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Idioms List

With examples, notes and quizzes

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About idioms

An idiom is a group of words in current usage having a meaning that is not deducible from those of the individual words. For example, "to rain cats and dogs" - which means "to rain very heavily" - is an idiom; and "over the moon" - which means "extremely happy" - is another idiom. In both cases, you would have a hard time understanding the real meaning if you did not already know these idioms!


There are two features that identify an idiom: firstly, we cannot deduce the meaning of the idiom from the individual words; and secondly, both the grammar and the vocabulary of the idiom are fixed, and if we change them we lose the meaning of the idiom. Thus the idiom "pull your socks up" means "improve the way you are behaving" (or it can have a literal meaning); if we change it grammatically to "pull your sock up" (singular sock) or we change its vocabulary to "pull your stockings up", then we must interpret the phrase literally - it has lost its idiomatic meaning.

How should one index an idioms reference? Do we list the idiom "kick the bucket" under K for "kick" or B for "bucket"? Given that Internet users have the option of searching for individual words with the search function, the approach we have taken is to list all idioms in strict alphabetical order, omitting the indefinite and definite articles (a, an, the) and some pronouns if they occur at the beginning of the idiom. Thus, for example, the idiom "kick the bucket" is indexed under K, while the idiom "a ballpark figure" is indexed under B.

Many idioms originated as quotations from well-known writers such as Shakespeare. For example, "at one fell swoop" comes from Macbeth and "cold comfort" from King John. Sometimes such idioms today have a meaning that has been altered from the original quotation.

Some idioms are typically used in one version of English rather than another. For example, the idiom "yellow journalism" originated and is used in American English. Other idioms may be used in a slightly different form in different varieties of English. Thus the idiom "a drop in the ocean" in British and Australian English becomes "a drop in the bucket" in American English. However, in general, globalization and the effects of film, television and the Internet mean that there is less and less distinction between idioms of different varieties of English. In this reference we have tagged an idiom with one variety of English or another only when the idiom really is restricted to a particular variety of English or to indicate that the idiom originated in that particular variety of English.

Contributor: Matt Errey