: “Why don’t you just cut to the chase, and tell me where you hid my phone!”
hit the nail on the head
- Definition: Do or say exactly the correct thing.
- Example: “I really hit the nail on the head when I guessed they were getting married.”
piece of cake
- Definition: Something that is easy to understand or accomplish.
- Example: “My math homework last night was a piece of cake! I finished it ten minutes.”
slap on the wrist
- Definition: A mild punishment, such as a scolding.
- Example: “The cop pulled me over for speeding, but it was my first time so she just gave me a slap on the wrist.”
spill the beeans
- Definition: Tell a secret.
- Example: “My three-year-old spilled the beans about the surprise birthday party we were planning.”
taste of your own medicine
- Definition: When someone receives the same treatment, usually negative, that they gave someone else.
- Example: “That kid is always beating up other kids on the playground. I wish someone would give him a taste of his own medicine.”
Consider taking an elementary English language course for beginners or this class on understanding real American English speech patterns for more information on the English language, and all of its quirks.