Home General English Rosemarie's English Learning Program (ELP) : List of Idioms & Phrases
Rosemarie's English Learning Program (ELP) : List of Idioms & Phrases
Monday, 16 April 2012 05:47


List of Idioms & Phrases





Abbreviated piece of nothing

This slang expression refers to someone who is considered to be
insignificant or worthless. 
Bob doesn't think much of his new colleague.  He calls him an
'abbreviated piece of nothing'!

(to the) best of one's ability

When someone does something to the best of their ability,
they do it as well as they possibly can.
"I felt nervous all through the interview, but I replied to the best of 
my ability."

(of) no fixed abode

A person of no fixed abode has nowhere permanent to live.
A 30-year-old man, of no fixed abode, was charged with the burglary.

about-turn / about-face

This term refers to a complete change of opinion or policy.
"The ambassador's recent declarations indicate an about-turn in 
foreign policy."

Above and beyond the call of duty

If a person does something which is above and beyond the 
call of
duty, they show a greater degree of courage or effort
than is usually required or expected in their job.
"The fire-fighter received a medal for his action which went 
above and beyond the call of duty

More by accident than (by) design

Something which happens more by accident than (by) design is 
done without deliberate intention.
"I became an interpreter more by accident than design; nobody else 
could speak the language of the refugees."

Accidentally on purpose

If you do something intentionally, but pretend it was an accident, 
you do it 'accidentally on purpose'.
"I accidentally-on-purpose erased his email address so I couldn't 
contact him again."

An accomplished fact
(also: 'fait accompli')

Something that has been done or completed, before those affected 
by it can intervene or change it, is called an accomplished fact.

Ace a test

If you obtain a very high score or an excellent result, you ace a test 
or exam

"Maria's parents said she could go to the party if she aced her English

Have an ace up your sleeve.

If you have an ace up your sleeve, it means that you have 
something in reserve with which you can gain an advantage.

Hold all the aces

A person who holds all the aces is in a very strong position 
because they have more advantages than anyone else.
"Given the high unemployment figures in some countries, 
employers hold all the aces."

Achilles' heel

This expression refers to a vulnerable area or weak spot in an
otherwise strong situation that could cause one's downfall or failure.
"He's extremely intelligent, but his inability to speak in public is 
his Achilles' heel."

Acid test

To refer to something as the acid test means that it will prove 
how effective or useful something is.
"The training course was very interesting but the acid test will come 
when I start my new job."

Act of God

This term refers to a natural event or accident, for which no person is
responsible (such as an earthquake, lightning and similar acts of nature).
"The insurance company refused to pay for the damage because
it was caused by an act of God."

Get your act together!

If you tell someone to get their act together, you mean 
that they need to organize their affairs more effectively
in order to be more successful.

Add fuel to the flames

If you add fuel to the flames, you say something that makes a 
difficult situation  worse.
"He forgot their wedding anniversary, and his apologies only 
added fuel to the flames."

Much ado about nothing.

If people make "much ado about nothing", they make
a lot of fuss about something which is not important.

Afraid of one's own shadow

A person who is afraid of their own shadow is very nervous 
or easily frightened.
"I've never seen anyone so easily scared - she's afraid of her 
own shadow."

After the fact

If something is done after the fact, it is too late, after something
has actually happened, particularly a crime or an accident.
He said he realized he had put people in danger, but that was of 
no help after the fact."

Against the clock

If you do something against the clock, you are rushed and have 
very little time to do it.
"They are working against the clock to have the presentation ready
for Monday."

Set (the) alarm bells ringing/
alarm bells start to ring

If something sets the alarm bells ringing, it makes you begin to 
worry because it shows that there may be a problem. 
"Alarm bells started to ring when my old neighbour didn't open his 
shutters all day and didn't answer the phone."

All brawn and no brain

Someone who is physically very strong but not very intelligent is said
to be all brawn and no brain.
He's an impressive player to watch, but he's all brawn and no brain."

All clear

If you are allowed to do something after a check-up to make sure 
that everything is all right, you get the all clear.
"Dad says he's going to play golf as soon as he gets the all clear 
from his doctor."

All ears

To say that you are all ears means that you are listening very 
"Of course I want to know - I'm all ears!"

All hell broke loose

To say that all hell broke loose means that there was a sudden 
angry, noisy reaction to something.
"All hell broke loose when it was announced that the plant was going
to close down."

All in your head

If something is all in your head, it is not real. It is in your imagination.
"Don't be silly.  Nobody is trying to harm you.  It's all in hour head!"

Of all people

To use the term 'of all people' emphasizes that the person you 
mention, more than anyone else,  is the one you would expect to do
"As an artist, you, of all people, should support the new art gallery."

(You can't be) all things to all people

If you are all things to all people you please or satisfy everyone.
She's exhausted trying to be a good wife, a good mother and a good
teacher, but she can't be all things to all people.

All (other) things being equal

This expression refers to a probable situation if in all other ways
the conditions remain unchanged or equal.
"All (other) things being equal, a reduction in the cost of 
transport should enable us to lower our prices."

All the rage

When something is all the rage, it has become very popular or 
"Twittering text messages is all the rage these days, both among
individuals and companies."

All sizzle and no steak

Someone or something that turns out to be disappointing, after a 
promotional campaign or marketing operation which led us to expect
something better, is called all sizzle and no steak.
"Because of all the electoral promises he made, which so far he has failed 
to keep, many people call the new president "all sizzle and no steak".

All thumbs/all fingers and thumbs

If you are all fingers and thumbs, you are awkward and clumsy and 
do things incorrectly.
"Would you mind wrapping this for me? I'm all fingers and thumbs!"

All told

All told means the final number when everything has been counted.
"The number of visitors to the exhibition, all told, was 2543."


This term refers to an unsuccessful competitor whose performance is
so much poorer than the winner's that it appears insignificant.
"He entered the contest hoping that he wouldn't end up as an 'also-ran'.

Alter ego

The term alter ego, which in Latin means 'other self', 
refers to a very close and trusted friend who is very like yourself.

Ambulance chaser

This terms refers to a lawyer who finds work by persuading people
injured in accidents to claim money from the person who caused
the accident.
"Peterson & Scott are well-known ambulance chasers - that's how 
they make their money!"

Answer for

If someone has to answer for something, they have to accept
responsibility for their actions.
"He will have to answer for his dishonesty."

Answer the call of nature/
nature's call

When a person answers the call of nature, they go to the toilet.
I had to get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature

Ants in one's pants

People who have ants in their pants are very restless or excited about
"I wish he'd relax.  He's got ants in his pants about something today!"

Any port in a storm

When you have no choice, any port in a storm refers to a solution 
you accept, which in normal circumstances you would find unacceptable.
"The hotel was substandard, but it was a case of any port in a storm; 
all the others were full."

The apple of your eye.

If somebody is the apple of your eye, this means that you like
them very much :
"My grandson is the apple of my eye".

To upset the applecart

To upset (or to overturn) the applecart means to spoil a satisfactory 
plan or situation
"I hope Julie doesn't attend the meeting; she could upset the applecart!"

Apple-pie order

If something is in apple-pie order, it is very well organized or in 
perfect order.
"They made sure the house was in apple-pie order before their parents
arrived back home."

Apron strings

If one person is tied to another's apron strings, they remain dependent 
at an age when they should be independent.
All his decisions are influenced by his mother.  He's still tied to her 
apron strings."

Argue the toss

If you argue the toss, you dispute a decision or choice which has
already been made.
"The final choice was made yesterday, so don't argue the toss now! "

Arm of the law

This expression refers to the extent to which the authority or power of
the law extends.
"He fled to South America hoping to escape the arm of the law."

Give your right arm

If you say "I'd give my right arm for that", you mean that you 
want it a lot and would do almost anything to obtain it.
"I'd give my right arm to have a apartment on Central Park."

Cost an arm and a leg

If something costs an arm and a leg, it is very expensive!
"The house cost us an arm and a leg, but we have no regrets."

To be up in arms

If you are up in arms about something, you are very angry.
"The population was up in arms over the demolition of the old theatre."

Keep someone at arm's length

If you keep someone at arm's length, you do not allow yourself
to become too friendly with them. 
"It's not easy to become friends with Sophie; she tends to keep
everyone at arm's length."

Armchair critic

An armchair critic is someone who gives advice based on theory
rather than practice. 
"That guy is such an armchair critic, no experience but plenty of advice! "

Armchair traveller

Someone who reads books or watches TV programmes about other
places and countries but doesn't actually travel anywhere is called an 
armchair traveller
A surprising number of adventure books are bought by armchair travellers.

Asking for trouble

Someone who is asking for trouble is behaving stupidly and is likely 
to have problems.
"Driving fast on these roads is really asking for trouble!"

Asleep at the wheel

If you say that someone is asleep at the wheel you mean that they 
are not  sufficiently attentive, especially at a critical moment when
vigilance is required.
"When the firemen arrived too late at the scene, the night watchman 
was accused of being asleep at the wheel."

At all costs

If you are determined to obtain or achieve something at all costs
you want it regardless of the expense, effort or sacrifice involved.
"The journalist was determined at all costs to get a report from the 
war zone."

At stake

Someone who has a lot at stake is in a risky situation, with a lot 
to be won or lost.
"He was nervous about signing the agreement because there was a lot 
at stake."

At this stage of the game

This expression refers to the current point reached in a process, activity or developing situation.
"At this stage of the game I think any further intervention would be unwise. 
Let's wait and see how things develop."

Of no avail

Something which is of no avail is not at all helpful or useful.
"The coffee machine wouldn't work and the instruction leaflet was
of no avail."

Avowed intent

When someone makes a public declaration of their objective or goal,
this is their avowed intent.
"The avowed intent of the new Government is to reduce unemployment."

A rude awakening

If you get a rude awakening, you are forced to accept 
the unpleasant truth.

Away with the fairies

To say that someone is away with the fairies means that they are in such a dreamy state that they are not totally in touch with reality and give the impression of being slightly mad.
"It's no use trying to explain the problem to her - she's away with the fairies!"

Have an axe to grind

If you have an axe to grind, you have personal reasons for becoming involved in something or  adopting a particular attitude. 
"It was decided that the best candidates would be selected by a recruitment agency who had no axe to grind within the company."






Leave somebody holding the baby

If someone is left holding the baby, they are made responsible for
a problem that others don't want to deal with.
"When the angry customer started to complain, 
my colleague disappeared and left me holding the baby."

Back or bet on the wrong horse

If you back or bet on the wrong horse, for example the loser in 
a contest, match or election, you support the wrong person. 
"When I voted for him, I was convinced he would win, but I backed
the wrong horse!"

Get off my back!

If you tell somebody to get off your back, you ask them to stop
finding faults or criticizing you.

In the back of beyond

This expression is used to describe an isolated place located
far from any town.
"It took us hours to find Jack's house.  
He lives in the back of beyond!"

On the back burner

If you put a project or issue on the back burner, you decide
to deal with it at a later date because you do not consider it 
to be that urgent or important.
"When Julie was offered a promotion, she put her MBA plans 
on the back burner."

Back to the salt mines

Saying that you have to go back to the salt mines is a humorous 
way of  talking about returning to work, usually with some reluctance.
"We get two days off at Christmas and then it's back to the salt mines!"

Back to square one

To say that someone is back to square one, means that they have 
not succeeded
in what they were trying to do, and so they have to start again. 
"When the plans were refused, it was back to square one for the 

Backhanded compliment

A remark that appears to express admiration but could also be 
interpreted as an insult is called a backhanded compliment.
"He said my presentation was 'surprisingly clear' - 
how's that for a backhanded compliment!"

Back-of-the-envelope calculation

This expression refers to quick approximate calculation done 
informally, as on the back of an envelope.
"I don't need the exact amount.  
Just give me a back-of-the-envelope calculation."

Back-room boys

This term refers to people who do important work but have no contact
with the public.
"Back-room boys don't always receive the credit they deserve for their

Backseat driver

backseat driver is a passenger in a car who gives unwanted 
advice to the driver.
"I can't stand backseat drivers like my mother-in-law!"

bad egg

To refer to someone as a bad egg means that they cannot be trusted.
"I don't want my son to be friends with Bobby Smith.  
Bobby's a bad egg."

bad hair day

Originating as a humorous comment about one's hair being 
unmanageable, this term has broadened to mean 'a day when
everything seems to go wrong'.
"What's wrong with Jenny? Is she having a bad hair day?"

In bad shape

A person who is in bad shape is in poor physical condition.
"I really am in bad shape.  I need to get some exercise."

Badger someone into doing

If you badger someone into doing something, you persistently 
nag or pester them until you obtain what you want.
"Sophie badgered her parents into buying her a new computer."

Bag of bones

To say that someone is a bag of bones means that they are
extremely thin.
"When he came home from the war he was a bag of bones."

(Whole) bag of tricks

If you use your (whole) bag of tricks to do something, you try
(all) the clever methods you know in order to succeed.
"Let's call on George and his bag of tricks; maybe he can help us
solve the problem."

In the bag

If you think something is in the bag, you are almost certain 
it will be achieved.
"An hour before the polling stations closed, victory seemed in the bag
for the Conservative candidate."

Bait and switch

This term refers to a deceptive commercial practice of advertising a
low-priced item to attract customers, then telling them that the product
is out of stock and persuading them to buy a more expensive article.
"This store is famous for its bait and switch tactics."

In the balance

If something is in the balance, it means the situation is uncertain 
and it is not clear what is going to happen.
"The future of the company is in the balance while the takeover bid
is being examined."

Balancing act

When you try to satisfy two or more people or groups who have different
needs, and keep everyone happy, you perform a balancing act.
"Many people have to perform a balancing act between work and family."

Ball and chain

This term refers to a burden or problem that ties you down and prevents
you from doing what you want. It can also refer to one's spouse.
"Our holiday home has became a ball and chain - it's too much work!"

Have a ball

If you have a ball, you enjoy yourself.
"The party was great.  We had a ball."

On the ball

If you are on the ball, you are aware of what is happening
and are able to deal with things quickly and intelligently.
"We need someone who's really on the ball to head the fund-raising

Start the ball rolling

If you start the ball rolling, you start an activity in which 
other people will join. 
"Let's start the ball rolling by calling on our first speaker."

The ball is in your court

If the ball is in your court, it is your turn to speak or act next.   
"We gave the manager a list of complaints, so the ball is in
his court now."

That's the way the ball bounces

Things don't always work out as planned, and there's nothing we can 
do about it - that's life! 
"He didn't get the prize he expected, but never mind - that's the way 
the ball bounces."

Whole new ball game

To refer to something as a whole new ball game means that it is 
a completely different situation due to a new set of circumstances.
"Email and text messaging have made communication a whole new 
ball game."

That's (a load of) baloney

This term refers to idle talk, or pretentious, untrue or insincere
statements that nobody can believe.
"That's a load of baloney! I don't believe a word of it."

Jump on the bandwagon

If a person or organization jumps on the bandwagon
they decide to do something when it is already successful or 
"When organic food became popular, certain stores were quick 
to jump on the bandwagon and promote it."

Bane of one's life

To say that something is the bane of your life means that it is
the cause of your problems or your unhappiness.
"The heating system is always breaking down.  It's the bane of 
my life!"

Bang your head against a brick wall

If you bang your head against a brick wall, you continue vainly to 
try and achieve something  in spite of several unsuccessful attempts.
"I've been banging my head against a brick wall trying to explain the
internet to my grandmother."

Bar fly

bar fly refers to someone who spends a lot of time drinking in
bars and pubs.
"You'll find Johnny down at the pub - he's a real bar fly!"

Bare one's heart (or soul)

If you bare your heart or soul to someone, you reveal your
innermost thoughts and feelings to them.
"John couldn't keep things to himself any longer.  He decided to 
bare his soul to his best friend."

Barefaced liar

Someone who lies easily, with a total lack of shame, is called a
barefaced liar
"That barefaced liar stole my watch and said he'd found it!"

His bark is worse than his bite

This expression is used to refer to a person who sounds much
more severe or angry than they really are.
"Don't be afraid of him - his bark is worse than his bite."

Bark up the wrong tree

A person who barks up the wrong tree is doing the wrong thing, 
because their beliefs or ideas are incorrect or mistaken.

Basket case

A person who's agitated mental state leaves them helpless or unable
to cope with things is called a basket case.
"Jenny will turn into a basket case if this stressful situation continues."

Bated breath

If you wait for something with bated breath, you are both anxious
and excited about an imminent event.
"We waited with bated breath for the winner to be announced."

Baton down the hatches

When you baton down the hatches, you prepare yourself for trouble
or a forthcoming difficult period, like a ship preparing for a storm.
"Here comes that trouble-making guy. Baton down the hatches!."

Have bats in the belfry

If you say that somebody has bats in the belfry, you are saying that 
their ideas are completely mad.

The battle lines are drawn

This expression is used to say that opposing groups are ready to 
defend the reason behind the conflict.
"The battle lines have been drawn between those who accept the 
changes and those who are against the proposed reforms."

Battle of wills

A conflict, argument or struggle where both sides are determined to win
is described as a battle of wills.
"When they  separated, neither party would make concessions - it was 
a battle of wills."

Be my guest

This expression is used to give someone permission to do something.
"If you'd like to use the phone, be my guest."

Be that as it may

This expression means that what the speaker says may be true but 
it will not change the situation.
"OK. Fewer people may come because of the bad weather, but be 
that as it may, it's too late to cancel the show."

(Not the) be-all and end-all

To say that something is not the be-all and end-all means that it is
not what matters most.
"Good school results are not the be-all and end-all of educating a child."

Bear the brunt (of something)

A person who bears the brunt of something is the one who suffers
the most when something bad or unpleasant happens.
"When things go wrong, his assistant always has to bear the brunt 
of his anger."

Bear something in mind

If someone asks you to bear something in mind, they are telling 
you to remember it because it is important.
"You must bear in mind that the cost of living is higher in New York."

Like a bear with a sore head

If someone is behaving like a bear with a sore head, they are 
very irritable and bad-tempered.
"When his team lost the match, Brad was like a bear with a sore head."

Beard the lion (or someone) in his den

If you visit someone important in the place where they work, in order to
challenge him/her or obtain something, you beard the lion in his den.
"If he continues to refuse my calls, I'll have to beard him in his den."

Beat one's brains out

If someone beats their brains out, they try very hard to understand
something or solve a problem.
"My grandmother beats her brains out every evening trying to do the
crossword puzzle in the newspaper."

Don't beat around the bush

This expression is used to tell somebody to say what they have 
to say, clearly and directly, even if it's unpleasant.

Beat/flog a dead horse

To say that someone is beating a dead horse means that they
are wasting time and effort trying to do or achieve something that is
not possible.  
"Mark is beating a dead horse trying to get his money reimbursed.  
The company has gone bankrupt!"

Beat/knock the living daylights 
out of someone

If someone beats the daylights out of another, they hit them very 
hard and repeatedly.
"If I catch you stealing again, I'll beat the daylights out of you!"

Beat a (hasty) retreat

Someone who beats a (hasty) retreat runs away or goes back 
hurriedly to avoid a dangerous or difficult situation.
"The thief beat a retreat as soon as he saw the security officer."

Beat someone to the draw

If you beat someone to the draw you react more quickly and 
manage to do something before they do.
"Ross was determined to be the first to arrive and beat the others 
to the draw."

It beats me!

This expression is used to express surprise at something that you find
difficult to understand,
"It beats me how he can live in that horrible apartment!"

At someone's beck and call

If a person is at somebody's beck and call, they are always
ready to do things for them or obey orders to please them.
"Parents should not be at the beck and call of their children."

Have a bee in one's bonnet

A person who has a bee in their bonnet has an idea 
which constantly occupies their thoughts.
"She's got a bee in her bonnet about moving to New York."

The bee's knees

If you say that someone/something is the bee's knees
you think they are exceptionally good.  
If you say "Julie thinks she's the bee's knees", it means that 
Julie has a high opinion of herself!

Beef something up

If you beef something up, you improve it by making it stronger
or more substantial.
"You'd better beef up your arguments if you want to defend your

Been in/through the wars

If a person or thing has been in (or through) the wars, they
show signs of rough treatment, injury or damage.
"He arrived in a car that looked as if it had been in the wars.'

Been there, done that

This expression is used to indicate that the speaker is familiar with 
the situation mentioned. It can also refer to an attitude which reflects
a certain boredom at the idea of repeating an experience that has lost
its novelty.
"His suggestions produced a 'been there, done that' attitude which
undermined his enthusiasm."

Before you know it/
before you know where you are

If something takes place so suddenly that you don't have time to 
become aware of it, it happens before you know it or before 
you know where you are
"The doorbell rang, and before we knew it, a surprise birthday party
was under way!"

Beggars can't be choosers.

This expression means that you should not reject an offer
if it is the only possibility you have.  You have no choice.  
"Beggars can't be choosers"!

Behind closed doors

If something takes place behind closed doors, it is done privately, 
with no observers or intruders.
"The matter was discussed behind closed doors."

Behind the times

A person who is behind the times has old-fashioned ideas and 
does not keep up with modern life in general.
"Jane doesn't have a mobile phone.  She's completely behind the times."

Ring a bell.

If something rings a bell, it is vaguely familiar to you,
but you can't remember the exact details .
"John Bentley?  The name rings a bell but I don't remember him."

With bells on

If you go somewhere with bells on, you are delighted and eager
to go there.
"Of course I'll be there - with bells on!"

Behind bars

Someone who is behind bars is in prison.
"If you hang around with that gang, you'll find yourself behind bars 
in no time."

Behind closed doors

If something takes place behind closed doors, it is done privately, 
with no observers or intruders.
"The matter was discussed behind closed doors."

Behind the times

A person who is behind the times has old-fashioned ideas and 
does not keep up with modern life in general.
"Jane doesn't have a mobile phone.  She's completely behind the times."

Below the belt

An action or remark described as below the belt means that 
it is considered unfair or cruel. 
"Politicians sometimes use personal information to hit their rivals
below the belt.'

Tighten your belt

If you need to tighten your belt, you must spend your money 
"Another bill?  I'll have to tighten my belt this month!"

Bend over backwards

If you bend over backwards,  you try very hard to do something, 
especially to please somebody.
"The manager bent over backwards to try to make Jack stay, 
but Jack wouldn't change his mind."

Bend the truth

If you bend the truth, you say something that is not entirely true.
"OK, I bent the truth a bit; I told him it was my natural colour, 
but I didn't say that my hairdresser helped me to keep it natural!"

The benefit of the doubt

If you give somebody the benefit of the doubt, you choose to 
believe that that person is innocent, honest or telling the truth, 
because there is no evidence to the contrary.
"Although he found it hard to believe Tom's explanation, the teacher 
decided to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Bent out of shape

If you get bent out of shape, you become very annoyed or upset
about something that is usually not that important or cannot be
"Don't get bent out of shape if you're delayed.  We'll wait for you."

Beside yourself (with something)

If you are beside yourself (with an emotion), you lose your 
self-control because of the intensity of the emotion you are feeling.
"He was beside himself with grief when he lost his son."

One's best bet

The action most likely to succeed is called one's best bet.
"Your best bet would be to try calling him at home."

(To the) best of one's ability

When someone does something to the best of their ability,
they do it as well as they possibly can.
"I felt nervous all through the interview, but I replied to the best of 
my ability."

The best of both worlds

If a person has the best of both worlds, they have the benefits and 
advantages of two different things.
"We live in the centre of town, but only 5 minutes from the beach. 
We have the best of both worlds."

Best foot forward

If someone puts their best foot forward, they do something as fast 
as they can. 
"It's a long way to the station, but if I put my best foot forward I 
should catch the next train."

Bet your bottom dollar

If you bet your bottom dollar on something, you are absolutely 
certain of it.
"Jack is very punctual.  You can bet your bottom dollar he'll be here 
at 9 o'clock on the dot."

Bet on the wrong horse

If you back or bet on the wrong horse, for example the loser in a 
contest, match or election, you support the wrong person. 
"When I voted for him, I was convinced he would win, but I backed
the wrong horse!"

Better late than never

When someone does something late, this remark means that it's 
better to do it late than not do it at all.
"Do you know what time it is? You promised you'd come early
to help me - but better late than never I suppose!"

Better safe than sorry

It's better to be too cautious than to be careless and have regrets later.
"Let's book tickets in advance - better safe than sorry!"

Think better of something

If you think better of something, you decide not to do something 
that you intended doing.
"I wanted to go shopping, but when I saw the crowded car park, 
I thought better of it."

Between the devil and the deep 
blue sea

If you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, you are
in a situation where there are two equally unpleasant alternatives.
"When the new product didn't take off, the management was caught
between the devil and the deep blue sea: develop a new marketing 
campaign or drop the product."

It's beyond me

The expression "it's beyond me" means:  "it's impossible for me to 
"It's beyond me why Mary wants to marry John."

Beyond any reasonable doubt

This is a legal expression which means that something is certain.
"The court established, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the man 
was innocent."

Beyond recall

Something which is beyond recall is impossible to retrieve, cancel or
"I'm afraid we can't recover the pictures -your camera is beyond recall."

Beyond redemption 

If something is beyond redemption, it is in such a poor state that
there is no hope of improvement or recovery.
"With the latest scandal, his reputation is now beyond redemption."

Beyond one's wildest dreams

If something is beyond your wildest dreams, it is better than you
imagined or hoped for.
"The research team received a grant from the government that was 
beyond their wildest dreams."

Bide your time

If you bide your time, you wait for a good opportunity to do something.
"He's not hesitating, he's just biding his time.  
He's waiting for the price to drop."

Big cheese

This expression refers to a person who has a lot of power and influence
in an organization.
"Tom's father is a big cheese in the oil industry."

Big fish in a small pond

This term is used to refer to an important or highly-ranked person
in a small group or organization.
"He could get a job with a big company but he enjoys being a big fish
in a small pond."

Big picture

To refer to the big picture means the overall situation, or the project 
as a whole, rather than the details.
"While each aspect is important, try not to forget the big picture.

Clean bill of health

If a person has a clean bill of health, they have a report or certificate 
declaring that their health is satisfactory.
"All candidates for the position must produce a clean bill of health."

Binge drinking

This term refers to heavy drinking where large quantities of alcohol 
are drunk in a short space of time, often among young people in rowdy
"Binge drinking is becoming a major problem in some European

For the birds

If you think something is for the birds, you consider it to be
uninteresting, useless, or not to be taken seriously.
"As far as I'm concerned, his theory is for the birds!"

Kill two birds with one stone.

If you kill two birds with one stone, you succeed in doing
two things at the same time.

Birds of a feather.

To say that two people are birds of a feather means that they
are very similar in many ways.

In/wearing one's birthday suit

This humorous expression means that you are wearing nothing!
"The bathroom door blew open, and there I was in my birthday suit!"

Bite off more than you can chew

If you bite off more than you can chew, you try to do something
that is too difficult for you, or more than you can manage.
"As soon as I started to translate the report, I realized that 
I had bitten off more than I could chew."

Bite the hand that feeds you

If you bite the hand that feeds you, you are unfriendly or do harm
to someone who is kind to you.

Bite someone's head off

If you bite someone's head off, you criticize them strongly
(and perhaps unfairly).
"I worked 10 hours a day all week and my boss bit my head off
for not doing my share of the work!"

Bite your tongue

If you bite your tongue, you try not to say what you really think or
"It was difficult for me not to react; I had to bite my tongue."

Bitten by the bug

If you develop a sudden interest or enthusiasm for something, 
you are bitten by the bug.
"My dad decided to take up golf and was immediately bitten by 
the bug."

Once bitten, twice shy.

This is said by a person who has had an unpleasant experience 
which has made them cautious.
"I'm never going to get married again.  Once bitten, twice shy."

bitter pill to swallow

bitter pill to swallow is something very difficult or unpleasant 
to accept.
"Losing his job after organizing the merger was a bitter pill to swallow."

Black mood

To be in a black mood means to be irritable, angry or even 
Also : to be in a bad mood.

Black tie event

This expression refers to a formal event at which men are required 
to wear a dinner jacket, or tuxedo, and a black bow tie.
"I need to know if it's going to be a casual get-together or a black tie

In black and white

To say that something is in black and white means that there is 
written proof of it.
"It's an obligation.  It's written in black and white in your contract."

In the black

To say that a person or organization is in the black means that 
they are financially sound, have a positive balance on their account,
and that they owe no money.

Black gold

Black gold refers to the black colour and high value of oil.

Black market

The black market refers to the illegal buying and selling 
of goods or currencies.

Black out

If you black out, you lose consciousness.

Black sheep

The black sheep of the family is one who is very different from the 
others, and least respected by the other members of the family,


A discussion among a group of people, who try to determine who or 
what is to blame for a particular mistake, failure or wrongdoing, is 
called 'blamestorming'.
"A blamestorming session took place following the unfavourable 
reviews in the press."

blank cheque

If you give someone a blank cheque, you authorize them to do 
what they think is best in a difficult situation.
"Tom was given a blank cheque and told to negotiate the 
best deal possible."

A wet blanket

To refer to someone as a wet blanket means that they spoil 
other people's fun, 
or make an event less enjoyable that it could have been
"Come on, Mike!   Don't be such a wet blanket. 
You're spoiling the party!"

blessing in disguise

This expression is used to refer to something which is unpleasant at 
first but later turns out to have advantages.
"Missing the plane was a blessing in disguise - that's how he met 
his wife.  She was a hostess on the next flight!"

As blind as a bat

(as) blind as a bat
Someone whose vision is very poor, or who is unable to see anything,
is (as) blind as a bat.
"Without his glasses the old man is as blind as a bat."

(up a) blind alley

If you go up a blind alley, you follow an ineffective course of action
which leads nowhere or produces no results. 
"The revelations promised by the suspect lead the police up a blind alley."

The blind leading the blind

This expression refers to a person with very little ability trying to help
or guide a person with no ability.
"Don't ask Sofia to translate it.  She hardly speaks a word of English 
herself. It would be the blind leading the blind".

Blind you with science

If someone tries to blind you with science, they confuse you with
their knowledge by using difficult or technical words.
"If you ask Tim for a simple explanation, he tries to blind you with 

In the blink of an eye

If something happens in the blink of an eye, it happens nearly
instantaneously, with hardly enough time to notice it.
"The pickpocket disappeared in the blink of an eye."

On the blink

If a machine is on the blink, it is not working properly and needs
servicing or repair.
"What a nuisance! The photocopier is on the blink again."


Something that is outstanding, impressive or particularly successful,
such as a film or a book, is called a blockbuster.
"The TV series was a blockbuster."

Make your blood boil

If something makes your blood boil, it makes you really angry. 
"His condescending attitude made my blood boil!"

Make your blood run cold

If something makes your blood run cold, it shocks or scares
you a lot.
"The look in the prisoner's eyes made my blood run cold."

Blood, sweat and tears

A project or action which involves blood, sweat and tears requires 
a lot of effort and hard work.
"His success wasn't due to luck; it was blood, sweat and tears 
all the way."

Blot one's copy book

Someone who blots their copy-book does something to spoil their
good record or reputation.
"He blotted his copy-book when he was arrested for speeding."

Blow away the cobwebs

If something blows away the cobwebs, it makes you feel
more lively and refreshes your ideas.
"Let's get out of the house. A walk on the beach will blow away
the cobwebs!"

Blow a fuse

If you blow a fuse, you suddenly lose your temper and become 
very angry.
"Charlie blew a fuse yesterday when he discovered that his ipod 
had been stolen."

Blow a gasket

When a furious person blows a gasket, they explode with anger.
"When the shop was burgled for the third time, the owner blew a

Blow hot and cold

If you blow hot and cold about something, you constantly change 
your opinion about it.
"The boss keeps blowing hot and cold about the marketing campaign - 
one day he finds it excellent, the next day he wants to make changes."

Blow out of proportion

If you exaggerate the importance of something, you blow it out of
"The importance of the event was blown out of proportion by the media."

Blow the whistle

If you report an illegal or socially-harmful activity to the authorities,
and give information about those responsible for it, you blow the
or you are a whistle-blower.
"He refused to blow the whistle on his boss for fear of losing his job."

Blow up in someone's face

When working on a plan or project, if it suddenly goes wrong or fails,
it blows up in your face.
"The trip was difficult to organize, but it blew up in his face when the
airline company went on strike."

Blow your top

If you blow  your top, you suddenly become very angry.
"When my mother saw the state of the apartment after the party, she
blew her top!"

Blue around the gills
(also green or pale around the gills)

If a person looks blue around the gills, they look unwell or sick.
"You should sit down.  You look a bit blue around the gills."

Blue chip company

This term refers to a company with a solid reputation for the quality of 
its   products and the stability of its growth and earnings.
"It's usually safe to invest in a blue-chip company.

Blue in the face

If you do something until you're blue in the face, you try 
unsuccessfully to do something for a very long time.
"I explained the situation until I was blue in the face but she wouldn't
change her mind."

Feel blue

To feel blue means to have feelings of deep sadness or depression.

A bolt from the blue

To refer to something as a bolt from the blue means
that it happened completely unexpectedly.
"The chairman's resignation came as a bolt from the blue!"

Blue-eyed boy

blue-eyed boy is somebody's favourite.
"He's the director's blue-eyed boy!"

Out of the blue

If something happens out of the blue, it happens unexpectedly.

Above board

If a situation or business is described as above board, it is open, 
honest and legal.
"There are no secret negotiations.  Our dealings have always been 
above board."


A novel, usually on a historical theme, with a plot that involves 
romantic passion between a vulnerable heroine and a rich, powerful 
male character, is called a bodice-ripper.
"The novel is a bodice-ripper set in the French revolution."

The mind boggles

The expression "the mind boggles" is used as a reaction to 
something you find amazing or difficult to understand.

Bold as brass

Someone who is bold as brass behaves without shame or 
"Bold as brass, he refused the gift and handed it back to 
his mother-in-law."

Bone of contention

A bone of contention is a matter or subject about which there is 
a lot of disagreement.
"The salaries have been agreed on, but opening on Sundays remains 
a bone of contention."

Have a bone to pick with someone

To say that you have a bone to pick with somebody means that 
you are annoyed with them and want to talk to them about it.

Make no bones about something

If you make no bones about something, you do not hesitate to 
express your thoughts or feelings about it, even if it is embarrassing.

In somebody's good/bad books

If you are in somebody's good or bad books, you have their 
approval or disapproval.
"I'm in my wife's bad books at the moment because I forgot our
wedding anniversary!"

Lick someone's boots

To say that one person licks another person's boots means that 
they are trying to please that person, often in order to obtain 

Get too big for your boots (or britches)

To say that a person is getting too big for their boots means that
you think they are behaving as if they were more important that they 
really are.
"Tom's really getting too big for his boots since he got a promotion - 
he hardly says hello any more!"

Born with a silver spoon in 
one's mouth

A person who is born with a silver spoon in their mouth is born
into a very rich family.
"She never has to worry about money; she was born with a silver spoon
in her mouth."

I wasn't born yesterday

This expression is used to indicate that you are not as foolish or as 
easily deceived as some people seem to think. 
"Stop inventing silly excuses.  I wasn't born yesterday you know!"

On the bottle

A person who drinks alcoholic drinks often and regularly is 
on the bottle.
"Joe went on the bottle when he lost his job."

Bottom fell out

When something causes a plan, project or venture to collapse or fail, 
the bottom falls out of it.
"When heavy rain was announced, the bottom fell out of their plans 
for a beach party."

Bow and scrape

To say that someone is bowing and scraping means that they are 
being excessively polite or servile.
"The President was greeted with much bowing and scraping."

Brain drain

The departure of highly qualified people (scientists, engineers, etc.) 
for other countries, where they have better opportunities and usually
better pay, is called the brain drain.

Brain like a sieve

Someone who has a brain like a sieve has a very bad memory and 
forgets things easily.
"Oh, I forgot to buy bread - I've got a brain like a sieve these days!"

Have something on the brain

If you have something on the brain, you think or talk about it 
"Stop talking about golf.  You've got golf on the brain!"

Brains behind something

Someone who is the brains behind a project or action is the person
thought to have planned and organized everything.
"The police have arrested a man believed to be the brains behind the
bank robbery."

Get down to brass tacks

People who get down to brass tacks start to discuss and deal with
the practical details of something
"It was decided to get down to brass tacks and discuss the cost of
the project."

All brawn and no brain

Someone who is physically very strong but not very intelligent is said
to be all brawn and no brain.
He's an impressive player to watch, but he's all brawn and no brain."

Take the bread out of somebody's mouth

If you take the bread out of somebody's mouth, you take away 
their means of earning a living.
"The decision to ban street vendors took the bread out of the mouths 
of many people."

On the breadline

People who live on the breadline have a very low income or barely
enough money to survive.
"Due to the recent crisis, there are more people on the breadline than
ever before."

Break your back

If you work extremely hard, or put a lot of effort into achieving something,
you break your back to do it.
"If you want the job done well, you should accept to pay more. He's not
going to break his back for such a low price!"

Break the back of the beast

If someone breaks the back of the beast, they succeed in overcoming 
a major difficulty.
"After hours of effort, the technicians finally broke the back of the beast
and turned the electricity back on again."

Break fresh ground

If you break fresh ground, you innovate by introducing or developing
a new method or system.
"Scientists have broken fresh ground in their exploration of outer space."

Break a leg!

This is a humorous way of wishing somebody good luck, especially 
among stage performers.
"So tonight's the opening night? Break a leg!"

Break the mould

If you change what people expect from a situation, especially by 
doing something original, you break the mould.
"After generations of doctors in the family, he broke the mould by 
becoming a fashion designer."

Break every rule in the book.

If you behave in a completely unacceptable way, you break every
rule in the book.
"Our competitors obtained the contract by breaking every rule in the 

Break out in a cold sweat

If you break out in a cold sweat, you start to perspire a lot, usually
from anxiety.
"I get nervous at the dentist's and usually break out in a cold sweat."

Breaking and entering

This term refers to the fact of entering a building or home illegally by
breaking open a window, door etc.
"The two men were found guilty of breaking and entering."

Breathe down someone's neck

If somebody is breathing down your neck, they are watching you 
too closely and making you feel uncomfortable.
"The atmosphere at work isn't great; the boss keeps breathing 
down our necks all the time."


To say that something was a breeze means that it was very easy or 
that everything went smoothly.
"The interview was a breeze - barely 10 minutes and I got the job!"

Bricks and mortar/ bricks and clicks

An established trading company (office/shop) is referred to as a
'brick-and-mortar' business. 
'Click companies' refer to Internet-based operations.
Companies which do both are called 'bricks and clicks'. 
"Click businesses are usually more flexible than brick-and-mortar

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

A person who is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is very enthusiastic
and full of energy.

"Gary was fantastic!  He arrived bright-eyed and bush-tailed at 7 am
and worked with us all day."

Bring the house down

If you bring the house down, you give a very successful 
"If he sings like that on Saturday, he'll bring the house down."

Bring nothing to the table

If you participate in negotiations and bring nothing to the table
you have nothing of interest to offer the other side.
"We'll never reach an agreement if we don't all bring something to
the table."

Bring someone to heel

If you force someone to behave in a disciplined manner, you bring
them to heel.
"He had always behaved badly, but the new headmaster managed 
to bring him to heel."

Bring up the rear

Someone who brings up the rear is the last person in a group of
people who are walking or running.
"The pupils walked calmly down the corridor, with the teacher bringing
up the rear."

In broad daylight

If something happens in broad daylight, it takes place in the clear
light of day when everyone can see what's going on.
"His car was stolen in front of the bank in broad daylight and apparently
there was not one witness!"

It's as broad as it's long

This expression means that it makes no real difference which 
alternative is chosen.
"Take the high-speed train or fly and take a taxi? 
It's as broad as it's long."

Broad strokes

If something is described or defined with/in broad stokes, it is
outlined in a very general way, without any details.
"In a few broad strokes he summed up the situation."

Brown as a berry

To say that someone is brown as a berry means that they are 
very tanned.


To be browned off means to be bored, fed up or disheartened.
"Tom is browned off with his job."

Have a brush with

When you have a brush with something, such as the law , you
encounter or experience it briefly.
"He had a brush with the law for speeding several years ago but 
has had a clean record ever since."

The bubble has burst

To say that the bubble has burst means that the success of an
idea, a product or a situation has suddenly stopped.
"The video game was a phenomenal success but the bubble 
has burst."

Pass the buck

If you say that someone is passing the buck, you are accusing 
them of not taking responsibility for a problem and expecting 
someone else to handle it.

Kick the bucket.

To kick the bucket is a light-hearted way of talking about death.
"He will inherit when his grandfather kicks the bucket."

Buckle down

If you buckle down, you apply yourself with determination to hard 
work and give it your full attention.
"If you want to pass your exams, you'll have buckle down and do 
some serious work."

To nip something in the bud

If you nip a problem or a bad situation in the bud, you stop it 
at an early stage, before it becomes worse.
"He wanted to be a clown, but his parents soon nipped that idea 
in the bud."

Build bridges

If a person builds bridges between opposing groups, they help 
them to cooperate and understand each other better.

Take the bull by the horns

To take the bull by the horns means that a person decides to 
act decisively in order to deal with a difficult situation or problem.
"After a number of children were hurt in the school playground, 
Sally took the bull by the horns and called the headmaster."

Bulldoze somebody (into doing

A person who is bulldozed into doing something is forced to 
do it, especially by being bullied or intimidated.
"The immigrants were bulldozed into accepting the work"

Bundle of nerves

If you describe somebody as a bundle of nerves, you mean that 
they are very nervous, tense or worried.
"My son is doing his driving test today. Needless to say he's a bundle
of nerves!"

Burden of proof

The burden of proof is the necessity imposed by law to prove that
what one says is true.
"The burden of proof lies with the claimant."

Burn your bridges

If you burn your bridges, you do something that will be impossible
to rectify in the future.
"If you refuse the offer, be careful not to burn your bridges by insulting
them.  They make make a better proposal later."

Burn the candle at both ends

If you burn the candle at both ends, you exhaust yourself by doing
too much, especially going to bed late and getting up early.
"Scott looks exhausted - I'll bet he's been burning the candle at both
ends lately."

Burn your fingers

If you burn your fingers (or get your fingers burnt), you suffer 
financially as a result of foolish behaviour.
"Jack got his fingers burnt playing on the stock market."

On the back burner

on the back burner
If you put a project or issue on the back burner, you decide to deal 
with it at a later date because you do not consider it to be that urgent 
or important.
"When Julie was offered a promotion, she put her MBA plans on the 
back burner."

Burning question

What everyone is asking and what we all want to know about is 
called the burning question.
"Who leaked the information? That's the burning question."

Don't beat around the bush

This expression is used to tell somebody to say what they have 
to say, clearly and directly, even if it's unpleasant.
"Don't beat around the bush. Just tell me what he said!"

Business as usual

After an unpleasant or unexpected event, this expression means 
that everything is continuing in a normal way in spite of the difficulties. 
"It was business as usual at the supermarket the day after the 

Business before pleasure

This expression means that it is considered preferable to finish 
one's work before going to relax and enjoy oneself.
"I'd love to have lunch with you but I've got a report to finish - 
business before pleasure I'm afraid!"

Business is business

This is a way of saying that in financial and commercial matters,
friendship or personal feelings should not be allowed to have any
"I'll hire your brother only if he is the best candidate.  I'm sorry 
but business is business!"

Busman's holiday

busman's holiday is when you spend your spare time or your
holidays doing the same sort of activity as you do in your job.
"My husband's a chef, so for him time off with the family is often
a busman's holiday!"

Butter someone up

When butter someone up, you flatter them or you are very nice 
to them, especially if you want to obtain something. 
"He was so keen to get the job that he spent his time buttering up 
the boss."

Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth

If you say that somebody looks as if butter wouldn't melt in 
their mouth, you are saying that they look completely innocent, 
but that they are capable of doing unpleasant things.






Last Updated on Monday, 16 April 2012 06:17