An idiom is a phrase that has a meaning which is different from the meanings of each individual word in it. For example, if someone says to you “I’m pulling your leg”, you might think it is strange because you would definitely be able to feel if someone was holding your leg and pulling it! This idiom actually means that they are teasing you or playing a joke on you.
- Alex: “I just heard that there’s a problem with the company’s computers and we won’t be paid until next week!”
- John: “Oh no! I won’t be able to pay my rent on time! What am I going to do?”
- Alex: “Haha I’m just pulling your leg! The computers are working fine. You’ve been paid already.”
There are hundreds of common idioms in the English language which we use every day. In fact, most English people do not even realize they are using them! As the meanings are usually completely different to the meanings of the actual words, it can be very difficult to learn them – you need to learn them in the same way you learn new vocabulary.
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Below you will find 10 popular idioms which English people use very often. You can read their meanings, origins and example sentences which will show you how to use them in the future. Try to use them in sentences when you are speaking English with your friends or in your English language classes.
- Between a rock and a hard place
- A leopard can’t change its spots
- Let the cat out of the bag
- Get up on the wrong side of the bed
- Not my cup of tea
- A piece of cake
- Under the weather
- Play it by ear
- Bite the bullet
- Sleep on it
1. Between a rock and a hard place
Meaning – To be in a very difficult situation and to have to make a hard decision between two things that are equally unpleasant.
Origin – This phrase originated in America and was first printed in 1921. In Arizona at that time, there was a big problem with the mining companies. The miners went on strike and asked for better pay and working conditions but their demands were refused and instead, most of the miners were sent to other places in America.
The miners had a very difficult decision to make – they could either stay in Arizona and continue to work in the mines in bad conditions with low pay (the mines they worked in were the ‘rock’) or move to a new city where they would need to find a new home and a new job (this was the ‘hard place’). So they really were between a rock and a hard place!
“Someone drove into my car yesterday and now I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place – I can either drive around with a big dent in my car or pay lots of money to have it repaired.”
“I don’t know what to do – if I go to the party I won’t be able to do my homework and my teacher will be really angry tomorrow but if I stay at home and do my homework I’m going to miss a great party! I hate being between a rock and a hard place!”
- Alex: “John I need your help. Marry told me I either have to stop smoking or she’s going to break up with me. I really love smoking but I don’t want to lose Marry – what should I do?”
- John: “Wow Alex, I don’t know what to say. You’re really caught between a rock and a hard place!”
2. A leopard can’t change its spots
Meaning – A person cannot change who they are (their character), no matter how hard they try.
Origin – This idiom comes from the Old Testament. The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah tries to persuade an evil shepherdess to become good but when he realizes that it is impossible to convince her, he says: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?”
“I don’t think Tom will ever order pasta instead of a pizza. A leopard can’t change its spots you know.”
The waiter tried to be friendly to his customers but a leopard can’t change its spots and he was still very rude.
- Ben: “I’m going to book a table in a Chinese restaurant tonight for me and Henry. He’s never had Chinese before!”
- Evelyn: “Oh Ben, a leopard can’t change its spots. Henry has never eaten Chinese food before and he’s not going to start now!”
3. Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning – To reveal a secret or a surprise, usually by accident.
Origin – Many years ago, merchants often sold live piglets to customers. After putting a piglet in a bag so the customer could transport it easily, dishonest merchants sometimes swapped the piglet for a cat when the customer looked away. The buyer often didn’t discover the trick until they got home and really let the cat out of the bag, revealing the merchant’s secret!
“It’s a secret. Try not to let the cat out of the bag.”
“I was really looking forward to seeing the film, until Jack let the cat out of the bag and told me the ending!”
“We were going to have a surprise birthday for dad, but my silly brother let the cat out of the bag the day before.”
“Well the cat’s out of the bag now. Everyone knows Amy will be given the lead role in the play.”
4. Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Meaning – To be in a bad mood – to be grumpy or unpleasant from the moment you wake up for no obvious reason.
Origin – In Roman times it was considered bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. Therefore, if you got out of bed on the ‘wrong’ side (the left side), it was thought that you would have a very bad day.
“Why are you in such a bad mood today? Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“I feel terrible. I definitely got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Actually, maybe it was all the wine I drank last night!”
“You’re annoying everyone at the moment. You’re not going to have any friends left if you keep getting up on the wrong side of the bed!”
5. Not my cup of tea
Meaning – If something is not your cup of tea, you do not like it or you are not interested in it.
Origin – The positive version of this expression, “it’s my cup of tea”, has been in use since the late 1800s when the British started using the phrase “my cup of tea” to describe something they liked. (We all know that the British love their tea!) In the 1920s, the word ‘not’ was added to the phrase to describe something that they didn’t like.
“Some people love playing cricket, but it’s not my cup of tea.”
“I know that horror films are not your cup of tea, but you should definitely see this one – it’s amazing!”
- Henry: “Did you listen to the CD I gave you?”
- James: “Yes, I listened to it twice but it’s not really my cup of tea.”
You can also use the opposite: “I really like M Stephan’s paintings. They’re just my cup of tea.”
6. A piece of cake
Meaning – Something which is very easy to do.
Origin – It is thought that this idiom originated in the 1870s when it was tradition to give cakes as prizes in competitions. In some parts of the USA at this time, slaves would participate in ‘cake walks’ where couples would perform a dance mocking the mannerisms of their masters. The most graceful couple would receive a cake as a prize. From this, the expression ‘a piece of cake’ started being used to describe something that was easy to achieve.
“I’m sure the test next week will be a piece of cake for me. I’ve been studying for weeks!”
“The football match today was a piece of cake! All the best players in the other team had injuries so we scored 6 goals!”
- Paul: “Thank you so much for changing my tyre. I had no idea how to do it!”
- Mark: “No problem. When you’ve been a mechanic for 30 years, changing a tyre is a piece of cake!”
7. Under the weather
Meaning – To feel ill/unwell.
Origin – This idiom has nautical (sailing) origins. Sailors and passengers aboard ships often became seasick during storms and bad weather, when the boat would rock back and forth. Anyone who felt seasick would be sent below the deck to the bottom of the ship where the rocking was less noticeable.
In other words, they were sent under the deck and away from the weather, which is how the phrase ‘under the weather’ was created. It is now used when people feel unwell for any reason, not just from seasickness.
“Hi John, it’s Simon. Sorry but I can’t come to work today – I’m a bit under the weather.”
“I’ve been feeling a little under the weather today. I had to wait outside in the rain for 2 hours last night and I think I may have caught a cold.”
- Lilly: “Are you coming to the party tonight?”
- Joseph: “I don’t think I should. I’ve been feeling under the weather all week.”
8. Play it by ear
Meaning – To decide what to do in a situation as it develops, instead of planning ahead or keeping to previously arranged plans.
Origin – This idiom is related to music. When musicians try to play a song from memory or try to reproduce something they have heard without using music sheets, they need to use their ears to check if what they are playing is correct – in other words, they “play it by ear”. Nowadays, this phrase is used when you are in any situation and you need to improvise.
“My brother is coming to visit this weekend so I’m not sure I’ll be able to meet you on Saturday. Can we play it by ear?”
“I don’t have time to prepare for my meeting tomorrow. I’m just going to have to play it by ear and see what happens.”
- Sue: “I’m really bored. When can we leave?”
- Jen: “Let’s play it by ear – I think they’re going to do the birthday cake soon so the party might get better.”
- Rob: “Should we play tennis tomorrow?”
- Ian: “I’d love to but I think it’s going to rain. Let’s just play it by ear.”
9. Bite the bullet
Meaning – To make yourself do something difficult or unpleasant that you have been avoiding doing.
Origin – This idiom is believed to have originated during the American Civil War. When wounded soldiers needed to be operated on and there were no painkillers available, army doctors often gave the patients a bullet to bite on to focus their attention on the biting instead of the painful operation. Patients could either choose to die or ‘bite the bullet’ and face the extremely painful operation!
“I can’t believe I haven’t found a new job yet. I’m going to have to bite the bullet and sell my car so I can pay my rent!”
“My teacher knew I cheated so I had to bite the bullet and admit it.”
- John: “When are you going to break up with Marry? I know you don’t love her anymore.”
- Lilly: “I know. You’re right. I just don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
- John: “The longer you leave it, the harder it will be. You just need to bite the bullet and tell her!”
10. Sleep on it
Meaning – To spend time (usually at least a day) thinking about something carefully before making a decision.
Origin – It is not known where this idiom originated from but people often believe that if they do not have the solution to a problem straight away, a good sleep will help. Some people think that the brain continues to solve problems while we are sleeping and when you wake up the solution will just be there! However, others believe that we can make better decisions after sleep as the brain is
- Mr Paul: “So John, would you like to work here?”
- John: “I’m not sure. Can I sleep on it and let you know tomorrow?”
“She told me she would sleep on it and let me know her decision but it’s been 3 days now and she still hasn’t called!”
- Suzan: “hat’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m resigning!”
- Lilly: “Suzan, you’re really angry at the moment. Why don’t you go home and sleep on it before you make any sudden decisions.”