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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 Q

The Letter R

Reading the riot act

"Reading the riot act" used to be a literal event. Bobbies in Britain used to read a prescribed proclamation, known as the Riot Act, before they could break up or arrest a crowd. The Riot Act is used in a fashion similar to the Miranda Rights in the US.

The Bobbies would approach the crowd, read the Riot Act aloud, and then disperse or arrest them.


To complain or lecture loudly and with angry emotion.
Upset about his neighbors load music at 3:00 am, Davis knocked on the door and proceeded to read the riot act.

Rings a Bell

Bells such as the type used in churches are large and loud. Their sound can be heard from a great distance. Bells sound a single, clear note so their sound is distinctive and not easily confused.

Before electric sirens and amplification systems, bells were a valuable means of signaling people and alerting of important events.

Further, accurate timepieces were not always as available as they are today. Bells were used to signal people of the start of events such as a church session, the start of school, or a celebration. The bells acted as a reminder of the start of the event for people who had an out of synch timepiece or no timepiece.

Someone would literally ring a bell as a reminder.

As an aside bells were later used on clocks to mark the hour. A large clock usually in the town square could be heard throughout the town. This clock acted as a master time reference for the town. The hourly bell ringing gave people an opportunity to synchronize their respective timepieces, and early watches required frequent adjustment.


To sound familiar, to spark a memory.
I don't remember meeting him, but the name John Smith rings a bell.

Roll with the punches

Rolling with the punches is a technique used in boxing. The objective is to avoid receiving a direct hit with solid contact.

The technique is to move away from the punch in an attempt to avoid the blow or at least create a glancing blow. A glancing blow being preferable to a direct hit.


Weather through tough times, try to minimize the trouble.
Sometimes in life you just have to roll with the punches, even when the punches feel like they are coming from Mike Tyson.

Room to swing a cat

This colorful phrase evokes strange images of feline cruelty. In fact it has nothing to do with cats, but the real story is at least as cruel.

The "cat" is a cat-of-nine-tails, a type of whip used to discipline sailors on old sailing ships. The cat-of-nine-tails has one handle to which is attached nine thin strips of leather, each perhaps three feet long. The cat-of-nine-tails would be used to administer lashings that would sting and leave welts on the recipient.

The whippings would take place on the deck, because below deck there was not enough ceiling height to swing a cat-of-nine-tails.


A confined space.
This bedroom doesn't even have enough room to swing a cat.

Rule of thumb

Based on the use of ones thumb as a rough measurement tool. Generally correct for course measures.

Most old English measures of distance were based on the body measurements of the king -- the length of the foot, inch (thumb tip to first knuckle), cubit (elbow-to-fingertip), and yard (nose-to-fingertip).


A basic rule that is usually but not always correct.
As a rule of thumb, plant tomato seeds three inches deep.

The Letter S

Show your true colors

Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge. Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot.

Someone who finally "shows his true colors" is acting like a warship which hails another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.


To reveal your true intentions, personality, or behaviors.
Everyone is on best behavior on the first date, but soon enough you will show your true colors.

Sleep tight

Before box springs were in use, old bed frames used rope pulled tightly between the frame rails to support a mattress. If the rope became loose, the mattress would sag making for uncomfortable sleeping. Tightening the ropes would help one get a good night sleep.


Sleep well.
Good night, sleep tight.

The smoking lamp is out

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.


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.

Square meal

British war ships in the 1700s including the HMS Victory did not have the best of living conditions. A sailors breakfast and lunch were sparse meals consisting of little more than bread and a beverage. But the third meal of the day included meat and was served on a square tray. Eating a substantial meal onboard a ship required a tray to carry it all. Hence a "square meal" was the most substantial meal served.


A nutritious meal.
I am overweight because my wife's cooking is delicious but full of fat and sugar. The only way to get a good square meal is to eat out.

Straight and narrow

This phrase comes from the Bible and describes the path to heaven.

Matthew 7:14 to be exact: "Broad is the way that is the path of destruction but narrow is the gate and straight is the way which leadeth to the house of God."


To stay out of trouble.
Ever since getting out of jail on bond I have been on the straight and narrow.

Strike while the iron is hot

Blacksmiths working iron by hand heat the iron in a fire to red-hot making it malleable. The Smith removes the iron from the fire and shapes it with blows from a hammer. They need to work quickly before the iron cools. Once the iron is cool, it becomes brittle and the opportunity to hammer it into shape has passed.


Act quickly while the opportunity is still available.
If you want the job, you need to strike while the iron is hot.

The Letter T

Take a dive

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.


To intentionally fail in competition, to throw a game.
All good salesmen learn to take a dive when playing golf with customers.

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.


Very drunk, highly intoxicated.
The groom made it to the alter, but he was three sheets to the wind.

Tie the knot

Some marriage ceremonies actually tie together the wrists of the bride and groom.

Webster defines "tie" as "to unite in marriage".


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.

Toe the line

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.


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.

Under the weather

Passengers aboard ships become seasick most frequently during times of rough seas and bad weather. Seasickness is caused by the constant rocking motion of the ship. Sick passengers go below deck, which provides shelter from the weather, but just as importantly the sway is not as great below deck, low on the ship.

On a ship the greatest swaying action is on deck, and the most stable point is down near the keel. Hence seasick passengers tend to feel better below deck.


To be ill.
I'd love to help you move all your furniture next weekend, but I expect to be feeling a bit under the weather.

The Letter U

Upper Hand

This phrase originated with the advent of sandlot baseball. In order to determine which team would bat first, one player would grasp the baseball bat at the lower end. A player from the opposing team would then place his hand directly above the first player's hand. They would alternate hands up the bat until the end was reached and one of the players had the "upper hand".


Control of a situation.
If you are wondering who has the upper hand in your relationship, the next time you get up to fetch drinks, take a look on the sofa. There you will find that person.

The Letters V & W

White Elephant

From the Burmese belief that albino elephants are sacred. They can't be used for work and they must be lavished with the ultimate amount of care.

Giving a gift of a white elephant would be done to someone considered an enemy. The idea being that you would eventually wipe out your enemy's wealth with the care of the sacred elephant.


Something that is costly to obtain or maintain and provides little benefit or value.
The London Bridge became a white elephant. The bridge was relocated to Havasu City Arizona, where it now remains as a tourist attraction.

With a grain of salt

Salt is now an inexpensive and readily available commodity. But it was once very valuable due to its high demand as a food preservative and relative scarcity.

Salt was thought to have healing properties and to be an antidote to poisons. To take (eat or drink) something "with a grain of salt" was to practice preventive medicine. One would do this if they were suspicious that the food might be poisonous or may cause illness.


With a healthy dose of skepticism, suspicion, and caution.
Dave has been known to stretch the truth a bit. Take what he says with a grain of salt.

Worth its salt

Today salt is inexpensive and universally available, but that wasn't always the case. Salt has been a valuable commodity in many cultures throughout history.

Salt is sodium chloride. It can be obtained from mines or the oceans. Today salt is commonly mined from large deposits left by dried salt lakes. Modern mining and transportation methods have made salt an inexpensive commodity.

Salt is an effective food preservative and before refrigeration was widely available, the demand for salt as a preservative was much greater. The human body requires salt for the regulation of fluid balance. Salt used as a seasoning adds to the taste of many foods.

Because of salt's high value, it was used as a method of exchange. Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their pay. In fact the word "salary" is derived from the Latin "salarium" meaning "of salt".

To say that someone is "worth his salt" is to say they have earned their pay.


To be competent, reasonably skilled.
Not to worry about your new suit, any detergent worth its salt can remove blood stains.

The writing is on the wall

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.


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.

The Letters X, Y & Z

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