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Popular English Idioms and Expressions

8 min read
21 January 2021
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Idioms are phrases that have specific meanings beyond the words in them, they are expressions or phrases used figuratively to explain a particular situation or thing. Though they can be quite tricky to understand without knowing the intended meaning, they paint a more colorful picture in the English language. By using them yourself, you will sound more like a native speaker! See how many idioms you know from the list of popular idioms below. 


1. Caught between a rock and a hard place

Used to describe a difficult decision or a predicament where you cannot decide between two things.  

Example: “I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. I can’t make a decision.” 


2. Cut to the chase

To get to the most interesting part of what you’re talking about. 

Example: “Let’s cut to the chase Anna. Where did you go after class?” 


3. A blessing in disguise

Something having a positive outcome, when at first, it seemed quite negative. 

Example: “Failing my test was a blessing in disguise. It’s made me want to work harder for next time.” 


4. Good shout

Usually used in response to a good idea. 

Example: “It was a good shout to eat before watching the movie.” 


5. Cat got your tongue

Used to describe someone in shock and unable to speak. 

Example: “What’s the matter Sandy, cat got your tongue?” 


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6. All ears

When you drop everything to listen to a person, they are usually saying something really interesting. 

Example: “How did the interview go? I’m all ears.” 


7. Brainstorm

Usually describes bringing a group together to generate ideas or solve a problem. 

Example: “Are you attending the brainstorming session later today James?” 


8. As poor as a church mouse

Priests and employees of a church are supposed to lead lives of charity, and to not have much money or good food. A mouse that lived in a church would be able to find very little to eat! In short, it means not having a lot of money.

Example: “After paying the rent this month, I feel as poor as a church mouse.” 


9. Break a leg 

Completely different to its literal meaning. it means good luck, and is usually said to someone before a big event, such as a theatrical performance. 

Example: “Have fun during the performance, break a leg!” 


10. Rub salt in the wound 

There’s lots of variations to this idiom, but they all mean the same thing. It means to make something already painful even more so. 

Example: “To rub salt in the wound, after the meeting, she said that she didn’t like my idea at all.” 


11. Ants in your pants

To be very restless and move around a lot. It can also be used to describe someone being overly excited about something. 

Example: “Bettina looked like she had ants in her pants after eating too many Haribo bears.” 


12. Birthday suit

Being as naked as the day you were born 

Example: “Giorgia's son runs around in his birthday suit all the time.” 


13. Dime a dozen

To be very common. 
Example: “In Rome, museums are a dime a dozen.” 


14. A New York minute

Something that happens, or will happen very quickly. 
Example: “Anything can happen in a New York minute.” 



15. To feel like a million dollars

To feel great. 
Example: “After my massage, I felt like a million dollars.” 


16. To play ball

To cooperate with someone. 
Example: “The landlord agreed to play ball with us about having the kitchen sink fixed.” 


17. To run interference   

To go between two different people/groups to share information. 
Example: “Shirin ran interference between the two disagreeing teams.” 


18. The big leaues

A very successful or important group 
Example: “Alana felt like she was in the big leagues when she moved from the countryside to the city.”   


19. Green thumb

Used to describe someone who is good at making plants grow. 

Example: “Robert is an expert gardener. Everyone says he has a green thumb!” 

20. Yellow-bellied

Used to describe someone as a coward. 

Example: “Billy was called yellow-bellied after he was too scared to go on the rollercoaster.” 

21. Golden opportunity

A very good chance to achieve something. 

Example: “Tony had a golden opportunity to win the chess tournament after the favorite was beaten.” 


22. To have a trick up your sleeve   

To have a secret plan. 

Example: “She always seems to have a trick up her sleeve when it comes to seeing sold-out concerts.” 


23. Keep your shirt / pants / wig on

Used to tell someone to calm down. 

Example: “Keep your shirt on! I'm nearly finished blow-drying my hair."


24. To wear your heart on your sleeve 

To express your emotions freely and openly.

Example: “Rea wears her heart on her sleeve. You always know when she's happy or sad.” 

25. Red tape

A set of rules that stops progress. 

“Daniela was unable to get her visa application approved due to red tape.” 

26. Silver screen

The film industry. 

“Matteo went to Hollywood so he could see the stars of the silver screen.” 


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"Rachel feels likes she's in the big leagues after being moved to the higher level class."


27. Tighten your belt 

To try to spend less money in order to save it. 

Example: “Tara and Joseph had to tighten their belts so they could buy a house.” 


28. Money burning a hole in your pocket   

To spend money quickly after receiving it, especially wastefully. 

Example: “After Marek got his bonus, he spent it like it was burning a hole in his pocket.” 


29. Pink slip

A notice of dismissal from employment. 

Example: “Mik was devastated to lose his job after his boss gave him a pink slip.” 

30. White elephant

An expensive item that is costly to maintain.  

Example: “Planners said the sports stadium would become a white elephant after the tournament was finished.” 


31. Blue collar

Used to describe someone in a manual labor job. 

“Hank was much happier doing blue collar work compared to his office job.” 


32. White collar

To work in jobs that are done in an office 

Example: “Chris has a degree in accounting, so he has aspirations to secure a white collar job.” 


How many of these idioms did you know already? Why not take our free English test to see what level of English you have. 

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