Idioms and Slang

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English Idioms

English idioms and slang are common features of everyday English. Learning a few slang phrases and English idioms will help you integrate into the UK culture and make you sound more like a native!

Here is a list of common idioms in the English language. See also our sections on phrasal verbs for idiomatic usage and Cockney Rhyming Slang for more expressions, some lesser known, that have seeped into the language from their East London beginnings.

 

English idioms and idiomatic expressions

A piece of cake – very easy

To add fuel to the fire – to intensify a bad situation

A steal – very good value, at low cost

To have an ace/trick up your sleeve – a secret that will give you an advantage

A bit much – too excessive

To wash your hands of something – to disassociate yourself from something or someone

To have cold feet – to lose the courage to do something

All over the shop – very disorganised

At sixes and sevens – very disorganised

To be in the doghouse – when someone is annoyed with you because you have done something wrong

Bread and butter – everyday, usual event / means of earning money

All skin and bone – very thin, unhealthily skinny

White lie – a small lie told usually to protect someone’s feelings

All square / square – everyone is equal, no one has an advantage over anyone else

All the rage – very popular

Ill at ease – to be uncomfortable about something

An old flame – an old romantic attachment usually of whom you are still fond

Apple of your eye – someone who is very special to you

Around the clock – 24 hours a day

Catch 22 – a situation which has no resolution, all possible outcomes are bad

To be at loose end – to have spare time but nothing to do

 
To be at your wit’s end – exasperated because you don’t know what to do about a situation

Clean sheet – to not concede any goals (in football)

Clean slate – not taking past issues into account

In a pickle – in trouble

At the drop of a hat – spontaneously, immediately

Vicious circle – a situation where one bad event causes another bad event sequentially

Crocodile tears – to pretend to be upset by something

By the skin of your teeth – only just managed to do something, very nearly failed

To have an axe to grind – To have a grievance

A bad apple – a person who is bad who is affecting othersTo have a bone to pick (with someone) – To have a grievance with someone

Black sheep – a person who is the odd one out due to bad behaviour, the outcast

To come clean – to admit to something

To bad-mouth someone – to say bad things about someone behind their back

(to do something) Behind someone’s back – to do or say something (usually negative) without the other person knowing

(someone doesn’t) Bat an eyelid – to not notice / show any emotion about a situation

In the clear – not suspected

To walk on eggshells – to be careful what you say to someone because they get offended very easily

To have the upper hand – to have the advantge

Top dog – the most important/influential person

Waiting with bated breath – waiting for something expectantly in an excited, impatient state

The bees knees – the best

Dark horse – a mysterious person usually with something to hide

To have a cross to bear – to have a burden or heavy responsibility

Pig headed – to be obstinate

Behind bars – in prison

Salad days – a happy time in your life (this phrase originally comes from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra)

Two faced – a person who is untrustworthy, saying one thing to your face and another behind your back

To take into account – to make allowances for, to consider something from the past in the current situation

Itchy feet – to want to move, to travel

To keep something under your hat – to keep it a secret

To play devil’s advocate – to argue a point you may not believe in just to sustain an argument

Better safe than sorry – better prepare with caution now rather than take a risk

Cliffhanger – an exciting event where you don’t know what will happen next (for example, at the end of a television programme)

Fly in the ointment – the one negative thing that spoils the whole

 
To get your just deserts – to get what you deserve

Big picture – the wider context, the overall situation

To do a runner – to run away from something

To be tickled pink – very pleased about something

Green fingered – good at gardening

To be hard up – to have little money

Pain in the neck – a nuisance

Spot on – exactly right, perfect

To be skint/brassic – to have no money

Sling your hook – (telling someone to) go away

To swing the lead – to get out of going somewhere (usually to work) by pretending to be ill

Dutch courage – confidence felt from drinking alcohol

Red herring – a false piece of evidence to distract from the real situation

On the cards – a definite possibility and probably going to happen

To lose face – to lose reputation, to look bad to others

To have egg on your face – you are made to look stupid (to be)

Over the moon – delighted

Bite the bullet – to face up to what cannot be avoided

Mad as a hatter – a crazy person

Off hand – without preparation

To skate on thin ice – take a big risk

(to be) Off hand (with someone) – to be impolite to someone or curt with someone

To do a double take – to take a second look at something

 
To rock the boat – to cause trouble

To smell a rat – to suspect that something is wrong/a lie

To fine tune something – to make small alterations to get something right/better

To lose your temper – to get angry

To fly off the handle – to get angry

To see red – to get angry

Gone to pot – gone wrong

Poker face – showing no emotion

(to take something with) A pinch of salt – not to fully believe what someone says

Night owl – someone who likes to go to bed late

Early bird – someone who likes to get up early in a morning

Spineless – no courage

(to be) Quids in – something will make you lot of money

Old hat – old fashioned

To make the most of a situation – to enjoy to the fullest extent

Phrasal Verbs

There are lots of common idioms and collocations in English, often constructed using phrasal verbs, which is when a verb is used alongside a preposition to create an expression entirely new. Explore our list of common English phrasal verbs.

Cockney Rhyming Slang

The East End of London developed its own secret slang language in the mid 1800s. This Cockney code grew popular and spread to other parts of the country and is still used today in various forms. For a discussion of Cockney Rhyming Slang and examples of the expressions in context, please visit our rhyming slang page.

Using English idioms and slang correctly is a great way to sound like a native English speaker.

What are your favourite English idioms and slang expressions? Let us know in the comments.

 

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2 thoughts on “Idioms and Slang

  1. Hi Ann,

    Thanks for your interesting question. Oxford Dictionaries spells the word ‘ka-ching’ (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ka-ching) and gives the alternative spelling ‘ker-ching’. It also explains that the word is onomatopoeic as it mimics the sound of a cash register.

    There is an online casino called Kerching, though some may argue that ‘Kerching’ without a hyphen looks more like a verb.

    I think your suggestion of ‘ca ching’ would also be acceptable, though ‘ka ching’ (or ‘ka-ching’) appears to be more common. Another less common US variant is ‘cha-ching’.

    Have any readers heard of other spellings? Let us know in the comments 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Catherine

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