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Idioms & Axioms
currently used in America
(Meanings and Origins)

This page is intended by people who are learning or using English as a second language.

[P] for Polite, acceptable in the most decrete and well educated circles and public speaking.
[C] for Common, acceptable among average folk, friends, mixed company (male & female), and speaking to closed groups
[V] for Vulgar, might be considered unrefined, crude, or even inflamitory.   NOT for public speaking.   NOT for mixed company.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H]

[I] [J] [K] [L] [M] [N] [O] [P]

[Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V-W] [X-Y-Z]

The phrase in question

An explaination (and/or discussion) of where or how the phrase originated.

The meaning of the phrase.
An example of how the phrase would be used.

The Letter I

In the country of the BLIND, the ONE-EYED man is KING

An English proverb cited by John Ray in 1678 tells us that "a man were better be half blind than have both eyes out." Not only would he be able to avoid the ditch (fallen into by the blind leading the blind), he might find himself in a position if leadership. "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" is quoted in Erasmus' "Adagia," in 1536. We also see it in John Palsgrave's translation of the "Comedy of Acolastus." In 1522, in his "Why Come Yet Not to Court?" John Skelton tells us that: "an one eyed man is Well sighted when is is amonge blynde men."


A man of even limited ability is at a great advantage in the company of those less able.
It doesn't matter if you don't completely understand how the Internet works! You know more than anyone else here. So, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

In the black

Standard practice for accounting is to record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers in red ink. Operating "in the black" is to record positive numbers, that is to say earnings.


To be making money.
Live below your means and you will always be running in the black.

In the doldrums

Doldrums is the name of a place in the ocean that is located near the equator and is characterized by unstable trade winds. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.


To be depressed or unmotivated.
I'd like to provide a good example, but I'm feeling in the doldrums.

In the red

Standard practice for accounting is to record positive numbers in black ink and negative numbers in red ink. Operating "in the red" is to record negative numbers, that is to say losses.

No doubt red ink was chosen because it is a clear contrast for black and is not easily mistaken. However there is a bit more history to the red ink.

In medieval times the church, being the only center of literacy and learning in the west, maintained meticulous accounting records. Ink was rare and expensive. When monasteries and far-flung churches had little money and they could not afford ink, domesticated animals were bled to provide a substitute in the dipping wells. As a result, poor financial records were usually written "in the red.


To be losing money.
Putting kids through college is sure to put you in the red.

Irons in the fire

Blacksmiths traditionally worked iron into shape by hammering. The iron being worked would be heated in the fire until it was red-hot and malleable. The Smith removes the iron from the fire and shapes it with repeated blows from a hammer. They need to work quickly before the iron cools. Once the iron is cool, it becomes brittle and cannot be hammered.

Once removed from the fire, the iron cools quickly. It takes longer to heat the iron to red-hot than it takes for it to cool. Blacksmiths work more efficiently by having multiple pieces of iron in the fire heating simultaneously. In that way, the Smith can always have a piece of iron red-hot and ready for hammering. The cooled piece would be returned to the fire if it needed more hammering.


Having or pursuing multiple opportunities simultaneously.
I have been out of work for 6 months, but I have a number of irons in the fire.

The Letter J

Jump on the bandwagon

Old time political campaigns would attempt to gain supporters with what amounted to a small parade including a band for a candidate with sufficient support. Jumping on the bandwagon was akin to providing your support for this popular candidate.


Do what everybody else is doing, whatever is popular.
When the Chicago Bears are winning, I will jump on the bandwagon and be a fan.

The Letter K

Keep your pants on

Appears to suggest that one should calm down because romance is not imminent.


Calm down, be patient.
I will be off the telephone in a minute, so keep your pants on.

Kiss of death

From the fabled Mafia practice. A kiss from the Don meant curtains (death) for the receiver.


Something that is a precursor to failure, that will lead to future failure.
Even a hint by Greenspan that interest rates may rise is like a kiss of death to the stock market.

Knock on wood

One theory is that it originated in the middle ages when there were in circulation, pieces of the Holy Rood or Cross on which Jesus was crucified. To touch one of these was supposed to bring good luck hence touch wood for good luck.


Tap on a wooden surface for gook luck or to keep from putting a jinx on yourself for having mentioned some hope or dream aloud.
If good luck is willing. I am sure that your tax returns will not be audited, knock on wood.

The Letter L

Let the cat out of the bag

At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he'd been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig. Therefore, "letting the cat out of the bag" revealed the secret of the con trick.


To divulge a secret.
Don't let the cat out of the bag about Susan's Christmas present.

Living hand to mouth

During the Great Depression and other times of economic scarcity, people often did not know when or where the next meal was coming from. In such a case, when you get something in your hand that can be eaten, it goes into the mouth immediately: ergo "hand to mouth."


To be poor, to have difficulty supporting yourself.
Most people who marry young start out living hand to mouth.

Long in the tooth

Strange as it may seem this phrase's origin is closely related to the origin of the phrase "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth".

The age of a horse can be roughly determined by examining its teeth, since a horse's gums recede as they age. The longer the teeth of a horse appear to be, the older the horse.


To be getting old.
Daddy needs a new Porsche. The old one is getting a bit long in the tooth.

The Letter M

Many a True Word is spoken in Jest.

In trying to be funny many people will relay on sarcasm. The most poignant (and often cutting, or hurtful) sarcasm is founded in truth. It is often determental to a relationship to pick on someone in front of others even if you are basically telling the truth.

Conversely, if you are being picked on in jest, you can often get a true picture of how others view you and know then what to work on.

The meaning behind this saying was used as early as in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," in which the cook says, "A man may seye full soothe in game and pley." Later, at the end of the sixteenth century, a Scottish saying was, "There are many sooth words spoken in bourding," and both French and Italian have equivalent sayings.


A humorous, joking remark may hide a profound insight or a serious criticism. An unintended comment may turn out to be true.
"You know Shirley, you might as well rub those cinnamon rolls directly on to your hips. That is where they're going to end up anyway."

"Well Fred, many a true word is spoken in jest, but my hips are really none of your business."

Mind your Ps and Qs

Comes from the early pub days when beer and ale was served in pint and quart containers. The tab was kept on a chalkboard used to count the pints and quarts consumed. To watch your Ps and Qs is to control your alcoholic intake and behavior.


Behave properly.
Since his drunk driving arrest, he has been minding his Ps and Qs.

Cut the Mustard

This expression is first recorded in an O. Henry story of 1902: "So I looked around and found a proposition [a woman] that exactly cut the mustard."
It may come from a cowboy expression, "the proper mustard", meaning "the genuine thing", and a resulting use of "mustard" to denote the best of anything. O. Henry in Cabbages and Kings (1894) called mustard "the main attraction": "I'm not headlined in the bills, but I'm the mustard in the salad dressing, just the same." Figurative use of "mustard" as a positive superlative dates from 1659 in the phrase "keen as mustard", and use of "cut" to denote rank (as in "a cut above") dates from the 18th century.
Other theories are that it is a corruption of the military phrase "to pass muster" ("muster", from Latin _monstrare_="to show", means "to assemble (troops), as for inspection"); that it refers to the practice of adding vinegar to ground-up mustard seed to "cut" the bitter taste; that it literally means "cut mustard" as an example of a difficult task, mustard being a relatively tough crop that grows close to the ground; and that it literally means "cut mustard" as an example of an easy task (via the negative expression "can't even cut the mustard"), mustard being easier to cut at the table than butter.
The more-or-less synonymous expression "cut it" (as in "'Sorry' doesn't cut it") seems to be more recent and may derive from "cut the mustard".

This is a reprint of an article on proper English usage from the Washington State University website


To achieve the required standard
Sammy is a sincere person but when his work is compared to the rest of his co-workers, he simply can't cut the mustard.

The Letter N

The Letter O

On the ball

From the early days of baseball, a pitcher who "had nothing on the ball" was one who was having a bad outing. The term implies that the pitcher has no control or speed on the ball.


To be paying attention, to respond promptly, to be doing one's job.
If you were a bit more on the ball, we might have averted the reactor melt down.

Once in a blue moon

Two full moons in the same month are extremely rare, though they do happen. A second full moon has come to be called a blue moon. This is apparently because the Maine Farmers Almanac used to list the date of first moon in red text, and the second moon in blue.


To happen only on rare occasions.
The Post Office regularly fails to deliver checks sent in payment to me, but bills sent to me fail to be delivered only once in a blue moon.

One Red Cent

The "Red" refers to both the color of a penny (one cent) and the image that used to be on the penny, an American Indian head. Redskin is a slang term used for American Indians.

Before today's Lincoln penny was the Indian Head penny.
The Indian Head penny was first issued in 1859 and looks just like that as issued in 1908 (before the Lincoln Cent). The only difference was that those from 1859-1864 were of a different copper-nickel alloy while 1864 started the common bronze, which was used until 1982. (You didn't know it changed then, did you?)

The copper-nickel alloy has a reddish tint, which turns redder with time and skin oil.

Before the Indian Head penny was the "Buzzard Cent", as the One Cent coins in 1856-1858 were called. The flying eagle on the coin was damned as an ugly bird and it wasn't popular.

However, it was the first "small cent" using about the same size as our penny today. In the half century before this, One Cent coins were about the size of today's Half Dollar!


A single symbolic penny.
I refuse to pay even one red cent for the work until you complete the whole job.

The Letter P

Passed with flying colors

Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge.

"Passed with flying colors" comes from sailing ships that, when passing other ships at sea, would fly their colors (flags) if they wanted to be identified.


To exceed expectations, to do better than expected.
The California smog test is tough, but my car passed with flying colors.

Pot Calling the Kettle Black

From Cervantes' classic: Don Quixote.


Someone who criticises another but who is just as much at fault themselves.
George complaining that I talk too much is kind of like the pot calling the kettle black.

Pot to piss in

In medieval London, people did not have indoor plumbing. It was common to use a chamber pot as an indoor toilet. The chamber pot could then be dumped out a window into the street gutter below. A person who did not have a "pot to piss in" was poor indeed.

In medieval times the word "piss" was not considered at all vulgar. It was not until Victorian England that words such as piss were deemed vulgar. Even today phrases like "pot to piss in" and "Full of Piss and Vinegar" are somehow considered to be generally acceptable and only moderately crude.


To have money or wealth.
You want to have children! We can't afford them, we don't have a pot to piss in.

Put English on it

"The English way" or "English" comes from the British game of Snooker. Snooker is a forerunner to the game of Billiards or pool. Similar to pool, Snooker uses cue sticks, balls, and a table however the table has no pockets.

A technique used in Snooker is to impart a spin to the ball to alter its travel.


To impart a spin to something in an effort to make it hard to control, usually a ball in sports like tennis.
Your serve is dangerous when you put english on it.

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