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What’s an Idiom? (List of 100+ Idioms in English)

Idioms are phrases particular to a language, where taken as a whole it means something different from the words in isolation.

What’s an idiom?

An idiom is a phrase that, when taken as a whole, means something different from what the literal words themselves say. Idiom comes from the Greek word, ‘idioma‘ which directly translates to “peculiarity, peculiar phraseology”. This is exactly what idioms are: they are a peculiar phrasing of words that mean something other than what the literal words themselves say.

Definition of idiom and example.

To understand an idiom we consider the meaning apart from what the literal words in isolation suggest. For example, ‘to kill two birds with one stone‘ is a common (and perhaps overused) idiom in English that means to accomplish two things with a single action. That said, the actual words in the idiom itself certainly do not carry that same meaning—this is why idioms are figurative aspects of speech that have a non-literal meaning.

Types of idioms

Broadly speaking, there are four main types of idioms: pure idioms, binomial idioms, partial idioms, and prepositional idioms:

A pure idiom is your classic idiom, the meaning of which cannot be derived by the individual words in the phrase themselves. For example, telling someone to “break a leg!” is a pure idiom which, taken literally, sounds like you’re telling someone to go and break their leg. The actual meaning of the phrase is to say good luck, which is not at all close to what the literal words themselves say or indicate.

Binomial idioms are expressions made up of two words with one of the coordinating conjunctions. Examples of binomial idioms include “rock and roll”, “fair and square”, or “the do’s and don’ts”.

Partial idioms mention only a part of the original idiomatic phrase, but still retain the entire meaning of the phrase. E.g., “we’ll cross that bridge” is only a part of the whole phrase/idiom, “we’ll cross that bridge once we get to it“. However, because it’s a common saying, the phrase is already understood in its shortened form.

Prepositional idioms combine verbs with a preposition to denote a distinct meaning. Examples of prepositional idioms are “agree to” or “at the end/in the end“.

Popular idioms in English

Love breeds love Love brings about more love, and likewise, kindness produces kindness (i.e., like breeds like).
Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed An odious way of saying that once a girl starts menstruating she is old enough to bear children.
Like breeds likeWe adopt traits and habits from those we associate ourselves with.
Familiarity breeds contempt Knowing someone too well, or being over-accustomed to can cause hostility or a loss of respect for someone.
Breed like rabbits To have tons of kids, like rabbits do offspring (I guess?)
Born and bred When someone or something is born and raised in a particular place.
To bite one’s tongue or hold one’s tongue To refrain from saying something or speaking one’s mind in a situation.
Your bark is bigger than your bite Someone that tries to appear threatening though in reality is not.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you Don’t treat poorly those that take care of you/those on whom you depend.
To grab a bite To get something to eat.
Don’t let the bed bugs bite! To have a good night, or a way of saying to sleep well/not to let the bugs bite while you’re sleeping.
Bite the dustIf someone bites the dust, this means that they are dead.
To bite off more than you can chew To take on more than you can handle; a way of saying you’re overwhelmed.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.‍The way to handle a large project or task is by taking it one step at a time, or to focus on one task at a time.
Bite your nose to spite your face To seek revenge on another in a way that is ultimately more harmful towards oneself.
To teach an old dog new tricksIt’s difficult to get someone settled in their ways to change their habits/behaviours.
Failure teaches success Experience is the greatest teacher.
To teach one the tricks of the tradeTo learn about an industry.
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.A derogatory phrase meaning those who are unable to find vocation end up teaching.
Don’t try to teach Grandma how to suck eggs! Don’t assume that because someone is old that they do not know or understand how things go.
To teach a man to fish Teach someone to do something rather than doing it for them, and they’ll be able to do it on their own.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
To be graceful but powerful; this phrase was coined by famous boxer Mohammad Ali!
Take the sting out of something Make a situation less bad or unpleasant.
Sting like the devil For something to sting or hurt intensely.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bath waterDon’t throw away the bad with the good.
A stone’s throw awaySaid of something that’s nearby.
Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stonesA way to say don’t be a hypocrite.
I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw themSaid of someone/something you don’t trust.
To be thrown off-balance/thrown a curve ballTo have to deal with something unexpected.
Throw a monkey wrench into the worksTo damage or change (something) in a way that ruins it or prevents it from working properly.
Throw cautions to the windTo stop being careful and just do something.
Throw in the towel/spongeTo give up on something.
Don’t throw good money after badDon’t try to improve a bad situation by spending more money on it.
Throw someone in to the deep endPut someone in a situation where they have no or little experience.
Don’t have a pot to piss in (or a window to throw it out of)To have no money or resources.
Thrown to the wolvesLeave someone to be roughly treated or criticized without trying to help or defend them.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt meA physical attack may injure me but a verbal attack cannot.
Stick togetherTo stay in close proximity or nearby others/someone.
To get the short end of the stick To get an unfavourable outcome/deal.
Stick to your guns Stay truthful to yourself and your beliefs.
Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks To make numerous attempts to see what succeeds.
The carrot and the stick A way to reward/stimulate activity through motivation.
The sticks A nickname for the woods/forest.
To write one’s own ticketSet one’s own course of action.
Written on water Opposite of written on stone; as in, impermanent or ephemeral.
Nothing to write home about
For something to be unremarkable or not noteworthy so as to have nothing to say about it.
To write a bum checkAs in fake or bad check/cheque.
Stick out like a sore thumb To be obvious or conspicuous.
Stick and stay, make it play Work hard and stay dedicated to see the results.
A stick in the mud Someone who is considered boring, or a downer.
Wear thinBe gradually used up or become less convincing or acceptable.
To wear a long faceSaid of someone that looks sad.
To wear your heart on your sleeveTo be open and vulnerable with your feelings.
Worse for wear In poor condition from being used a lot.
Wear and tearSaid when something is worn out from being used.
Hear tell of somethingTo be informed of, learn of by word of mouth.
Does Macy’s tell Gimble’s?Competitors do not share business secrets with one another.
To tell chalk from cheeseTwo things that have nothing in common.
Live to tell the taleSurvive a dangerous experience and be able to tell others about it.
Tell it to the Marines!Said when something is not believed/believable.
Tell-allReveal private or salacious details.
Tell the truth and shame the devilTell the truth even when it doesn’t benefit us.
You can’t tell (or judge) a book by it’s coverYou can’t know something/someone based on appearance alone.
Tell it like it isSay something without sugar-coating it.
To rise to the occasion To live up to what’s expected, or fulfill your responsibility.
To rise through the ranks To move up in a position in a company or organization quickly.
The cream always rises to the top The person with the most skill/talent/merit will outperform the rest.
Be up/rise with the larkTo be out of bed at sunrise.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wiseHealthy habits and routines are good for a person.
Rise and shine!A way of saying good morning.
Rise from the ashesTo appear out of nowhere, as if from the dead.
To make someone’s hackles rise/raise To seriously annoy someone.
Think the sun rises and sets on (someone/something)To think that person is the most wonderful, greatest person there ever was.
A rising tide raises all ships/lifts all boatsWe all gain/benefit from each other’s success!
To lose your marbles Lose your mind/out of it.
Lose your patienceTo be stressed by someone/something that you don’t have patience for it.
To lose one’s grip on something Feel one does not have a handle on a situation.
Lose train of thought Forget what you’re thinking about/saying.
Nothing to lose sleep over Not something to worry about/worth losing sleep over.
Lose the thread/the drift Not following the conversation/discussion.
You snooze, you lose If you wait on an opportunity you might miss out.
Win some, lose some Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
A tale never loses in the telling Stories tend to become exaggerated/embellished with each retelling.
Lose one’s doughnuts To vomit profusely.
Lend your money and lose your friend Don’t mix friends and money together.
You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink You can provide someone with an opportunity but can’t force them to take advantage of it.
To be a tall drink of water Said of someone tall and attractive.
To be in the drink To be in water.
To be meat and drink To be especially appealing to someone.
To drink like a fish Said of someone who drinks copious amounts of alcohol.
To drink someone under the table To be able to drink much more alcohol than someone else.
Drive someone to drink To cause someone so much stress that they resort to alcohol.
Eat, drink, and be merry Basically what it says-be happy, and eat/drink.
Be like drinking from a fire hose For something to be extremely overwhelming.
To drink when the sun is over the yardarm The time of day when it’s acceptable to drink alcohol.
To be the straw the stirs the drink To be the most essential part of something.
To drink with the flies To drink alone, mostly heard in Australia.
Not cut out for Not suitable or able to do something, normally a difficult task.
Cut off Often said when driving when someone drives in front of you, or in your lane lane abruptly.
Cut down To make something smaller or more manageable.
Cut corners To find a cheap or easier way of doing something, but could compromise the quality or integrity.
Cut up To chop something up into smaller pieces.
Cut a deal To make a deal.
Cut the mustard To work or operate in a way that’s satisfactory.
Cut no ice Said of something that has little or no impact.
Cut of your jib Said to someone when you like their overall demeanour or way of being.
Cut to the chase Get to the point.
A cut aboveSomething better or finer than other things, presumably of the same type.
To run around like a chicken with it’s head cut off To run around frantically or be in a frenzy.
Cut your coat according to your cloth To spend within one’s means.
Spitting at the wind Said when doing something pointless or futile.
Spit the dummy To have a tantrum like a toddler so that you’d spit out your pacifier. “Dummy” is an antiquated term for soother or pacifier.
Within spitting-distance of Something near in proximity so that you could figuratively spit to it.
To eat the meat and spit out the bones Take what’s good and leave what isn’t.
Mad enough to chew nails and spit rivets Said of someone that’s irate, or furious to the point of irrationality.
Make like a banana and split To get out of somewhere quickly.
Finer than a frog’s hair split four ways! A hilarious way of saying you’re doing great or fine.
In a split-second/lickety-splitSaid when something will take a second, figuratively speaking.
Split between two things When you can’t decide between two or more people or situations.
Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you! A funny but rude way to tell someone to leave.

Check out this list of commonly used idioms in the English language:

Learn about verb conjugations!


  1. Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of idiom.” Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed 19 January, 2023.
  2. McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. 19 Jan. 2023

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