What does an elephant in the room mean? What is it even doing in the room and how did it get there? When someone pulls wool over your eyes, what should you do? And why does a fat chance and a slim chance mean the same thing?
English idioms can be quite confusing, but they’re fun to learn and also help you sound like a native speaker. In this lesson, we’ll talk about some of the popular English idioms. Some are funny enough to make you chuckle while some are just downright bizarre!
Ready to “beef up” your knowledge of idioms? Let’s start!
There are plenty of themes that appear in English idioms. Some of the most common include animals (a sacred cow and a cold turkey, for example), things you find around the house (a wet blanket, a pot that calls a kettle black), food (a pie in the sky and a holey Swiss cheese), and body parts (neck and neck and the neck of the woods).
Let’s group these funny or bizarre idioms according to theme and then let’s discuss a bit of its origin, its meaning, and an example sentence for each.
Can you imagine the damp, goosebumpy skin of a cold turkey? Makes you shudder, doesn’t it? It has something to do with the dark meaning behind this expression. When you abruptly quit an addiction such as drugs or alcohol, users report feeling that awful situation that I described. Thus the expression cold turkey.
And you thought this list would be funny. Ugh. What a downer.
Meaning: to quit something (like an addiction) abruptly and without fanfare.Example: There’s no other way to go about your online dating addiction. Just delete all the dating apps on your phone and quit cold turkey.
When someone bellows at you to hold your horses, don’t go around, panic-stricken, looking for a horse to hold. It simply means you need to stay put or slow down. This phrase has been used as early as Homer’s Iliad. There have been many usage since then, literal at first but which later on evolved into a figurative usage.
Meaning: It’s a way of telling someone to stop or slow down.Example: Whoa, hold your horses! I’m not paying up, the game’s far from over!
There’s an elephant in the room but nobody seems to be talking about it. Awkward, right? I mean, where would you even start?
So anyway, there’s a fable written in the early 1800s where a man went to a museum and noticed all the tiny things but failed to see the huge elephant in the room. The fable was called The Inquisitive Man which has been referenced later on by famous writers such as Dostoevsky, among others. Now the expression is being used to refer to a huge problem that everyone refuses to talk about.
Meaning: A huge and obvious problem that everyone avoids talking about.
“Can we address the elephant in the room before this problem ends all of our friendship?”
“Sure. But who will volunteer to tell Eric he has stinky feet?”
When you get (or steal) a goat owned by somebody else, of course that person would get mad. But the origin of this idiom is far more interesting than that. This expression actually comes from horse-racing where goats are used to have a calming effect on thoroughbred horses. To calm down an easily upset horse, its owner would place a goat in its stall the night before the race. But some opponents would cheat by stealing the goat to agitate the horse and make it lose the race!
Sounds downright unscrupulous, right? But there’s a real life lesson to be learned here: if someone gets your goat and you get upset, remember, you lose!
Meaning: To upset, irritate or anger someone.Example: “The way she corrects everything really gets my goat! Thank you very much, Miss Know-it-all!”
You’ve tried it before, I’m sure of it. You listen to a song and suddenly it’s stuck in your mind. It seems to be playing on repeat in your head like a pesky background music to all your thoughts. It’s like a worm in your ear singing the song on repeat for hours, days, and even weeks! Help! You’ve got an earworm!
Meaning: A catchy song or tune that you can’t seem to get out of your head.
Example: “Ariana's new song has been stuck in my head for a week. I’d do absolutely anything to get rid of this earworm!”
There are plenty of origin stories behind this idiom--from little ducklings following their mother in a tidy little line, to bowling pins, metal ducks in a shooting arcade, and so many other possible sources. The cutest and the earliest usage seems to come from the first one: little ducklings sorted in a straight line behind their mother. So I guess we’ll have to go with that.
Meaning: Get everything organized, straightened up and accounted for before embarking on an activity or project.Example: I'll get my ducks in a row before going on vacation. I don’t want my officemates thinking I’m lousy at my job.
Are beavers really eager animals? Not necessarily. But this phrase came to be simply because of the rhyme. It does have a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Meaning: An overly enthusiastic person; someone who is overzealous and excited about doing a job.Example: I have nothing against Martha, but she’s such an eager beaver. Always volunteering on new projects and staying up late every day---she makes us all look bad!
Now that paints a bizarre picture alright. But did you know that when a chicken’s head is chopped off, it still runs about in a panic for a couple of seconds or so before dying? Morbid, I know. But that’s the origin of this expression.
Meaning: To run around doing a lot of things in a disorganized, ineffective manner.Example: Maybe you should sit down first and organize your thoughts. You seem to be running around like a headless chicken all day.
It’s always the dog that wags its tail. So what’s up with this idiom? How does a tail wag the dog? This expressions comes from a popular phrase that says: “a dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would wag the dog“.
A shorter version of this phrase is “wag the dog” which means to divert attention to a less important issue in order to get away with a bigger issue.
Meaning: A situation wherein a smaller or less important group appears to control a larger or more important person or organization.
Example 1: Ever since Adrian headed the new team, the management seems to be doing everything to please them. This is a case of the tail wagging the dog.Example 2: I can see what you’re doing; you’re trying to wag the dog so I would forget how you crashed my car last night!
Ever seen an upside down turtle helplessly trying to get back on its feet? That’s the imagery this idiom wants to depict.
Meaning: To flip over; to turn upside down.Example: The streets are so slippery today I was worried our car would turn turtle!
What types of businesses are monkeys involved in? Apparently nothing but shenanigans! This idiom is based on the playfulness of monkeys.
Meaning: shenanigans; activities that could be considered mischievous, questionable or even illegal; antics that are generally disapproved of.Example: Those three boys are cooped up inside the room. I wonder what monkey business they’re planning this time?
Were you thinking of a cow with a halo on its head while reading this idiom? No? Oh, I guess it’s just me then. Anyway, you probably know how cows are sacred and venerated in the religion Hindu. Slowly this expression stemmed from that and became what it is today.
Meaning: A person, thing or belief that is unreasonably above criticism or immune from questioning.Example: There are no sacred cows in this organization. We will audit everyone from top to bottom.
What does a cock and a bull have in common? Well, they both have a story, albeit an improbable one. This idiom has been around for centuries (the 1600s to be exact) and still used today.
There are a bunch of sources credited for the origin of this expression: two coaching inns called The Cock and The Bull where people trade stories that become more and more unlikely. It may also come from the French expression coq-a-l’âne which means cock and jackass/ cock and bull. Whatever the origin is, it’s most likely another cock and bull story!
Meaning: A story that is unlikely to be true. Usually boastful or used as an excuse.Example: Dana didn’t show up again today. She gave us some cock and bull story about falling down the stairs and hurting her pinky finger.
Could you imagine a bull in a china shop? Utter destruction, that’s what’s gonna happen. But some TV guys actually did an experiment to see what would happen if a bull is in a china shop. The result? Nothing! You can watch the clip below.
Meaning: Someone who is very careless in the way he/she moves or behaves. Could also refer to a clumsy manner of dealing with a delicate situation.Example: It was a very tense situation at the dinner when Karen, oblivious as always, came in like a bull in a china shop.
Not all Swiss cheeses have holes in it, but apparently, this is what mostly everyone thinks of when we think of Swiss cheese (blame it on the cartoons we saw in our youth). So if an argument or a story has more holes than this, it’s definitely got a lot of issues.
Meaning: Something that has a lot of faults and problems.Example: The new movie’s plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese.
When a bread slicing machine was introduced in the 1920s, it was considered “the greatest forward step in the baking industry”. So this phrase was born and used humorously to hype up something new and innovative.
Meaning: Used to show one’s enthusiasm about a person, thing or idea; to hype up a certain thing as a great invention or innovation.
Example: The way they act, it would seem like the new employee is the best thing since sliced bread.
Who wants to hold a hot potato? Nobody. Everyone would just drop it. So is a figurative hot potato. It’s a topic no one wants to touch!
Meaning: A controversial issue that nobody wants to discuss because it is uncomfortable to talk about it.Example: The immigration crisis is a hot potato in many countries nowadays.
Another potato idiom, but this time one that’s in front of a TV with a bowl of chips in hand. It’s a couch potato!
Meaning: A person who does not lead an active life and would rather stay on the couch, watching TV.Example: Couch potatoes, unite! In our own couches. At home. Separately. While watching TV.
When you want to bulk up or make something stronger or more effective, you beef it up! This American slang is quite popular and used whether in everyday speech or even in the news.
Meaning: To strengthen, increase, or make something more effective.Example: After the incident last week, the security is beefed up all over the city.
This American slang can be used to pertain to different kinds of extreme emotions such as wild excitement, over-the-top happiness, or even in some cases (but less common), anger. This idiom got its inspiration from apes who go crazy when given bananas.
Meaning: To go wild, to go crazy with excitement or other extreme emotions.
Example: When the host announced that Robert Downey Jr. has crashed the party, the crowd went bananas!
It takes time to “pick” or thoroughly clean a bone; it involves a lot of biting and chewing and all that gnashing. So when somebody claims to have a bone to pick with you, uh oh, you’re in for a long discussion!
Meaning: To have a grievance that needs to be discussed.
Example: I have a bone to pick with you, Shiela. I saw your pictures on Facebook: you’ve been wearing my clothes without my permission again!
Why not a handful of salt or a spoonful, you ask? Well, early texts contain an antidote to poison which says “take with a grain of salt”. The expression remains, but now it’s used to advise someone not to swallow an idea fully. Take it with a grain of salt: consume it but with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Meaning: to accept something but with a degree of scepticism.Example: You should probably just let your baby cry herself to sleep. But take my advice with a grain of salt since I don’t really have kids yet so what do I know.
You’re lying down in the grass looking up when suddenly a pie comes floating in the sky! Cool! You’re probably just daydreaming or hallucinating. It’s a nice idea to think about though highly unlikely. That’s what this idiom is all about.
Meaning: Something nice but unlikely to happen. An empty wish.Example: Turns out that the startup business she planned was just a pie in the sky.
When you’re a pot mired in black soot, could you afford to call the kettle black? Apparently not, right? You’d think, “oh the hypocrisy of the pot!”
Meaning: To criticize someone for the same fault he or she has. This phrase is used to call out the hypocrisy of a person or situation.Example: Susan accusing Claire of faking the test results is the pot calling the kettle black. They both got busted last night!
When you’ve taken everything but the kitchen sink, you’ve likely taken the entire contents of your house!
Meaning: Almost everything imaginable, even the unnecessary ones.Example: It was just a simple sleepover but Maria brought everything but the kitchen sink!
There are days when you just seem to wake up with a bad temper. When this happens, you got up on the wrong side of the bed!
Meaning: To begin the day with a bad mood.Example: Come quick and be ready with your presentation. The boss is here and he seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed!
A wet blanket can be effective in dousing a fire in the same way that a figurative wet blanket is very effective in dampening an otherwise happy occasion.
Meaning: A person who spoils all the fun by disapproving of the activities. Someone who dampens everybody’s enthusiasm.Example: She went to the party but moped in the corner the whole time. What a wet blanket.
When you pull wool over someone’s eyes, you have the intention to deceive. I mean, why else would you cover someone’s eyes, right? Well, there’s probably lots of other reasons, but you know, let’s just go with it.
Meaning: To deceive or hoodwink someone.Example: My ex-fiance was pulling wool over my eyes the whole time. I didn’t know his other secret life until the day before our wedding.
Does your skin even have teeth? Kinda weird, I know. But this phrase actually originated from the Bible, in the Book of Job:
‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth’ (19:20).
Meaning: narrowly, barely, or by a very small marginExample: Good thing he realized the trouble he’s in before he could propose. He escaped that wicked woman’s grasp by the skin of his teeth!
Another one that might raise a few eyebrows if you think of it literally. What does neck and neck mean? Is it talking about two necks? What’s up with that? Well, here’s what it means.
Meaning: To be even or tied in a competition or comparison.Example: I don’t really know whom to pick. Both applicants are pretty much neck and neck at this point.
Another one that talks about a neck. But this time, it’s not a person’s neck but that of the woods!
Meaning: A certain area, neighborhood, or locality.
Example: What a surprise seeing you here! I don’t peg you for someone who comes into this neck of the woods!
Ever had a pet fish while you were a kid? You probably noticed that when it died it went belly up. So there you go with this idiom.
Meaning: to fail; to go bankruptExample: Most startups go belly up within the first four years!
Now let’s talk about teeth again. Remember those movies where you’d see pirates biting into their knives? That’s one of the possible origins of this expression. Another one is that of knights covered in armor from head to foot, fully armed to the teeth.
Meaning: Heavily armed or well-equipped, could be with literal weapons or figuratively well-prepared.Example: It was her first time to appear in court for the divorce, and wow, she was so prepared! With her boxes of evidence of her husband’s affairs, she was armed to the teeth and poised to win!
What’s being wet behind the ears got to do with being inexperienced? Well, let me break it down for you. According to this idiom’s origin, it is based on the idea that newborn animals are totally wet from the amniotic sac during birth. The mother would then proceed to lick the baby animal thoroughly, but the indentation behind the ears (usually with a baby calf) would still be wet.
Meaning: Used to describe someone inexperienced or immature.Example: That lady thinks she’s the boss of me! She’s still wet behind the ears!
You’ve probably heard of the Queen song Another One Bites the Dust. See Freddie Mercury below to jog your memory.
But since you can’t literally bite the dust, what does it all even mean?
Here’s what it means and it’s morbid.
Meaning: to die/ be killed; to meet the end; to failExample: He thought his new business would bite the dust soon. Thankfully, a new investor arrived just in time.
There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter movies where Harry inflates his mean Aunt Marge and her clothes literally burst at the seams.
That would be a perfect literal example of this idiom. But figuratively? It just means to be beyond full!
Meaning: To be filled beyond regular capacityExample: Why did you have to invite everyone to this small party? Our house is bursting at the seams and looks like it’s about to get trashed, too!
Let’s say your friend discovered his love for photography and excitedly shows you the photos he took. Unfortunately you can see that he just does not have the eye for taking good photos! How can you jokingly tell him that he’s not that good? You say, don’t give up your day job!
Meaning: Used as a humorous but well-meaning way to tell someone they’re not very good at something.Example: It’s cool that you like to paint, but don’t give up your day job!
Elvis was one of those people in history that people went bananas over (see? We’re already using phrases we learned above!)
After his shows, people would still mill about, waiting for an encore or even just a little extra glimpse. To signal that everything’s over and the show is done, the announcer would say “Elvis has left the building”. These words stuck and became a well-used expression even if Elvis has already left--not just the building--but this Earth as well:(
Meaning: Means the show or event has ended.
Example: We took too long to get to the huge mall sale. Elvis has left the building when we came.
You’d know a language is weird when two opposing phrases mean the exact same thing. Well, that’s the English language for you. Fat chance involves sarcasm though, so saying that means its opposite---or ‘slim chance’-- is true.
Meaning: There’s a very little chance of that happening.
Example 1: Get back together with that loser? Fat chance!Example 2: Anna said that there’s a slim chance she’d get back together with Craig.
Thieves are supposedly notorious for sharing secrets with each other. Who else understands a thief but another thief, right? And in the old days, thick can also mean to be very close. So there you go.
Meaning: Two or more people who are very close and share secrets to each other.Example: Those two kids are thick as thieves. They’ve been close since they were babies!
There you have it. 40 of the funny and bizarre idioms in the English language. Which one is your favorite? And which one should make the list? Do share it with us in the comments!
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