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.
Kevin: “I just heard that there’s a problem with the company’s computers and we won’t be paid until next week!”
Steve: “Oh no! I won’t be able to pay my rent on time! What am I going to do?”
Kevin: “Haha I’m just pulling your leg! The computers are working fine. You’ve been paid already.”
There are hundreds of common English idioms in the English language which we use every day. In fact, most English people do not even realise 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.
Below you will find 5 popular English idioms 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 these English idioms in sentences when you are speaking English with your friends or in your classes – I’m sure you will impress people!
To be in a very difficult situation and to have to make a hard decision between two things that are equally unpleasant.
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!”
Paul: “Jack I need your help. Susie 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 Susie – what should I do?”
Jack: “Wow Paul, I don’t know what to say. You’re really caught between a rock and a hard place!”
A person cannot change who they are (their character), no matter how hard they try.
This idiom comes from the Old Testament (Jer. 13:23). The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah tries to persuade an evil shepherdess to become good but when he realises 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.
Jane: “I’m going to book a table in a Chinese restaurant tonight for me and Peter. He’s never had Chinese before!”
Sue: “Oh Jane, a leopard can’t change its spots. Peter has never eaten Chinese food before and he’s not going to start now!”
To reveal a secret or a surprise, usually by accident.
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.”
To be in a bad mood – to be grumpy or unpleasant from the moment you wake up for no obvious reason.
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!”
If something is not your cup of tea, you do not like it or you are not interested in it.
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.”
Peter: “Did you listen to the CD I gave you?”
Kevin: “Yes, I listened to it twice but it’s not really 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!”
You can also use the opposite:
“I really like Van Gogh’s paintings. They’re just my cup of tea.”
I hope you enjoyed reading about these popular English idioms!
Have fun with English
Can you complete these sentences with the English idioms above? Try to complete it without looking first!
- “I don’t know why I’m in such a bad mood today. I must have ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___.”
- “I’m caught _____ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___. If I stay in this job I will be really unhappy but if I quit my job I might not find a new one for months. I don’t know what to do.”
- “I can’t believe you ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___. You really ruined the surprise!”
- “Some people love listening to classical music but it’s not my _____ _____ _____.”
- “I tried to convince John to buy a blue shirt but ___ _____ ___ _____ ___ _____. He only ever wears white shirts!”
Answers from the sports vocabulary quiz.
- To play badminton you need to hit a shuttlecock over a high net using a racket.
- In hockey, you need to strike a puck with a hockey stick.
- In football, you have to use your feet to kick the ball. However, one man is allowed to touch the ball with his hands. He is called the goalie.
- A referee can stop a boxing match.
- After only 3 rounds, David Hayne was declared the winner of the boxing match.
- In table tennis, a net separates the two sides of the table.
- Wow, that player scored 100 runs in the cricket match yesterday.