Idiomatic Expressions

Idiomatic Expressions

If you've ever found yourself puzzled by peculiar phrases that don't seem to make sense, you've probably entered the wonderful word of idioms, where language takes on a fun twist. 

Idiomatic expressions are a type of informal language that have a meaning different from the meaning of the words in the expression. 

Raining cats and dogs - literally

Here's an example of an idiomatic expression:

Hold your tongue.

This idiom doesn't actually mean that you should stick your fingers in your mouth and grab a hold of your tongue. It means that you shouldn't talk.

People "hold their tongues" when they're in situations where they want to talk, but it would be better if they didn't. So, while their tongue is ready to do some talking, they "hold" it and don't say anything.

Holding your horses - literally

Let's look at 25 common English idioms and their meanings!

25 Common Idiomatic Expressions
& Their Meanings

1. Tickled Pink: made very happy

  • She was tickled pink by the good news. 

2. Hands Down: no competition

  • You are hands down the best player on the team. 

3. Down in the Dumps: sad or depressed

  • He's been down in the dumps lately. 

4. Sick As A Dog: very sick

  • I feel sick as a dog

5. Under The Weather: not well

  • My grandma has been under the weather

6. Rise and Shine: Wake up and be happy!

  •  It's time to rise and shine!

7. Close, But No Cigar: You were very close, but you didn't make it.

  • You almost won that game! It was close, but no cigar. 

8. Till The Cows Come Home: for a very long time

  • I could play outside till the cows come home

9. Raining Cats and Dogs: Raining very hard

  • Bring your umbrella. It's raining cats and dogs out there! 

10. Driving Me/Her/Him Up The Wall: making me very annoyed

  • That sound is driving me up the wall!

11. A Piece of Cake: very easy

  • This assignment is a piece of cake

12. Slap On The Wrist:  A mild punishment

  • Although he broke a serious rule, he was only given a slap on the wrist.

13. An Arm And a Leg: It is extremely expensive.

  • Yikes! This shirt costs an arm and a leg.  

14 Pulling Your Leg: joking

  • Haha! I was just pulling your leg.

15. Greek To Me: I don't understand.

  • This instruction manual is in Spanish. It's Greek to me.

16. Keep Your Chin Up: Be happy.

  • You look so sad. Keep your chin up.

17. Hold Your Horses: Be patient.

  • Stop yelling! Please hold your horses.

18. In The Same Boat: All of us are in the same position.

  • We're all in the same boat

19. When Pigs Fly: never 

  • I'll clean my room when pigs fly.   

20. Bite The Bullet: To finally face your obstacles or do something you've been avoiding 

  • Fine. I'll bite the bullet and get a gym membership. 

21. Hit The Hay: To go to sleep

  • I'm exhausted! I know it's early, but I'm going to hit the hay.

22. Kick The Bucket: To die, referred to in a lighthearted way

  • I can't believe he finally kicked the bucket. I'm going to miss him.

23. Hold Your Tongue: Don't talk about something you might want to talk about

  • When we go to Grandma's today and she asks you how you like that ugly sweater she gave you, please hold your tongue

24. Spill the Beans: Tell a secret

  • We're having a surprise party for Sarah. Don't spill the beans!

25. Loose Cannon: unpredictable

  • He's a loose cannon.*

    * As Wikipedia describes it, the literal definition of a loose cannon is, "a cannon which gets dislocated and moves about randomly on the decks of a battleship, creating a hazard to crew and equipment." This never meant much to me until I read Victor Hugo's novel "Ninety-Three." You can read the beautiful description here if you'd like. :)  

Precision Is Important

If you'd like to use one of these expressions as an idiom, know that many of them need to be used in a very specific way—you can't change the words at all. Let's look at a couple of examples.

  • We're all in the same boat. = idiom
  • We're all in the boat together. = not an idiom*
  • You're pulling my leg. = idiom
  • You've got to be pulling on my leg. = not an idiom* 

* If you try using an idiom and end up changing some of the words like this, it's likely that people will understand what you mean, but formulations like this will also disclose or draw attention to the fact that you're probably a non-native speaker. (That's not necessarily a bad thing!) 

Gru "You've got to be pulling on my leg" idiom

Gru's attempt to use this idiom in Despicable Me is endearing, and it makes movie-watchers love him more!

Idioms & Culture

Every language has idioms, and they can be very difficult to learn if you're not a native speaker of that language. If English isn't your native language, the best thing that you can do is have conversations with native speakers and ask them about phrases that you don't understand.

Since idioms are influenced by the culture, learning the idioms of a language can be very interesting and enlightening! Here's a closer look at how idioms and culture are connected:

1. Cultural Insights and Values

Idioms often encapsulate cultural insights and values, providing a window into the mindset and priorities of a community. For example, the idiom spill the beans implies revealing a secret. While the phrase itself seems unrelated to its meaning, it goes back to Ancient Greece, where beans were used for voting.

2. Social Norms and Etiquette

Idioms often embody social norms, etiquette, and acceptable behavior within a culture. Understanding a culture's idiomatic expressions can help learners navigate social interactions. Study idioms before you visit a foreign country!  

3. Humor and Playfulness

Culture influences the sense of humor embedded in idioms. Humorous idioms often employ cultural references or wordplay that resonate with native speakers. Idioms that rely on cultural knowledge usually don't translate well into other languages.

4. Language Evolution

Cultural shifts, changes in technology, and other factors can shape idiomatic expressions (and language as a whole) over time. New idioms can be created to reflect modern phenomena, while old idioms may lose relevance. Tracking the evolution of idioms in different languages offers insights into the changing cultural dynamics of each language's culture.

5. Cross-Cultural Communication

Idioms can be a double-edged sword in cross-cultural communication. While they add richness to language, they can also lead to misunderstandings if not interpreted correctly. Learning about idioms helps to create effective cross-cultural interactions. 

Idioms are the linguistic embodiment of culture, encapsulating its nuances, history, values, and creative spirit!

Idiom or Not? 

Are the expressions listed above always idioms? Nope. The sayings listed on this page are only idioms when they're used together to have a meaning different from the words by themselves.

Someone could say the exact same words that are listed in one of these idiomatic expressions, but the person could mean them literally, and then the words would not create an idiom. This means that it's important to think about the context in which one of these expressions is used. 

Let's look at an example with the expression keep your chin up

  • Keep Your Chin Up Used As An Idiom

Imagine that you're sitting with a friend describing how distraught you are by a low grade you received on a test. Your friend says, "Keep your chin up." In this situation, these words are being used as an idiom. Your friend is really telling you to stay positive and not get too sad. 

  • Keep Your Chin Up Used Literally (Not An Idiom)

Imagine you have just joined a gym, and the coach is teaching you how to do a pull-up. As your head nears the bar, your face is pointed down when it's supposed to be pointed up. Your coach might say, "Keep your chin up." In this situation, these words are not an idiom. Your coach is not telling you to have a positive attitude—she's telling you that you literally need to keep your chin toward the ceiling.

Many of these expressions will always be idiomatic, simply because there is no actual situation in life in which you'd use them literally. For example, cats and dogs are never actually going to be falling from the sky, so if you hear someone saying that it's raining cats and dogs, you can be sure that it's being used as an idiom!


Let's review what we covered on this page.

  • Idiomatic expressions are informal phrases that aren't interpreted literally.
  • Idioms often showcase a culture's history, values, and social norms. 
  • For many idioms, you need to use a very specific formulation of words. 
  • These expressions are only idioms when they are not used literally.
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