Updated: Jan 14
An idiom is a phrase used so commonly in one specific context, that it develops a meaning completely unrelated to the words that make the phrase. In other words, idioms are not literal. They are figurative expressions that convey a specific message.
Native speakers typically have no trouble understanding or using idioms. But for those who have learned English as a foreign language, the fact that idioms are often abstract and rooted in specific cultural experience makes it difficult to apply them accurately. Although many learners find them tricky, idioms must be mastered in order to achieve native-level fluency. Additionally, learning to use idioms appropriately and in the appropriate context will make it easier to understand and communicate with native speakers. Today, we’ll cover some common English idioms and their definitions. To get a better idea of how each one is used, check out the examples we’ve included as well!
1. “It costs an arm and a leg!” = “It’s really expensive!”
Most commonly used as an exclamation, this expression means that an item is unreasonably expensive. It doesn’t matter whether the item in question is an egg, or a luxury handbag, or a yacht. If anything is outrageously expensive, then you can use this idiom to describe it. One thing worth keeping in mind is that while the expression isn’t directly offensive, it isn’t exactly polite either. This phrase is best used between friends. It should be avoided when speaking with shopkeepers or other merchants in order to avoid potentially awkward situations. Example: Wow, I can’t believe my brother bought such an expensive car. That model costs an arm and a leg!
2. “You hit the nail on the head.” = “That is correct.”
This idiom is appropriate for all occasions. It simply means “you’re exactly right.” While the origins of this idiom aren’t very clear, some believe it comes from carpentry. However, we do know that its first recorded usage was in the “The Book of Margery Kempe.” Published sometime during the 1430s, some believe it to be the first autobiography written in English! The exact age of this expression my be unknown, but using the information we do have we can deduce that the phrase has been in use for at least 590 years! Example: His mechanic told him that he hit the nail on the head when he suggested that there was a problem with his car’s radiator.
3. “Those are a dime a dozen” = “Those are very common. They’re not valuable.”
This phrase is used to indicate that a resource is abundant and lacking in value, and its origins can be traced no earlier than 1796, the year that dimes were first minted in the United States. According to KnowYourPhrase.com, it was used for advertisements in newspapers dating back as far 1866. At this time, its usage was literal due to the dime’s higher value; citrus fruits, eggs, and other goods could literally be purchased by the dozen for just $0.10! Today’s figurative use of the phrase supposedly emerged during the 1930s, but it may have begun even earlier than that. Example: If you’re good at shopping and finding sales, then good deals are a dime a dozen.
4. “To beat around the bush” = “To avoid discussing the problem.”
This phrase is used in conversation when one participant fails to disclose or address the main purpose of a conversation. It is usually used to describe someone who is avoiding a confrontation that seems inevitable. Like many other idioms, its exact origins are undocumented. It is ostensibly derived from hunting practices during medieval times, when hunters hired others to help them flush game from hiding by hitting shrubbery with sticks. These hired individuals would avoid direct confrontation with potentially dangerous animals by hitting the edges of the brush. They avoided attacking the brush head-on in order to minimize their risk of injury by a larger predator. Today, we use this phrase to describe someone who seeks to avoid direct confrontation in uncomfortable or risky scenarios (just like the hunters’ assistants). Keep in mind that your listener might perceive this saying as confrontational. If you tell someone to “stop beating around the bush,” be ready to address your differences immediately. Example: Just ask me the question already. Don’t beat around the bush, get it over with.
5. “To bite the bullet” = “To do something unpleasant.”
This idiom has a rather neutral connotation. When someone bites the bullet, they complete something they didn’t want to do. The reason why is irrelevant; if a task is found difficult for any reason at all, this phrase can safely be used. Despite its neutral connotation today, this expression is thought to have gruesome origins. Back before modern medicines were available, soldiers who were injured in battle had extremely limited options for managing pain. Today, people believe that wounded soldiers were given bullets to bite during surgical operations. There is no direct evidence to suggest that this is true, but this belief is what gave birth to the expression. Example: I really didn’t want to pay the fine, but I had to bite the bullet to avoid more consequences.
6. “Let’s call it a day” = “Let’s finish now, we’ve done enough.”
This expression has both simple usage, and simple origins dating back to the 1800s. Employees used this phrase to say goodbye to each other when they finished the day’s work. The phrase is best used when finishing a task with someone else, but using it can also indicate your desire to stop immediately, regardless of how much work is left. Avoid saying it to your supervisors and higher-ups in the workplace, as refusal to complete your work may be perceived as insubordination!
Example: I know we’re not quite finished, but let’s do one more load and then call it a day. We’re all tired, right?
7. “To cut (you/him/her/us/them) some slack” = “To allow performance without criticism.”
This informal expression has its roots in sailing, where the term “slack” refers to the loose section of a rope or a boat’s sail. The first modern usage was reportedly during the mid-1900s. To cut someone some slack is to provide room for error when they are doing something. When used as an imperative (remember, an imperative is a command), it means that one person is strongly requesting that some restriction be loosened. It can also be used as an interjection when one person believes that another is being criticized too harshly, and is often used between friends. Example: Cut me some slack, this is my first time! I don’t know how to do it yet!
8. “Hang in there” = “Wait a little bit more, you can do it.”
Today, the internet is littered with memes about cats. But “hang in there” makes reference to the original cat meme, which was printed as a poster in the ’70s.
The poster featured an image of a cat hanging from the branch of a tree, taken and published by Victor Baldwin in 1971. It was meant to encourage people to persevere when going through difficult times. We use the expression “hang in there” for the same reason today: to encourage perseverance and persistence during times of hardship. Example: I know you’re tired, but just hang in there! You’re almost finished!
9. “To be off the hook” = “To be free from responsibility.”
This phrase is believed to have originated from fishing practices, where a worm is hooked and used as fish bait. The meaning is quite figurative, and means that one is free from consequence. The idea is that the freedom experienced from a lack of responsibility is similar to the the freedom held by a worm that was never hooked in the first place. It should be made clear that while the usage mentioned a moment ago is much more common, two definitions for this idiom exist today. The second definition of this idiom is a bit dated, and used less often. We can also say that an event is “off the hook” to indicate that it is extremely exciting. Example: John admitted that he dropped the vase. You’re off the hook, Jack. John will be in trouble.
10. “To be pulling (your/his/her/my) leg.” = “to be joking or lying.”
The origins of this idiom are extremely controversial, and nobody knows for sure where it comes from. But the phrase is relatively common in various regions of the United States. It is highly informal and used between friends to indicate that one friend was joking or lying to another friend, usually in a harmless way. Example: He told me I had a stain on my back, but when I looked in the mirror, I knew he was just pulling my leg.
In conclusion, remember that an idiom exists for every occasion and native speakers use them on a daily basis. They are super common in English, and are used regularly in most informal situations. Also keep in mind that because of their cultural origins, most idioms can’t be translated directly from one language to another—at least not literally. Even when two languages have similar idioms that are used in similar contexts, they often differ in specific phrasing.
While this list covers many idioms you may encounter on a regular basis, it definitely isn’t exhaustive. When unsure of whether or not an idiom can be used appropriately, don’t hesitate to consult a dictionary or online resource. Or better yet: book a session today to discuss this topic with a qualified instructor. There’s no risk, and the first session is free for new members!