Nathaniel Hawthorne
Useful Idioms: Aesop's Fables: The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
"Wolf in sheep's clothing" is someone dangerous posing as harmless

Useful Idioms


Figurative phrases or popular expressions that children and English language learners come across can be confusing because their meaning is different from each of their individual words. We offer a collection of useful idioms, explanations of their meaning, and links to relevant stories that provide context.

Beginner English learners may enjoy Pre-K Wordplay! for phonics practice, very short stories and idiom phrases in Aesop's Fables, and our collection of Short Stories for Children. Phrases are offered alphabetically below; use your control-F key function to search for specific idiom phrases.

Are you a teacher? We offer Teacher Resources across all grade-levels


10-4

A CB or ham radio expression meaning "OK"

800 pound gorilla

Something big or obvious that people may be missing or ignore

A barking dog never bites

An expression meaning making threats but never carrying them out

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

Something of some value that's already acquired. It's better to have a lesser but certain advantage than the possibility of a greater one that may come to nothing.

A chicken and egg situation

An expression meaning it's not clear which event preceded the other

Achilles heel

A weakness or vulnerability, something or someone that causes pain and won't go away

Acting like a chicken with its head cut-off

Panicking and just running or doing without thinking (the result might not change anything anyway)

Acting like an angel

Being very good

A dog and pony show

Organizing an event or show to impress others or explain the value of something

A "draw"

A tie or even match, no definite winner

A good egg

A good quality or individual

A hard egg to crack

A difficult situation to resolve

All eyes (or ears) are on you

An expression meaning you are paying attention completely

A man is known by the company he keeps.

People often judge you by your friends or the people you associate yourself with. Choose good friends, it affects how other people think of you. Story link: The Ass and His Purchaser

A nod and a wink, or a nod is as good as a wink

Only a slight sign in needed to clearly understand something

All thumbs

Not able to use your hands properly, fumbling

Ants in your pants

An expression meaning someone is unable to hold still or very anxious or uncomfortable

Apple doesn't fall far from the tree

An expression usually referring to a child who exhibits the same behavior as their parent

A quack

A reference to a doctor who does more harm than good or is not qualified to deliver medical care. Story link: The Quack Toad

As fate would have it

An expression meaning things turned out the way they were meant to be

A sly dog

Someone who used devious, dishonest or misleading means to ensure a favorable outcome

As mad as a hatter

A long time ago, people who made hats used a substance that gave them an illness which made people think they were crazy. Book link: Alice in Wonderland

At the blink of an eye

An expression meaning a very short period of time (as long as it takes to blink?)

Back seat driver

Trying to take control of a situation from a remote or unreachable location (literally trying to drive from the back seat)

Back-talk

To inappropriately reply to someone else (usually an authority-figure) in a disrespectful way

Bad apple

Someone who is mean or is likely to spoil other's fun

Bad faith

Lying to oneself or failing to acknowledge one's own ability to act and determine one's possibilities

Bad to the bone

Describing someone who is REALLY bad

Bail you out

This expression means to help someone or get them out of trouble

Balanced meal

Eating a nutritionally varied meal including protein, carbohydrates, fats, and sugars

Bare-faced or bald-faced lie

An obvious lie

Bare minimum

An expression meaning to do the minimum required to pass, see also "skating by"

Baring (or bearing) your soul

Meaning to show your vulnerability or emotions to another

Bark is worse than bite

An expression meaning someone's threat or danger is overstated

Beat around the bush

Tell it like it is, be direct or say what you mean

Beat of a different drummer

An expression meaning someone who may not follow conventions, takes action without peer pressure

Beat you with the ugly stick

An expression meaning someone is ugly

Beg-off

An expression to decline from participating, usually at the last minute and after commiting to do it

Be careful what you wish for

An expression which means to really think through the implications of what you think you want first. Story link: The Monkey's Paw

Be happy with your lot in life

Appreciate your circumstances and enjoy them. Story link: The Fox and the Crab

Be the toast of the town

An expression meaning you are liked, well-regarded or admired

Better safe than sorry

Don't take a chance doing something that's risky, stick with the sure thing

Between a rock and a hard place

An expression meaning to have no choice of ability to change course.

Bite the bullet

Accept something difficult and live with it

Blind as a bat

An expression meaning not being able to see very well (bats use echolocation, rather than sight)

Blind date

Going out with someone whom you have never met, usually arranged by a mutual friend

Blowing a lot of hot air

Talking excessively without really saying anything important

Bob's your uncle

It means "it's not what you know, but who you know" referring to unearned favoritism, named after the British Prime Minister Robert "Bob" Cecil who appointed his undeserving nephew as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887. It's evolved to also mean "and there you have it" used after someone concludes a set of simple instructions. Example: "Right over left, left over right, and Bob's your uncle, a knot."

Bone chilling

Cold or scary

Bottom's up

An expression meaning to drink your beer or other beverage until it's empty. Poem link: Lines on Ale

Break a leg

Do well at a performance or on stage

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

An expression meaning alert and ready to go! Story link: The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Brown-nose, ass-kisser, kiss-ass

Someone who acts or does things solely for the praise or recognition of someone else

Bull in a china shop

An expression meaning to be too big, rough, or brawny for a delicate situation where everything might break

Burning a candle from both ends

Working so hard that you will wear yourself out or extinguish your energy. Poem link: First Fig

Busy as a beaver, or busy as a bee

Hardworking, industrious

Butter someone up

Get one someone's good side so they'll do what you want them to do

By hook or by crook

An expression meaning getting something done by any possible means, literary reference to Captain Hook. Book link: Peter Pan

Call off the dogs

An expression meaning to stop attacking or criticizing someone

Carrot or the stick

Provide an incentive, rather than a punishment to get people to do what you want

Catching some "z's"

I'm going to get some sleep

Catch the eye of someone

An expression meaning to get someone's attention by making eye contact at the same time

Cat's got your tongue?

An expression asking why you are being unusually quiet

C'est la vie

A French phrase often used in English meaning "That's life"

Change your tune, or sing a different tune

An expression meaning to have a change of heart or opinion about something

Cheap-skate

Someone who goes out of their way to avoid spending money

Claim-jumper

Someone who has illegally seized or stolen property or the rights of another

Clock is ticking

An expression meaning time is running out, commonly used to refer to a woman getting older who may want to have a baby

Clowning around

Acting silly

Cold shoulder

An expression meaning to conspicuously turn away or ignore someone

Come clean

Expression means to confess one's actions, reveal the truth

Come hell or high water

An expression meaning determined: you'll do something no matter what

Come out of your shell

When someone is comfortable acting as themselves instead of being guarded

Cop-out

An excuse, rather than taking full responsibility

Couch potato

An expression meaning someone is very lazy or sedentary, they could lay on the couch all day without moving

Cross my heart and hope to die

An expression meaning to promise

Cutting off your nose to spite your face

Needless and destructive over-reaction to a problem

Day dreaming

Drifting off in your thoughts to think about other pleasant things instead of concentrating on the subject at hand

Dead-eye

Super accurate

Dead meat

An expression meaning to be in trouble or likely to be harmed

Deal with the hand (or cards) you were dealt

Accept your circumstances

Death's door

An expression meaning to look so bad, like you may be close to death

Deer in the headlights

Standing still in a panic or paralyzed with fear

Devil makes work for idle hands

An expression, usually used to remind children to remain busy, so they don't have time to create mischief (or commit crimes)

Devil's advocate

An expression meaning to pursue a line of questioning which questions or opposes whatever position is being expressed

Devil's in the details

An expression meaning the hard part is sorting out all the details, after a major agreement has been reached

Dime a dozen

Something is cheap or inexpensive or easy to acquire

Dip-shit

A derogatory phrase meaning someone isn't very smart or is stupid

Doesn't know shit from shinola

An expression meaning clueless, referring to a brand of shoe polish in the USA, only one of these two things would be good to apply to your shoes, so if you don't know the difference, you are clueless

Dog-ear

To fold down a corner of a page to mark a place in a book, or something from paper with corners worn with use

Dog eat dog

An expression meaning a very competitive situation in which people can be cruel and relentless. Book link: The Call of the Wild

Dog with a bone

An expression describing someone who won't give up or stop talking about something, wants more. Story link, related to being greedy and losing what you have: The Dog and His Reflection

Don't be like the grasshopper!

An expression meaning that if you play all the time, instead of working, you might be sorry (and hungry) when times get tough. Story link: The Ant and the Grasshopper

Don't bite off more than you can chew

Do not promise more than you can deliver or try to take too much. Story link: The Goatherd and the Goat

Don't count your eggs until they've hatched

An expression meaning don't act on the promise or potential of something, wait until you know something is certain

Don't cry over spilled milk

An expression meaning to move on, stop focusing on whatever bad happened. Story link: The Bat, The Bramble, and the Seagull

Don't fix what ain't broke

Don't worry about something if it works, meddling can cause more problems

Don't let the fox guard the henhouse

Don't assign the duty of protecting or controlling valuable information or resources to someone who is likely to exploit that opportunity.

Don't lose the forest for the trees

An expression meaning to not get so engrossed in details that you lose sight of the big picture. Story link: The Ass and Its Shadow

Don't put all your eggs in one basket

Don't rely on just one source or action, spread your resources around in case you lose that one "basket"

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water!

Don't forget to keep what's valuable, only throw out the bad stuff

Down in the dumps

Depressed or upset about something that results in being "down"

Down that rabbit hole

An expression meaning to get distracted or caught up in something confusing that you may not be able to get yourself out of, a literary reference when Alice fell down a hole into a surreal world she couldn't understand. Book link: The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

Down the road, in the long run

An expression means "in the future"

Drama queen

Someone who over-reacts or acts just to get attention from others

Draw the last straw

Someone who is chosen last or goes last

Early bird gets the worm

You will be rewarded for acting early

Ears are burning

What you say to someone who walks into the room after you've just been talking about them

Ear-shot

An expression meaning within range of someone being able to overhear a conversation

Easy come, easy go

An expression meaning to not get upset and just go along with whatever happens

Eating crow

Humbly accepting a mistake or error by making an apology

Eeny meeny miny moe

An expression referring to a childhood counting game to determine who is "it" and "not it." Poem link: Eeny Meeny Miny Moe

Egg on your face

An expression meaning embarrassment for being caught making a mistake

Egg someone on (stop egging me on!)

An expression meaning to taunt someone to keep doing something or provoke someone to action

Everything's better with bacon

An expression you should know because it's true!

Evil-eye

A superstitious belief that a look or stare from someone could cause material harm. Story link: The Tell-Tale Heart

Eye candy

An expression meaning someone is very attractive and pleasant to look at

Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth

Pay back someone with a punishment which is equivalent to the original offense. Book link: The Bible, Exodus 21:23-25

Eyes are bigger than your stomach

Ordering more food than you can actually eat

Face-value

Take something for what it actually is, not a literal or exaggerated meaning

Fall off the turnip truck

An expression meaning to be gullible or tricked easily. Example: "I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know!" Story link: The Turnip

False bill of goods or selling a bill of goods

Making a claim or promise that does not live up to expectations or reality

Feed the fire (or stoke the fire)

Continue to act or provide reason for someone else to remain excited or upset

Feel it in your bones

An expression meaning you know something intuitively to be true

Fence-mender

Someone who helps resolve conflicts among others. Poem link: Mending Wall

Fifth wheel

An extra person that either doesn't help or detracts from the group of four

Fired-up

Excited

Fire in the belly

An expression or compliment meaning passion or determination

Fish out of water

An expression meaning something is unnatural or uncomfortable

Fit as a fiddle

An expression meaning to feel great!

Fit to be tied

An expression meaning very upset

Flash in the pan

An expression meaning something won't last or is a temporary sensation, also known as "one hit wonder"

Flying by the seat of your pants

An expression meaning to proceed without preparation or a plan

Follow in your footsteps

Doing something or acting like someone before you

Follow suit

An expression related to playing cards, in which you follow along or do what is required because those are the rules or that's what's expected

Fox in a hen house

Someone or a circumstance which clearly takes advantage of those who are helpless and indefensible

Free-loader

Taking advantage of other's generosity without giving anything in return

Full steam (or speed) ahead

An expression meaning to be on course or proceed as planned at an optimum pace

Get on the stick

An expression meaning to get motivated or begin something

Get the boot

An expression meaning to get kicked out of kicked off by someone in a position of authority

Get the monkey off my back

Resolve a problem that's been bothering you

Get the show on the road

An expression meaning to get started

Get the wheels in motion

Start something

Go fry an egg

Go away and stop bothering me

Going against the grain

Doing or thinking something that is different than what most people are doing (or thinking)

Gold-digger

Someone who covets other people's money, and seeks companions who may spend it for their benefit

Go stag

Going to a dance or event without a partner, when bringing a date might be expected

Goody two shoes

An expression (usually derogatory) describing someone who always does what is right, never gets in to trouble. May have come from a nursery rhyme about an orphan girl with only one shoe. Story link: Goody Two Shoes

Got cold feet

An expression meaning to change one's mind and not proceed with a prior commitment

Got gumption or got grit

A compliment meaning someone is spirted, resourceful, and takes initiative without being afraid

Green thumb

An expression meaning someone who is good at growing plants

Green with envy

An expression meaning you like something so much and wish it was yours

Hail mary

A football and a religious term, whereby someone throws a long pass or tries for something that's a long shot on the chance it may just be successful

Hair of the dog that bit you

An expression meaning go back for a little bit more of what just got you sick (like drinking alcohol to treat a hang-over)

Half in the bag

An expression meaning someone is drunk

Hands-down

An expression meaning it's settled or decided, or a clear outcome

Hang-dog look

Having a self-pitying expression, experiencing defeat or guilt

Hang out to dry

An expression meaning leaving someone vulnerable, without protection. Example: "You just hung him out to dry by not warning him his ex-girlfriend was right around the corner with a new guy."

Hang-over

Being sick from drinking or consuming too much. Example: "She has a hang-over this morning after drinking too much beer last night."

Happy as a pig in shit

An expression of extreme happiness

Happy camper

Someone who is happy with their situation

Happy go lucky

Someone who is not worried in the least about any problems

Have a firm foundation

Be competent or have a solid position upon which to build on

Having a "come to Jesus"

An expression meaning to reveal or express one's true feelings or actions to another in order to understand the truth

Head over heals

An expression meaning being in love

Heads-up!

Literally, look up and get out of the way because something is about to hit you

Heart in hand

Someone who has all their emotions or feelings exposed and vulnerable

Heart on your sleeve

Overly sensitive and easy subject to hurt by little things

heart strings or pulling on your heart strings

An expression meaning to appeal to someone's emotional response or warm sentiment

Heaven help us

A spiritual reference meaning you can't do anything else except rely on faith or fate or God or angels in heaven to save you

Hell in a handbasket

An expression meaning that things just keep getting worse

Hello, sugar pie! sweetie pie, or sweet pea!

A term of endearment or affection

Hen-pecking

An expression meaning to harrass someone for little problems, rather than focus on the big-picture

Here's mud in your eye!

An expression or toast with glasses raised, then everyone drinks their beverage

Here's to your health!

An expression or toast with glasses raised, then everyone drinks their beverage

He's got guts

Courage

High on your horse, or acting high and mighty

An expression that means acting smitten, or bigger and more important than you really have a right to be

Highway robbery

Someone is exploiting customers by charging more than something's worth or not delivering services as promised

Hindsight is 20/20

It's easy to see what action should have been taken after the fact

Hit the nail on the head

An expression meaning that's exactly right!

Hogan's goat

Something that is so messed up that it is faulty, not understandable, or stinks like a goat. Named after a European goat farmer, Hoek Hogan, who raised a particularly smelly and ugly goat

Hold your horses, hold the phone

An expression meaning to wait

Hold your tongue! bite your tongue, or watch your mouth

An expression meaning don't speak or stop talking!

Holier than thou

Acting like you are better than someone else

Holy cow!

An expression meaning surprise, similar to "Wow!"

Honesty is the best policy

Always "come clean" (another idiom!). Story link: Mercury and the Woodman

Horsing around or rough-housing

An expression meaning playing out of control or in a rough manner

Hot-diggity!

An express meaning "that's great!"

Hot off the press!

An expression meaning that something is new or ready to enjoy reading

Hot potato

Something that's too difficult to handle or you want to get rid of it

I can read you like a book

An expression meaning your actions reveal your intentions very clearly (opposite of "poker-face")

If the shoe fits, wear it

An expression that means if something suits you, do it

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

Change your position or do something because it's the popular thing to do

I got your back

An expression meaning you are watching out for the well-being of someone else so no harm comes to them

I have my hands full

An expression meaning I have enough to do that I can't assume another commitment

I'll clock you! or knock your block off!

I'll beat you up or hit you

I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down!

An expression which means to threaten someone, a quote yelled by the Wolf. Story link: The Three Little Pigs

I'm dying to try it!

An expression meaning you really want it

I'm in the dog house

An expression meaning you are in trouble

I'm on the fence

An expression meaning you can't decide between two choices

I'm stuffed!

An expression usually after a big meal, meaning full or satisfied

I'm toast!

An expression meaning bad things are going to happen

In a fishbowl

Being observed closely by others, usually remotely

In a nut shell

An expression meaning all inclusive, or a brief summary of a topic

In a pinch

Use what you have available to solve a problem, even if it's not perfect. Story link: The Crow and the Pitcher

In hot water

In trouble

In someone else's shoes

An expression meaning to understand someone else's perspective

It's a dog's life

Something that you say which means that life is hard and unpleasant

It's not over until the fat lady sings

Something you say when someone's losing, but there might be a chance they'll win in the end

It's not rocket science

Something that anyone can understand (without needing to be a rocket scientist)

I wish I were a fly on the wall

An expression meaning you wish you'd witnessed or been present for something you didn't see directly

Jacked-up

Super excited

Jack of all trades

An expression meaning someone can do just about any task themselves

Jinx someone

Casting a "spell" or causing bad luck to someone or something by stating an obvious truth. Example: "You're going to jinx her if you say she'll forget her lines during the play."

Keep on trucking

An expression meaning to persevere or continue through possibly hard times

Keep your eye on the prize

An expression meaning to stay focused on your goal or objective, without distraction

Keep your eyes peeled

An expression meaning "watch out!" or observe the situation carefully

Kiss my ass

An expression meaning that you don't care what someone thinks about what you said or did

Knickers in a twist

An expression meaning to get upset

Knocking on heaven's door

The lyrics from a popular song by Bob Dylan, it means means tempting fate or close to death

Knock on wood

A superstition after saying something you hope remains true

Lame duck

Someone who no longer has power at the end of their term, usually when a successor is named, or someone who needs help

Last straw (or straw that broke the camel's back)

It's the last time something will occur before triggering a reaction, or it could be the last attempt before quitting

Lead foot

Someone who drives too fast

Learn something by heart

An expression meaning to commit something to memory. An example of something people have learned "by heart" is this simple nursery rhyme: Roses are Red

Let bygones be bygones

An expression to accept and let go of the past, move on

Let it blow-over

An expression meaning to wait for someone to calm down or get over something

Let sleeping dogs lie

Meaning to leave something alone

Let the chips fall where they may

An expression meaning to just accept what's going to happen

Lick your wounds

An expression meaning to recover from some injury or painful situation

Like a bat out of hell

Someone who is in such a hurry or moving extremely fast

Like an albatross around my neck

A burden you can't get rid of or a punishment that won't stop. Poem link: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Like a red-headed stepchild

An expression meaning someone who's not like the others or who doesn't fit in

Like clock work

Something or someone who is very predictable or punctual

Like mixing oil and water

An expression meaning two things that aren't meant to go together

Listen to that baby purr

Commonly used to refer to a properly running engine, computer or other machine

Loaded for bear

Someone who is ready for any surprise or anything that comes their way

Loose lips sink ships

An expression referring to people sharing secret information that ruins everything

Loosey-Goosey

An expression meaning not defined clearly. Story link: Goosey Goosey Gander

Love is blind

An expression meaning to always see the best in people we love, overlook their faults and imperfections. Story link: Jupiter and the Monkey

Lucky devil

Someone with supernaturally good luck

Lucky dog

An expression meaning to be happy

Luke-warm

An expression meaning you aren't sure about something or are non-commital

Met your match

An expression meaning someone who is even in skill or ability, or is a challenger

Monday morning quarterback

Everything is clear after everything is said and done

Mother's love is blind, beauty is in the eye of the beholder

When you love someone, you look past any physical or behavioral defects, they are perfect!

My hands are tied!

An expression meaning there's nothing you can do to change the situation

Nailed to the wall

An expression meaning you have no choice or can't move or change your position

Nest egg

Financial savings or something set aside for the future

Never cry wolf

An expression meaning not to repeatedly tell a lie, because people won't believe you when you actually need help. Story link: The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf

Nip and tuck

Closely contested, hard to tell the winner (or a cosmetic procedure to reduce wrinkles or fat!)

No bones about it

That's the way it is

No pain, no gain

Benjamin Franklin's expression meaning that it takes effort to make progress. Quote link: Poor Richard's Almanack

No rhyme or reason

It doesn't make sense why something is so

No such thing as a free lunch

When someone pays for your lunch or gives you something for free, there is generally an expectations that you have to "pay them back" one way or another

Not having a full-deck or playing without a full deck

An expression meaning someone is crazy or doesn't have common sense

Not in Kansas anymore, Toto

A foreign or different experience, there's "no place like home." Dorothy says this when she arrives in the Land of Oz. Book link: The Wizard of Oz

Not so fast!

An expression you'd say to someone before they leave if they've forgotten something

Not the sharpest knife in the drawer

An insult meaning someone isn't very smart or clever

Odd man out

One extra person or someone who doesn't fit in with the group

On auto-pilot

Something is automatic and doesn't require effort or skill

On a wing and a prayer

Taking a chance and having faith in order to get something difficult accomplished

On a wing and a prayer

Try to do something and hope you succeed

One bad apple spoils the barrel

Sometimes it just takes one small thing to wreck everything

On the same wavelength

Understand one another

On thin ice

An expression meaning to be at risk of getting in trouble if current actions continue

On your case (get off my case)

Means to remind or nag someone to do something (or stop bothering me)

Open sesame

The secret phrase to open up an opportunity, door, or fortune! Story link: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves

Open up a can of worms

Actions or information which introduces a lot of complicated or new information that makes things harder

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

An expression meaning going from bad to worse. Story link: The Stag and the Lion

Over the moon

An expression meaning really happy

Over your head

An expression meaning something you might not be able to understand

Pace yourself

Do not attempt too much at once. Story link: The Boy and the Filberts

Page from your own book

Doing something that would be typical based on your past behavior or accomplishments

Panic button

An expression referring to someone all of a sudden getting upset without thinking

Passed muster

An expression meaning adequate or satisfactory

Payback is a bitch!

If you do something bad to someone, they may try to seek revenge on you, kind of like bad karma

Pea under the mattress

An expression meaning so sensitive, someone couldn't sleep well or tolerate any discomfort. Story link: The Princess and the Pea

Peeping tom

Someone who stares or spies on someone covertly

Peer pressure

An expression meaning to fit in by following along with the same behavior or attitude because your friends or people your same age are doing it

Penny wise, pound foolish

Spend less money now, but waste more in the long run by not spending more to begin with. Quotes link: Poor Richard's Almanack

Pet peeve

A small thing that really bothers someone each time it occurs. Example: "My pet peeve is when people don't clean up after their dogs."

Pig-out

An expression meaning to eat or consume too much or well beyond a "normal" helping

Pig pen

Used to describe a huge mess or living in messy conditions. Story link: The Pig Brother

Pins and needles

An expression meaning to be nervous

Pint-sized

Small

Piss and moan

Complaining for no reason or without effect

Play it by ear

An expression meaning to improve or make it up as you go along, a reference to someone with musical abilities

Poker face

An expression meaning keeping an expression on one's face that doesn't reveal your playing cards or your intentions

Poor devil

Someone with very bad luck

Practice what you preach

Your actions speak louder than words, do what you say

Preaching to the choir

Stating your case to someone who already agrees with you

Pressing someone's buttons

Knowing just the right thing to say or do to get someone upset

Pulling my chain

Doing something to aggravate or annoy someone

Pulling eye teeth

An expression meaning something that's very painful or difficult

Pulling strings

Using influence or connections to get what you want

Putting the cart before the horse

An expression meaning to jump ahead, to do one thing before taking care of what should be done first

Quid pro quo

An exchange of gifts or services, you do something for me, I'll do something for you

Rain on your parade

An expression meaning to dampen someone's mood or bring up something sad or upsetting

Raising cain

Means to be upset or be a trouble-maker. From The Bible: Cain was the first son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother, Abel

Razor's edge

An expression meaning a risky or complicated move that could land you in trouble

Reached the boiling point or boiled over

Get very upset

Reap what you sow

You control the outcome based on your actions, this originated as a farming term that you harvest whatever you planted

Right hand man

Someone who is an assistant, helpful, or a partner who knows what to do without needing to be told

Rob Peter to pay Paul

Biblical reference, taking something from someone to give to another, without any real gain. From The Bible

Roller coaster ride

An expression meaning traveling up and down, scary or unpredictable situation

Roll with the punches

Go along with whatever happens, good or bad

Rude shocks await those who take credit from others

Don't take credit for someone else's work. Story link: The Ass Carrying the Image

Running against the clock

An expression meaning to run out of time or struggling to get something done in the shortest period of time possible

Running against the grain

An expression meaning to do something differently than others, or that may cause discomfort

Runt of the litter

The smallest or most vulnerable, often the expression is used to describe a smaller sibling who needs extra help

Saving something for a rainy day

Saving something for a later time when you might need it

Scramble or hustle

A verb meaning to be in a hurry. Example: "I have to scramble or I'll never make the meeting on time."

Second-hand information

Not from the direct source

See you later alligator, in a while crocodile

A popular children's rhyme expression meaning "Goodbye"

Self-fulfilling prophecy

You do exactly what will get you into the position you are trying to avoid. Story link: An Uncomfortable Bed

Self-help is the best help (God helps those who help themselves)

Rather than relying on others for assistance or guidance, do it yourself. Quote link: Poor Richard's Almanack and The Lark and Her Young Ones

Shell-shocked

Someone is too overwhelmed to act or move (like if you survived a bomb shell)

She's a pistol!

Someone who has the energy, guts, or drive to continue without stopping or giving up

She's got a bun in the oven

An expression observing that a woman is pregnant

Shit or get off the pot

Take action, rather than remaining still

Shooting a fish in a barrel

Something that's very difficult to do

Shoot yourself in the foot

Doing something destructive to yourself

Sick as a dog, dog tired

Really sick (or tired)

Sight for sore eyes

An expression meaning something or someone you missed after they return, and you are happy to see

Silver-tongued

Someone who speaks eloquently or in a pleasant way to get someone to do what they want

Sing your praises

Compliment someone

Sink or swim

When thrown into an unknown situation, you have to figure out how to survive on your own

Sink your sails

An expression meaning to put your napkin in your lap, perhaps originating in Australia

Skating by

An expression meaning to do the bare minimum, rather than exerting full effort

Sleeps with the fishes

An old Italian expression meaning dead

Slip of the tongue

An expression meaning to say something you shouldn't have said

Slow and steady wins the race

Don't give up, keep trying even if it takes you longer than others who might finish sooner. Story link: The Tortoise and the Hare

Small potatoes

A food reference meaning insignificant or easy

Snap out of it!

An expression meaning to stop obsessing about something and move on

Snotty or stuck-up

Describing someone who acts more important or thinks they are better than others

So hungry I could eat a horse

An expression meaning very hungry

Someone's anchor

A compliment meaning the person keeps you steady or helps you avoid drifting or getting off-track, a boat reference

Something is in the bag

Expression meaning a sure thing

Song and dance

Say things or show something to impress others, often to try to avoid confronting what really happened or to make it sound better than it really is

Sour grapes

Demeaning or insulting something when you realize you can't do it or it's too difficult. Story link: The Fox and the Grapes

Spaz (short for spastic)

A expression for someone who is hyperactive or "spastical" exuding more energy than is appropriate for a situation

Speak of the devil

An expression meaning that the person about whom you were just speaking arrives or makes their presence known

Speak softly and carry a big stick

Use non-aggressive or cautious actions, but make sure people know there's a threat of violence or punishment if they don't go along. The phrase was made famous by President Theordore Roosevelt

Spick and span

Clean, tidy or orderly

Spit and polish

Clean something with effort

Sqeaky wheel gets the grease

Complain loud or frequent enough to be a pain, you'll get it fixed

Square peg in a round hole

Something that doesn't fit

Stage fright

Someone who is nervous performing for others

Star-crossed lovers

An expression referring to a couple so in-love, they can't take their eyes from eachother or be apart. Story link: The Star Lovers

Staying on track

An expression meaning to remain focuses on pursuing your goal, without distraction. Poem link: The Railway Train

Stick in the mud

An expression referring to someone who is boring or not interesting, literally behaving like a stick "stuck" in mud

Stone fox

An expression meaning a very attractive or sexy woman

Stop clowning around

Stop messing around or being silly

Straw that broke the camel's back

In a chain of events, it's the very last event which may be just the thing to destroy or ruin a situation

Strike while the iron's hot

Do something while you have the chance or while the opportunity is at its best

Strong stomach

An expression meaning someone can each almost anything or witness blood and guts without fainting or throwing up

Suck it up

Endure the discomfort and/or pain, you can do it

Take care of the little things (sweat the small stuff and the big stuff will be easy)

An expression meaning to take care of the little things, the big things will fall in place. Story link: The Astrologer

Take it easy

Take care, usually said as a casual farewell greeting

Take it with a grain of salt

An expression meaning you have to accept some bad stuff along with the mostly good stuff you are getting

Take one for the team

Sacrifice your own position and suffer a bit for the benefit of others

Take the cake

Something is the best (and the most recent) in a series of events

Take the plunge

Try something without hesitation

Talk is cheap

Saying something is easy, doing it is much harder (and more meaningful

Talk the talk, walk the walk

Do what you say, say what you mean. Story link: The Young Crab and His Mother

Take a small gain over a large promise

An expression meaning to get a sure-thing, rather than wait for something that's just a chance. Story link: The Fisherman and the Little Fish

Teach a man to fish, you'll feed him for a lifetime

An expression meaning to teach someone to be self-sufficient, rather than have them rely on charity. Based on a Chinese proverb, perhaps The Bible, and a quote in Anne Isabella Thackeray Richie's book Mrs. Dymond (1885)

Teacher's pet

A student who is a teacher's favorite

Tell-tale or telltale sign

An indicator or sign that explains something. Example: "I admit the deed!--tear up the planks...it is the beating of his hideous heart!" Story link: The Tell-Tale Heart

Thank your lucky stars

Be grateful for your circumstances, based on a superstition to receive good luck by wishing on a falling or shooting star or first star of the night. Story link: Star Light, Star Bright

That's fishy

Something is suspicious

That's lame (lame joke, or lame-ass)

Corny, or otherwise not funny or worthy

That's nuts, you are a nut-job

Something or someone is crazy or ridiculous

That's the way the cookie crumbles

An expression meanings that's how it is.

That sucks

An expression of sympathy meaning: "That's too bad"

That was a blow-out, they won by a landslide

The outcome of a competition was completely dominated by one side, no contest

The calm before the storm

An expression meaning all's fine now, but there will be trouble later

The devil made me do it!

A classic defense to deflect blame or responsibility for one's actions (or claim the insanity plea!)

The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Treat other people in the same way you want to be treated. Story link: The Lion and the Mouse and The Boys and the Frogs

The grass is always greener on the other side

An expression that means you are envious or want something you don't or can't have

The mice will play while the cat's away

An expression meaning doing things that might not be permitted because an authority figure isn't present. Story link: The Tale of Two Bad Mice

The only thing that's certain: death and taxes

Benjamin Franklin's expression of the only things you can count on. Quote link: Poor Richard's Almanack

The pot calling the kettle black

Putting down someone else for something you do or are yourself

The tail waging the dog

The consequences of something are taking the lead, instead of the root cause

The whole enchilada

A reference to a mexican meal meaning the whole thing

Think twice

Be thoughtful and think through the consequences before you act. Story link: The Frogs and the Well

Third time's a charm

The third attempt is usually the one that works

This is no picnic

An expression meaning that something is not easy

Thorn in my side

A problem or pain that simply won't go away

Three strikes, you're out!

A baseball reference, if you don't get it in three attempts, you're done or should stop. Poem link: Casey at the Bat

Three ways to Sunday

An expression meaning multiple ways tor each the same objective or location

Ticking crocodile (or the croc is ticking)

A "Peter Pan" reference of the crocodile Captain Hook would always hear as a warning. It's a reference to time, the beginning or ending of a human life. Book link: Peter Pan

Tiger by the tail

An expression meaning to take on a dangerous situation and underestimate or be unprepared to fight your adversary

Time flies (when you are having fun!)

An expression meaning that time feels like it's passing quickly, usually when someone's busy or having fun

Time heals

An expression meaning you'll get over it with the passage of time

Time to pay the piper, or Time to face the music

Expressions meaning to admit the truth, divulge and pay for the consequences of the damage or injury. Story link: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Time to rock and roll

Let's go!

Time will tell

The truth or outcome will be revealed in due time

Tip of the iceberg

An expression that means that something is just a small sample of a larger phenomenon or problem

Tip-toe around something, or tread lightly

Be careful to avoid conflict, or to avoid getting caught

To beat the band

Move very briskly

To call the question

In the British Parliament, it's a motion to stop debate. Used casually, it means stop arguing and make a decision!

To kill the goose that laid the golden egg

An unprofitable action motivated by greed. Story link: The Goose and the Golden Egg

Tongue in cheek

An expression meaning to say something you don't really mean, as a joke

Tongue-lashing

A scolding

Tongue-tied

An expression meaning you can't use the right words to be understood or express your thoughts clearly

Too big for your britches

Someone who has taken on responsibilities or a situation beyond what they can manage

Too many chiefs, not enough indians

An expression meaning everyone is trying to be in charge

Too many cooks in the kitchen

An expression meaning everyone is trying to be in charge

Topsy-turvey

Unstable or unpredictable or wobbly

Tread lightly

Hold back or tone-down any dramatic or deliberate actions

Trial and error

Not having a plan, trying something, making a mistake, then trying something else until you get it right

Trigger happy

Someone who is apt to over-react or make a move prematurely (or shoot before being ordered to do so)

Tune you out

Not paying attention or ignoring someone

Turning the tables

An expression meaning to get back at someone or do what they did back to them. Story link: Turkeys Turning the Tables

Two birds of a feather

Very much alike in appearance or behavior

Two-faced

Someone who is not genuine: they act one way under one set of circumstances, and completely differently under another set of circumstances. Story link: The Fox and the Crow

Two peas in a pod

An expression describing two people who are compatible, get along or fit together well

Two-timing someone

An expression meaning dating or seeing two people simultaneously, most likely without their knowledge

Under the weather

Sick

Up in the air

An expression meaning nor clearly defined. Example: "We don't know what we are doing yet, everything's still up in the air."

Up to your eye balls

An expression meaning overwhelmed by too much work or an overwhelming situation

Uptight

Someone who is nervous or jumpy, or who over-reacts

Vote with your feet

Act in accordance with your opinion or beliefs to get your point across

Waiting on pins and needles

An expression meaning you are eagerly awaiting something to arrive or happen

Wait till it boils over

an expression meaning to not take any action and wait for whatever it is to pass

Walk the plank

An expression related to being punished, reference to the pirates' practice of how prisoners were punished. Book link: Peter Pan

Wall flower

An expression meaning someone who doesn't participate, but stands by the side and watches what's going on

Wash your hands of it

Dissengage or stop participating in something, be done with it

Waste not, want not

Benjamin Franklin's expression to remind us to use our resources wisely. Quote link: Poor Richard's Almanack

Wax poetic

Become increasingly verbose and romantic in speech, go on-and-on using beautiful words

Way the ball bounces

An expression meaning that is the way it is, accept the outcome

Wearing lead boots

An expression meaning you are definitely going to sink or fail at something

We paid for it (or, we paid the price)

The little we gave cost us a lot in the end. Story link: The Trees and the Axe

What a dog!

An expression that something is worthless or of no value

What big ears you have! "The better to hear you with, my child"

A popular quote from the fairy tale when the big bad Wolf dresses up as the girl's grandmother. Story link: Little Red Riding Hood

What's bred in the bone is sure to come out in the flesh

In the long run, you can't pretend to be what you're not: innate instinct overtakes false pretense. Story link: The Shepherd and the Wolf

What's cooking?

While this could be an actual question asking what's for dinner, generally it means what's happening or going on?

What's good for the goose is good for the gander

What is good for a man is equally good for a woman; or, what a man can have or do, so can a woman have or do. Story link: Old Mother Goose and Her Son Jack

What's shakin' (bacon)?

An informal greeting asking how someone is doing

When it rains, it pours

An expression meaning that when something bad happens, more bad things will follow or it will just get worse

When the shit hits the fan

When something bad happens, the consequences reveal themselves

Which will it be? The lady or the tiger?

A literary reference to an impossible choice for which there is no solution. Story link: The Lady, or the Tiger?

White wash

An expression meaning to try to make something sound not as bad as it is, or to play-down the truth

Wolf in sheep's clothing

Someone who is acts or is disguised as someone they are not. Story link: The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Wrap it up

Finish something

Yellow-belly

Coward or afraid of something

You are in good company

The people you are with share your values, opinions, or understand

You are what you eat

The food choices you make define your health and who you are. Book link: Science in the Kitchen

You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink

An expression meaning you can teach or help someone, but they have to do it for themselves

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

An expression meaning you will be more effective acting nicely than being mean to get what you want. Story link: The Flies and the Honey

You made your bed, now lie in it

You created the circumstances of your current situation and now must face the consequences

You're a dead duck, or a marked man

Your doom is inevitable, someone is going to do something bad to you

You're fired!

This expression means to be involuntarily discharged or terminated from a job or assignment

You're just bluffing!

Catching someone pretending to have a capability or intention one does not actually possess

Your nose is growing

An expression meaning you caan tell someone is lying by how they are acting, reference to the Pinocchio puppet. Book link: Pinocchio

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours

An exchange of gifts or services, same as "quid pro quo"

Are you a teacher? We offer Teacher Resources across all grade levels, also useful for ELL instruction.

Do you have a favorite idiom that you'd like us to add? Please email your suggestions to amlit.editor@gmail.com



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