American Idioms and Expressions

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This database is a comprehensive collection of all the American idioms and slang available. American Idioms are many and varied. We hope you enjoy our collection. We are adding more all the time. .

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The phrase in question
What does "The phrase in question" mean?
The meaning of the phrase.An example of how the phrase would be used.

An explaination (and/or discussion) of where or how the phrase originated.
The smoking lamp is out
What does "The smoking lamp is out" mean?
No smoking!California is a strange place. In restaurants and bars the smoking lamp is out, but in the cannabis buyers club you can smoke all you like.

The smoking lamp probably came into use during the 16th Century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The lamp was used to light the smoke before matches were invented.
The smoking lamp was also a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder.
Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas on board. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicting that smoking was permitted in this area.
Take a dive
What does "Take a dive" mean?
To intentionally fail in competition, to throw a game.All good salesmen learn to take a dive when playing golf with customers.

Boxers (e.g. prize fighters) who have been bribed to throw a bout but wishing to make it look as if the opponent won legitimately would dive to the mat after being hit. This was to create the illusion of a legitimate knock out.
Three sheets to the wind
What does "Three sheets to the wind" mean?
Very drunk, highly intoxicated.The groom made it to the alter, but he was three sheets to the wind.

The phrase comes from 18th - 19th century English Naval terminology. The original phrase was "three Sheets in the wind" and referred to the erratic behavior of a ship that has lost control of all of its sails.
In nautical terminology sheets are the ropes that adjust the position of the sails relative to the wind.
The speed and direction of a sailing ship is controlled by the number of sails raised on each mast, the angle of the sails to the wind (trim of the sails), and the position of the rudder. If the sheets used to control the sails are to break or are have been released, the sheet is said to be "in the wind".
One can imagine a sail thrashing wildly in a strong wind with its sheet (the control ropes) blowing about. It would be very difficult to regain control of such a sail.
Prior to the 1810's it was common for ships to have three masts, (fore, main, and mizzen). If the sheets on all three masts are "in the wind", the ship loses all steering control.
The ship's lack of control is likened to that of a stumbling drunk.
Tie the knot
What does "Tie the knot" mean?
To get married.I understand you want a baby, but don't you think you should tie the knot first. In fact maybe you should get a girlfriend first.

Some marriage ceremonies actually tie together the wrists of the bride and groom.
Webster defines "tie" as "to unite in marriage".
Toe the line
What does "Toe the line" mean?
Follow the group, don't disagree, do what others are doing.Your lifestyle has gone on for too long. It is time for you to toe the line - get a wife, a job, some kids, and be miserable just like everyone else.

Many mistakenly think the phrase is "tow the line", thus obscuring the meaning.
This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection.
The writing is on the wall
What does "The writing is on the wall" mean?
One can see the inevitable result of circumstances.We are having a downsizing and the writing is on the wall: we'll all be cut loose.

From the Book of Daniel in the Bible's Old Testament. Belshazzar, the king of Israel, had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. At a party where wine was being consumed, the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote on the wall.
The interpretation of the writing was that the King's days were numbered. He had been weighed on the scales and found deficient and his kingdom was divided and given to the Medes and Persians. That same night, Belshazzar was killed.
the bottom line
What does "the bottom line" mean?
the most essential information."The discussion lasted many hours. The bottomline was thatthe XYZ Company isn't for sale."

take it easy
What does "take it easy" mean?
relax. "I don't have any special vacation plans. I'm just going to take it easy."

tell a white lie
What does "tell a white lie" mean?
say something that isn't true in order not to hurt or offend someone. "The cake that Susan made tasted terrible, but I knew that she
made it because she wanted to please me, so when she asked
if I liked it, I told a white lie and said it was good."

toss something
What does "toss something" mean?
throw something away; put something in the trash. "These shoes are worn out. I guess I'll have to toss them."

tough
What does "tough" mean?
difficult.


There, there.
What does "There, there." mean?
: expression of comfort. "There, there. Everything's going to be OK."

tight-fisted
What does "tight-fisted" mean?
very frugal; unwilling to spend money unnecessarily. A: Do you think Charlie will donate any money to the activities fund? B: No way! He's too tight-fisted!

tricky
What does "tricky" mean?
easily confused or misunderstood. "This problem is tricky. I don't really understand it."

two-faced
What does "two-faced" mean?
: deceitful; disolyal; someone who pretends to be a friend but isn't. "I thought he was my friend, but he's two-faced. He says nice things to me when we're together, but makes jokes about me when we aren't.

to be broad in the beam
What does "to be broad in the beam" mean?
to have wide hips or large buttocksThe woman in the store was broad in the beam.

to be broke
What does "to be broke" mean?
to have no moneyI spent all of my money on my holiday and now I am broke.

the coast is clear
What does "the coast is clear" mean?
no danger is in sight, no one can see youWhen the coast is clear we will try to enter the building.

the creeps
What does "the creeps" mean?
a strong feeling of fear or disgustI get the creeps every time that I see a spider or snake.

the die is cast
What does "the die is cast" mean?
something has been decided and you cannot change the decisionThe die is cast and now that we have sold our house we must move.

the driving force behind (someone or something)
What does "the driving force behind (someone or something)" mean?
the motivating force behind someone or somethingThe potato farmers were the driving force behind the efforts to get people to eat more potatoes.

the exception that proves the rule
What does "the exception that proves the rule" mean?
an exception to a rule proves that the rule existsThe salesman is very quiet and shy and he is the exception that proves the rule in his company. Everybody else is very talkative.

the get-go
What does "the get-go" mean?
the beginningRight from the get-go I did not like the new manager.

the hair of the dog that bit you
What does "the hair of the dog that bit you" mean?
a drink of alcohol taken when one is recovering from drinking too muchMy friend got up early and had the hair of the dog that bit him to start the day.

to hand it to (someone)
What does "to hand it to (someone)" mean?
to give credit or praise to someoneYou have to hand it to our manager for working hard and being successful with his business.

to hand out (something)
What does "to hand out (something)" mean?
to give something of the same kind to several peopleThe teacher decided not to hand out the tests until everybody in the class stopped talking.

the handwriting is on the wall
What does "the handwriting is on the wall" mean?
a sign that something bad or significant will happenThe handwriting is on the wall. Business conditions are bad so nobody will get a pay raise this year.

to harp on (something)
What does "to harp on (something)" mean?
to talk repeatedly and tediously about somethingHe has been harping on his lack of money for several weeks now.

to head up
What does "to head up" mean?
to be at the head of (a group), a leaderThe president headed up a group of people going overseas to promote trade.

to hem and haw
What does "to hem and haw" mean?
to avoid giving a clear answer, to be evasive in speechHe hemmed and hawed when I asked him if he knew where the missing money was.

the high seas
What does "the high seas" mean?
the ocean (away from the coast)The crew of the ship spent three months on the high seas before going to shore for a visit.

the honeymoon is over
What does "the honeymoon is over" mean?
the initial period of friendship and cooperation between two groups is overThe honeymoon was over for the new President after several months.

to hook up (something)
What does "to hook up (something)" mean?
connect or fit something togetherAfter we moved into our new apartment we had to hook up the phone.

to hope against hope
What does "to hope against hope" mean?
to continue to hope when things look very badThe rescue team hoped against hope that the lost hikers would be found alive.

to horn in on (someone)
What does "to horn in on (someone)" mean?
to come in without an invitation or welcome, interfereThe man horned in on our conversation although he knows that nobody likes him.

to horse around
What does "to horse around" mean?
to play around, to join in rough teasingThe children were horsing around in the school yard when the bell rang for class.

to horse trade
What does "to horse trade" mean?
to make a business agreement after hard negotiationsWe had to horse trade but we were finally able to reach an agreement to buy the antique car.

to huff and puff
What does "to huff and puff" mean?
to breathe very hardI was huffing and puffing after I walked up several floors in our apartment building.

to hunger for (something)
What does "to hunger for (something)" mean?
to have a strong desire for somethingThe men were hungering for adventure when they began their tour of Africa.

to hush up
What does "to hush up" mean?
keep news of something from getting out, prevent people from knowing about somethingThe government tried to hush up the bad economic news but the media soon discovered the facts.

to hush up
What does "to hush up" mean?
to be or make quiet, to stop talking/crying/making noiseThe mother told her child to hush up when they were in the department store.

to jazz up (something)
What does "to jazz up (something)" mean?
brighten up something, add more noise/movement/color to somethingThey jazzed up the community center for the party tonight.

the jury is still out (on someone or something)
What does "the jury is still out (on someone or something)" mean?
have not decided about somethingFor myself, the jury is still out on whether or not it will be a good idea to look for a new job.

to kick off (something)
What does "to kick off (something)" mean?
begin/launch/start somethingThe department store kicked off their summer sale early Saturday morning.

the last person
What does "the last person" mean?
the most unlikely person to do something or to be seen somewhereMy friend is the last person that you would expect to see in a clothing store buying clothes.

the last straw
What does "the last straw" mean?
the last insult or mistake that one can endure and which then causes some reactionThe fourth time that the girl came to work late was the last straw and we finally fired her.

the last word
What does "the last word" mean?
the last remark in an argument, the final say in deciding somethingShe always expects to have the last word when she and her husband go shopping together.

the lay of the land
What does "the lay of the land" mean?
the features of an area of land or of an organizationWe checked out the lay of the land before we put up our tent and made a camping site.

to lay over
What does "to lay over" mean?
to arrive somewhere and wait some time before continuing a journeyWe were told that we will have to lay over in London for nine hours before we go on to Kenya.

the likes of (someone)
What does "the likes of (someone)" mean?
anyone like the person who you are talking aboutI really don't enjoy spending time with the likes of my neighbor.

the living end
What does "the living end" mean?
great, fantastic, the ultimateMy sister said that her new boyfriend was the living end.

the long haul
What does "the long haul" mean?
a long period of time during which work continues or something is doneHe has decided to stay here for the long haul and will not return to his home.

the lowdown
What does "the lowdown" mean?
the inside facts of a matter, the total truthI met with the speaker after the presentation and he gave me the lowdown on the new computer equipment.

the main drag
What does "the main drag" mean?
the most important street in a townWe spent Saturday evening driving up and down the main drag of the town.

to matter
What does "to matter" mean?
to be importantIt does not matter if you come to work late tomorrow.

to mean business
What does "to mean business" mean?
to be serious, to be ready to take actionHe is working very hard and means business when he says that he is going to get the office organized.

to mean for (someone) to (do something)
What does "to mean for (someone) to (do something)" mean?
intend for someone to do somethingI mean for my friend to get the free ticket and not anyone else.

to mean nothing to (someone)
What does "to mean nothing to (someone)" mean?
have no effect or feeling for someoneMy uncle is very wealthy and to lose money in a business transaction means nothing to him.

to mean (something) to (someone)
What does "to mean (something) to (someone)" mean?
have an effect or feeling for someoneI always tell my mother about my job situation because it means a lot to her.

to mean to (do something)
What does "to mean to (do something)" mean?
plan or intend to do somethingI always mean to go to a movie but I never have enough time.

the milk of human kindness
What does "the milk of human kindness" mean?
natural kindness and sympathy shown to othersThe woman who volunteered at the hospital was full of the milk of human kindness.

to mix it up
What does "to mix it up" mean?
to argue or fightThe two groups of young men were mixing it up outside of the school yard.

to mix up (something)
What does "to mix up (something)" mean?
to confuse things, to make a mistake about somethingThe teacher mixed up the DVDs and played the wrong one in front of the class.

the moment of truth
What does "the moment of truth" mean?
the point where someone has to face the reality of a situationThe moment of truth for the sprinter came when the final qualifying race for the Olympics began.

the more the merrier
What does "the more the merrier" mean?
the more people who join in the fun the better it will beThe more the merrier I thought as everyone went to the beach.

the morning after (the night before)
What does "the morning after (the night before)" mean?
a hangoverHe is not feeling well because it is the morning after the night before.

the name of the game
What does "the name of the game" mean?
the main part of a matterThe name of the game is selling cars and not worrying about other things.

to nose down
What does "to nose down" mean?
to head down, to bring down the nose of somethingThe pilot began to nose down the plane as it approached the airport.

the off chance
What does "the off chance" mean?
a slight possibilityI went to the department store on the off chance that I would find a new jacket that I liked.

to be on easy street
What does "to be on easy street" mean?
to have enough money to live comfortablyHe has been on easy street since he sold his house and invested the money.

the one and only
What does "the one and only" mean?
a famous and talented person, the unique and only "somebody"Yesterday the newspaper published an interview with the one and only inventor of the new DVD player.

the one-two
What does "the one-two" mean?
quick or decisive action that takes someone by surpriseThe salesman gave the customer the one-two and the customer quickly agreed to buy the product.

to be onto (someone or something)
What does "to be onto (someone or something)" mean?
to have discovered the truth about someone or somethingMy supervisor in onto the new saleswoman who is taking money from her sales register.

the opposite sex
What does "the opposite sex" mean?
the opposite sex to someone (either male or female)The math classes were divided so that nobody had to study with a member of the opposite sex.

the order of the day
What does "the order of the day" mean?
something necessary, the usual practiceThe order of the day is to begin to clean up the mess that the storm caused last night.

the other side of the tracks
What does "the other side of the tracks" mean?
the poorer/richer section of a townThe girl came from the other side of the tracks and was not welcome into the home of her wealthy boyfriend.

the other way round
What does "the other way round" mean?
the reverse, the oppositeIt was the other way round. It was my friend who wanted to go swimming - not me.

to be/go out on a limb
What does "to be/go out on a limb" mean?
to be in a dangerous or risky positionThe man went out on a limb to offer his brother the job.

the particulars of (something)
What does "the particulars of (something)" mean?
the specific details about somethingI have no knowledge of the particulars of my father's business dealings.

the party's over
What does "the party's over" mean?
a happy or good time has come to an endThe party's over and I must now begin to work after my long holiday.

to perk up
What does "to perk up" mean?
to become energetic or happy after being sad or tiredMy sister began to perk up after she had a chance to rest after her long drive.

to peter out
What does "to peter out" mean?
to die down gradually, to grow less strongThe large crowd from the football game has begun to peter out and the streets around the stadium are quiet now.

the pick of (something)
What does "the pick of (something)" mean?
the best of the groupThe members of the Olympic team were the pick of the best athletes in the country.

the picture of (something)
What does "the picture of (something)" mean?
the perfect example of somethingMy father was the picture of health when I saw him last month.

to be played out
What does "to be played out" mean?
to be tired/worn out, to be exhaustedI was played out last night so I went to bed early.

the plot thickens
What does "the plot thickens" mean?
things are becoming more complicated or interesting"The plot thickens," I thought as the situation at my company became more and more complicated.

to pony up
What does "to pony up" mean?
to payIt is time for my friend to pony up and pay for the exercise equipment that he bought from me.

to be possessed of (something)
What does "to be possessed of (something)" mean?
to have somethingThe man was possessed of an ability to clearly understand and repeat what others had said.

the pot calling the kettle black
What does "the pot calling the kettle black" mean?
a person who is criticizing someone else may be as guilty as the person he or she criticizesIt was like the pot calling the kettle black when the woman who is always late for work criticized her coworker for also coming late.

the powers that be
What does "the powers that be" mean?
the people who are in authorityThe powers that be have decided that the summer festival will not be held this year.

to be pressed for time
What does "to be pressed for time" mean?
to have barely enough timeMy boss was pressed for time so I did not have a chance to speak to him.

the proof is in the pudding/the proof of the pudding is in the eating
What does "the proof is in the pudding/the proof of the pudding is in the eating" mean?
you can only find out if an idea or plan is good by seeing what the results of trying it will beThe proof is in the pudding and if the business idea is good then many people will support it. If it is not good then people will not support it.

to psych (someone) out
What does "to psych (someone) out" mean?
to find out the real motives/intentions of someoneI tried to psych out the salesman to see how much he would sell the car for.

to be psyched out
What does "to be psyched out" mean?
to be confused and disorientedThe young man was totally psyched out when the robber entered his apartment.

to be raised in a barn
What does "to be raised in a barn" mean?
to behave crudely like a barnyard animalWhen the boy did not shut the door his mother asked him if he had been raised in a barn.

the real thing
What does "the real thing" mean?
something that is genuine and not an imitationThe small vase is the real thing and is very valuable.

to be reminiscent of (someone or something)
What does "to be reminiscent of (someone or something)" mean?
to remind someone of someone or something, to seem like someone or somethingThe music festival is reminiscent of the large music festivals of fifty years ago.

the responsible party
What does "the responsible party" mean?
the person or organization responsible or liable for somethingThe responsible party for the accident was taken away by the police for questioning.

to be rolling in (something)
What does "to be rolling in (something)" mean?
to have large amounts of something (usually money)My friend is rolling in money and never has to work.

to be run down
What does "to be run down" mean?
to get into poor health or condition, to look badMy friend has become run down since she started working at night.

to be running high
What does "to be running high" mean?
to have one's feelings in a state of excitement or angerFeelings about the train accident are running high and the government must give an explanation about what happened.

to be on the safe side
What does "to be on the safe side" mean?
to take no chancesIt may rain so to be on the safe side I think that I will bring my umbrella.

the shoe is on the other foot
What does "the shoe is on the other foot" mean?
the opposite is true, the places are changedThe shoe is on the other foot now that my neighbor has to deal with the same problems that we must deal with.

the short end (of the stick)
What does "the short end (of the stick)" mean?
unfair or unequal treatmentHe always gets the short end of the stick when he is at work.

to be sick in bed
What does "to be sick in bed" mean?
to remain in bed while one is sickMy father was sick in bed for three days last week.

the silence is deafening
What does "the silence is deafening" mean?
the silence is so great that one becomes uncomfortable, the silence is so great that it suggests the disapproval of somethingThe silence was deafening at the meeting when nobody stood up to challenge the speaker for his extreme remarks.

the size of it
What does "the size of it" mean?
the way something is"That`s about the size of it," I said as I told my friend about the accident.

the straight and narrow
What does "the straight and narrow" mean?
a straight and law-abiding route through lifeThe boy took the straight and narrow after he was in trouble with the law.

table a motion
What does "table a motion" mean?
to postpone the discussion of something during a meetingWe tabled a motion to discuss the safety issue at another time.

tag along with (someone)
What does "tag along with (someone)" mean?
to go with someone, to follow along with someoneThe little boy tagged along with his older brother when they went to the beach.

tail between one`s legs
What does "tail between one`s legs" mean?
feeling ashamed or beatenThe salesman resigned from his company with his tail between his legs after he told a lie about his expense account.

tail wagging the dog
What does "tail wagging the dog" mean?
a situation where a small part controls the whole thingIt is like the tail wagging the dog when the receptionist is able to control everything in the office.

take a backseat to (someone or something)
What does "take a backseat to (someone or something)" mean?
to accept a poorer or lower position than someone, to be second to someone or something I had to take a backseat to my boss when we went on the business trip.

take a bath (on something)
What does "take a bath (on something)" mean?
to come to financial ruin, to lose much money on somethingMy aunt took a bath on the stock market last year and she is afraid to buy stocks now.

take a beating
What does "take a beating" mean?
to lose moneyMy father took a beating when he sold his car.

take a bow
What does "take a bow" mean?
to bow and receive credit for a good performanceThe violinist stopped to take a bow before she went backstage with the orchestra.

take a break
What does "take a break" mean?
to have a short rest period in one's workI stopped to take a break after working all morning.

take a chance/risk
What does "take a chance/risk" mean?
to try something where failure or bad fortune is likelyI plan to take a chance and visit my friend without phoning first.

take a course in (something)
What does "take a course in (something)" mean?
to enroll in a class to study/learn somethingI am planning to take a course in photography next year.

take a crack at (something)
What does "take a crack at (something)" mean?
to try/attempt to do something"Have you decided to take a crack at writing the entrance examination?"

take a dig at (someone)
What does "take a dig at (someone)" mean?
to criticize someone, to say something that will irritate someoneThe man is always taking a dig at his wife.

take a dim view of (something)
What does "take a dim view of (something)" mean?
to be against something, to disapprove of somethingOur company takes a dim view of people who do not wear a suit and tie.

take a fancy/liking to (someone or something)
What does "take a fancy/liking to (someone or something)" mean?
to develop a fondness or a preference for someone or somethingThe woman took a fancy to the new person who she was working with.

take a gander at (someone or something)
What does "take a gander at (someone or something)" mean?
to examine someone or somethingI asked the car mechanic to take a gander at the steering system on my car.

take a hand in (something)
What does "take a hand in (something)" mean?
to help plan or do somethingThe man is always ready to take a hand in any work that needs to be done.

take a hard line (with someone)
What does "take a hard line (with someone)" mean?
to be firm with someone, to have a firm policy for dealing with someoneThe company takes a hard line with people who come to work late.

take a hint
What does "take a hint" mean?
to understand what is hinted at and behave accordinglyThe man is unable to take a hint and does not notice when people are angry at him.

take a leaf out of (someone's) book
What does "take a leaf out of (someone's) book" mean?
to behave or do something in the way that someone else wouldWe plan to take a leaf out of our competitor's book and advertise our product on the Internet.

take a leak
What does "take a leak" mean?
to urinateThe man stopped at the side of the road to take a leak when he was walking home last night.

take a look at (someone or something)
What does "take a look at (someone or something)" mean?
to examine (usually briefly) someone or somethingI will take a look at the problem with the computer tomorrow.

take a look for (someone or something)
What does "take a look for (someone or something)" mean?
to look for someone or somethingTomorrow I will take a look for the pen which I lost.

take a nap
What does "take a nap" mean?
to have a brief period of sleepI stopped to take a nap before I continued driving to see my parents.

take a new turn
What does "take a new turn" mean?
to begin a new course or directionThe campaign to clean up the river took a new turn when the large electricity company joined in the campaign.

take a potshot at (someone or something)
What does "take a potshot at (someone or something)" mean?
to criticize someone or somethingThe mayor of the city decided to take a potshot at his opponent in the election.

take a powder
What does "take a powder" mean?
to leave quickly, to run awayI think that our boss took a powder right after the meeting.

take a punch at (someone)
What does "take a punch at (someone)" mean?
to strike someone with one's fistThe man in the restaurant suddenly took a punch at the waiter.

take a shine to (someone)
What does "take a shine to (someone)" mean?
to have or show a quick liking for someoneOur daughter took a shine to her new teacher and is very happy at school now.

take a shot/stab at (doing something)
What does "take a shot/stab at (doing something)" mean?
to try to do somethingI plan to take a shot at golfing when I am on vacation.

take a shower/bath
What does "take a shower/bath" mean?
to batheI usually take a shower when I get home from work.

take a spill
What does "take a spill" mean?
to have a fall, to tip overThe little boy took a spill when he was trying to learn how to ride his bicycle.

take a stand on (something)
What does "take a stand on (something)" mean?
to declare firmly that one is for or against somethingThe politician was forced to take a stand on the tax issue.

take a toll on (someone or something)
What does "take a toll on (someone or something)" mean?
to damage/hurt someone or something by using it too much or by hard livingThe stress and long hours at work are beginning to take a toll on my friend.

take a trip
What does "take a trip" mean?
to go for a journeyWe plan to take a trip to Italy in November.

take a turn for the better
What does "take a turn for the better" mean?
to start to improve or get wellThe medical condition of my uncle has recently taken a turn for the better.

take a turn for the worse
What does "take a turn for the worse" mean?
to start to get worseThe condition of the patient suddenly took a turn for the worse.

take a vacation
What does "take a vacation" mean?
to go somewhere for a vacationI have much stress at work and I want to take a vacation next month.

take a whack at (someone)
What does "take a whack at (someone)" mean?
to hit someoneThe man on the bus suddenly took a whack at the man sitting beside him.

take a whack at (something)
What does "take a whack at (something)" mean?
to try somethingI took a whack at fixing the car but I was unsuccessful.

take advantage of (someone or something)
What does "take advantage of (someone or something) " mean?
to use someone or something for one`s own benefitWe took advantage of the beautiful weather and went to the beach.

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