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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 A

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

In 1604, Shakespeare echoed this sentiment in "Othello" (Act 1, scene ii), when Desdemona confessed, "I dote upon his very absence." James Howell, in "Familiar Letters" (1650) says that, "Distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it."

There are other references to this proverb in literature, but it was originally the first line of an anonymous poem which appeared in Davison's "Poetical Rhapsody" in 1602.


Our feeling for those we love increases when we are apart from them.
"Cheer up Dude, everybody knows that absence makes the heart grow fonder."

Armed to the teeth

This is a pirate phrase originating in Port Royal Jamaica in the 1600's. Having only single shot black powder weapons and cutlesses, they would carry many of these weapons at once to keep up the fight.

In addition they carried a knife in their teeth for maximum arms capability.


To be heavily armed.
Don't even think about going into Chicago's housing projects unless you are armed to the teeth.

The Letter B

Back handed compliment

Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. For example in tennis, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body.

The left side of the body has always been deemed sinister. The Latin word for left is sinister. Hence, back-handed means round-about, indirect, or devious.


A compliment that also insults or puts down at the same time.
They gave me a backhanded compliment when they said I was smart for a girl.

Bleed like a stuck pig

The throat of a pig set for slaughter is cut or opened with a sharp spike or knife. Because the cut severs the jugular vein, the pig bleeds rapidly.


To bleed heavily.
Handle that straight razor carefully. If you cut yourself, you will bleed like a stuck pig.

Blow off some steam

Boilers are commonly used in steam heating systems and steam engines such as those used in a steam locomotive. The boilers contain water that is heated by burning some fuel such as oil. The heated water turns to steam, which is then sent through a system of radiators (in the case of heating systems) or harnessed by a steam engine.

The steam creates considerable pressure in the boiler. If the pressure becomes too great, there is a danger of the boiler exploding. Hence boilers are equipped with safety valves called blow off valves that open if the pressure becomes to great.

"Blowing off steam" prevents explosions by relieving the pressure in a boiler by venting excess steam and pressure.


To enjoy oneself by relaxing normal formalities.
He is a true workaholic who has misguided priorities, when he wants to blow off some steam he comes to work on Saturday wearing blue jeans.

Blowing smoke

Magicians often use smoke in their performance to obscure your view and conceal a bit of trickery.

A person who is "blowing smoke" is tricking you and attempting to cover it up.


To be boasting without being able to back it up, talking about action without intent to follow through.
Do you really want to buy this car or are you just blowing smoke?

Bouched up

Sir Thomas Bouch designed a bridge that was built at the Tay estuary at Dundee in Scotland. It was supposed to be the greatest structure built in Victorian England. The building of the Tay rail bridge culminated in him being knighted. The Tay bridge was nearly two miles long, consisting of 85 spans and at the time (1879) was the longest bridge in the world.

One stormy night, only 19 months after the bridge was declared safe by the Board of Trade and opened to traffic in the summer of 1878, the wind caused some of its spans to collapse. A train and 6 carriages and 75 souls were lost that night ranking it as the worst accident caused by structural failure in the history of England. Sir Thomas Bouch died only 10 months after the failure.


Substandard; messed up; make a shamble of
Man, you really bouched up that project. Now the company will have to start all over costing double and missing all of our deadlines.

Brand Spanking New

Doctors have traditionally spanked babies immediately after delivery to start them crying, and breathing.


New and unused.
What you really need is a brand spanking new Porsche turbo.

Break a leg

"Break a leg" is sourced in superstition. It is a wish of good luck, but the words wish just the opposite.

It was once common for people to believe in Sprites. Sprites are actually spirits or ghosts that were believed to enjoy wreaking havoc and causing trouble.

If the Sprites heard you ask for something, they were reputed to try to make the opposite happen. Telling someone to "break a leg" is an attempt to outsmart the Sprites and in fact make something good happen. Sort of a medieval reverse psychology.


A wish of good luck, do well.
Break a leg in your game today.

A Burnt Child Dreads the Fire

Very similar in meaning to another proverb, "Once bitten, twice shy," today's proverb is an old one. It appeared in English literature as early as 1320, in "The Proverbs of Hendyng." Another proverb, which is similar, comes from the French: "A scalded dog fears cold water" carries an even stronger message; that those who have experienced a great deal of difficulty or pain will not only avoid it in the future, but will be afraid even where there is no cause.
Other languages also have like proverbs, such as, "One bitten by a serpent is afraid of a rope's end" (Jewish), "A man who has received a beating with a firebrand runs away at the sight of a firefly" (Singhalese), and "A dog which has been beaten with a stick fears its own shadow" (Italian).


One does not repeat a painful lesson twice.
I've tried to get little Johnny to quit running and jumping on the furniture before he hurts himself, but only a burnt child dreads the fire.

Bust your balls

There is a way to castrate a calf, instead of cutting off the Testicles you break them. To "bust your balls" is to turn them from a bull into a steer. Properly directed harassment can have a similar effect on humans.


To harass with the intent to break one's spirit.
When I ask you if you settled that dispute with the IRS, I am not just trying to bust your balls. I am trying to help.

Busting your chops

At the turn of the century, wearing very long sideburnsócalled mutton chops or lamb chops -- was en vogue. Lamb chop side burns also made a comeback in the late 1960s. A bust in the chops was to get hit in the face. Since Mutton Chops are no longer considered high fashion, the term has come to be figurative rather than literal.


To say things intended to harass.
Don't get mad, I am just busting your chops.

The Letter C

Can't hold a candle to

Before electric lights, someone performing a task in the dark needed a helper to hold a candle to provide light while the task was performed. Much as a helper might hold a flashlight today.

Holding the candle is of course the less challenging role. Someone who is not even qualified to hold the candle is much less competent than the person performing the actual task.


To be far less competent or have far less skills than someone else.
When it comes to performance, Corvette can't hold a candle to Porsche.

Cat bird seat

Mocking birds are sometimes referred to as cat birds. Mocking birds typically sit at the top of a tree. Hence the cat bird seat is at the top.


A highly advantaged position, to have it all.
Some might describe Bill Gates as sitting in the cat bird seat.

Chew the fat

The Inuit (different from Eskimos) used to chew on pieces of whale blubber almost like chewing gum. The blubber took quite a while to dissolve, so it just sort of helped pass the time while they were doing something else.

Some other cultures may have used bacon fat in a similar way.


To talk about unimportant things.
Sit down, have a beer, and let's chew the fat.

Clean bill of health

This widely used term has its origins in the "Bill of Health", a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.


To be found healthy.
I visited the doctor today and was given a clean bill of health.

Clear as 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 like an impending attack. The bell and the message intended could be heard clearly over a large area.

Back in the 1910's, many companies were trying to get into the manufacturing and selling one the hottest items around, the phonograph. One of those companies was the Sonora Chime Company.

This company started the Sonora Phonograph Company and used "Clear as a Bell" as their slogan, touting the fidelity of their machine's sound reproduction.


Clearly understood.
You don't have to repeat yourself. Your message is clear as a bell.

Close, but no cigar

Carnival games of skill, particularly shooting games, once gave out cigars as a prize. A contestant that did not quite hit the target was close, but did not get a cigar.


Nearly achieving success, but not quite.
That free throw was close, but no cigar.

Cold turkey

The expression originates from the goose bumps and palor which accompany withdrawal from narcotics or tobacco. One's skin resembles that of a plucked, cold turkey....


To quit something abruptly.
You will not lose weight until you give up chocolate, and I suggest you go cold turkey.

Cooking with gas

Although common place today, gas stoves have not always been the norm. Gas stoves started to be available in the 1800's, and until that time wood stoves were the standard.

Now you're "cooking with gas" comes from an old advertisement for gas stoves. The phrase suggests that gas is faster, easier, cleaner, better than cooking with wood.


To be working fast, proceeding rapidly.
After working with those old hand tools, power tools will make you feel like you are really cooking with gas.

In the crapper

Thomas Crapper of England is credited for the design and implementation of modern indoor plumbing (including the flushable toilet). Although there is conciderable evidence to the contrary, restrooms/bathrooms are still often referred to as "The Crapper." This word (among others) was introduced to America by their World War I soldiers returning home from Europe.

For more information, check out Plumbing & Mechanical magazine


In the toilet, soiled; or hopelessly irretrievable.
Your relationship with Mary went right in the crapper the minute you told her to, "Rub that pie on her hips because that is where it's going to end up anyway".

Crocodile tears

It was often thought that crocodiles shed tears that slid down into their mouths, moistening their food and making it easier for them to swallow. Hence the tears appear to be an expression of emotion but are in fact a means to make it easier to swallow (possibly the observer).


Pretending to cry in an attempt to manipulate or exploit, phony tears.
OJ gave his testimony through crocodile tears.

Crossing the Rubicon

The actual Rubicon is a river in Northern Italy that flows into the Adriatic Sea. It is 15 miles (24 kilometers) long. The river is renowned because Julius Caesar prompted a three year civil war when he crossed this river in 49 B.C. to march against Pompey. Julius knew that "crossing the Rubicon" with his army in tact would be considered an act of aggression.

Using the word Rubicon as a figurative boundary, limiting action was first seen in the 1600s.


When a decisive and irrevocable step has been taken. To commit to a given course of action that permits no return is to cross the Rubicon.
Paul knew he had passed the Rubicon when he wrote the deposit check for the hall for the wedding reception.

Cut from the same cloth

If you're making a suit, the jacket and trousers should be cut from the same piece of cloth to ensure a perfect match, since there may be differences in color, weave etc. between batches of fabric. Only if the whole suite is cut from the same piece of cloth can we be sure of the match.


To be similar, usually in terms of behavior.
You and your father are cut from the same cloth; fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life son.

The Letter D

Dead as a door nail

Nails were once hand tooled and costly. When an aging cabin or barn was torn down the valuable nails would be salvaged so they could be reused in later construction.

When building a door however, carpenters often drove the nail through then bent it over the other end so it couldn't work its way out during the repeated opening and closing of the door. When it came time to salvage the building, these door nails were considered useless, or "dead" because of the way they were bent.


To be dead, with no chance for recovery.
You might as well junk that car, the engine is dead as a door nail.

Don't Count Your Chickens Before They're Hatched

This proverb's use in English began in the second half of the sixteenth century, but its origins are in Aesop's Fables, written in the sixth century B.C. "The Milkmaid and the Pail" is a fable about a young girl on her way home, carrying her pail of milk on top of her head.

She was daydreaming about what she would do with the milk, starting with making cream and butter to sell. Then, she could buy eggs with that money, and the eggs would hatch into chickens. They would lay more eggs, and the process would continue, growing more and more profitable. Later on, she could sell some of the birds and buy herself a dress, drawing attention of the young men in the town. When they took notice, her plan was to ignore their advances wit a toss of her curls.


Don't be overconfident and assume success before you know the outcome of a venture.
In the midst of this daydream, she did toss her curls, sending the pail of milk spilling. The moral of the fable is: Such are the disappointments of those who count their chickens before they are hatched.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

Horses have gum lines that recede with age. Hence older horses have longer teeth than young horses.

To "look a horse in the mouth" is to examine the horse's mouth closely to determine its age (and therefore its usefulness and/or worth). To immediately judge a gift based on its worth or usefulness rather than the "thought" behind it considered rude, and ungrateful (it is a gift after all, and didn't cost the receiver anything).

The phrase is apparently quite old, a Latin version of it appeared in a work by St. Jerome in 420 AD, and it also exists in many languages. An Early english version (1510 AD) appears in John Standbridge's "Vulgari Standbrigi": "A gyuen hors may not (be) loked in the tethe."


Do not be critical of a gift.
Okay, so the '72 Gremlin grandma gave you is not your idea of a babe magnet, but it was free - so don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Down the hatch

Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch for transport below deck. The freight appears to be consumed by the ship.


Drink or eat.
Enough talk, let's put some food down the hatch.

Down to the short strokes

When a golfer begins at the tee, he hits the ball towards the green by driving, or using a long stroke. When the ball is on the green, he must get the ball in the hole by putting - or taking "short" strokes.


Approaching the end of a long process.
Building a house is a long ordeal. Just when you think you are down to the short strokes something unexpected comes up.

Down to the wire

This phrase refers to races where the winner is determined by whoever crosses the finish line first. Think of horse racing and foot races. A string is stretched across the finish to help the judges see clearly who crosses first in a close race. That string is called the wire or tape, the winner is the one who breaks the wire first.

The "wire" is actually string, tape, or paper and not a metal wire at all. No need to be concerned about those horses tripping and getting themselves caught in the wire.


Undecided until the end, at the last minute
We almost missed our flight, it came right down to the wire. The traffic on the way to the airport was horrible and we had to run to our gate.

Dressed to a tea

A short way of saying "dressed for a tea" or "dressed to go to a tea". In the Victorian era, high tea was a formal affair. All proper people dressed in appropriate attire.


Well dressed with attention to detail.
Beware any salesman that is dressed to a tea, smiles too much, and talks fast.

Dressed to the nines

Common lore has it that a tailor making a high quality suit uses more fabric. The best suits are made from nine yards of fabric. This may seem like a lot but a proper suit does indeed take nine yards of fabric. This is because a good suit has all the fabric cut in the same direction with the warp, or long strands of thread, parallel with the vertical line of the suit. This causes a great amount of waste in suit making, but if you want to go "dressed to the nines", you must pay for such waste.


Dressed flamboyantly, dressed well.
New years eve is the one day of the year when people like to go out dressed to the nines.

Drop a dime

This is a good phrase to discuss with anyone born after 1970. Pay phones cost 35, 50, or even 75 cents today, but they really did cost 10 cents at one time. The dime was dropped into the slot of the pay phone.


Make a phone call.
Don't be such a stranger. Drop a dime some time.

The Letter E

At the eleventh hour

On a 12-hour clock (rather than the 24-hour clock used by scientists, the military, et al) the hours of 12 noon and 12 midnight seem to hold special significance. De-marking the transition from morning to afternoon and the end of the day, they are often used as deadlines (high noon, the stroke of midnight).

To come at "the eleventh hour" implies that it comes in the last hour before the deadline. The choice of "the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" as the time to end W.W.I was quite apt.


At the very last moment.
The union negotiator went right down to the eleventh hour before accepting the company's final offer.

Eyes are bigger than your stomach

A person seeing a table piled high with sumptuous food has a tendency to get too many and/or too large a portion. Since the problem is brought on by the eyes and a lack of reason, the person is portrayed a one whose eyes are bigger than their stomach.

This statement can indicate that a person is immature or greedy. One who is not in control of wants, feelings, or emotions. One who does not consider the needs or feelings of those around them.


When a person wants more than is good for them.
Be careful not to pile the food up too high on your plate. I think your eyes are bigger than your stomach and you'll have to throw much of it away.

The Letter F

Face the music

Comes from the British military. When someone was court marshaled, there would be a military drum squad playing, hence face the music. The term "drummed out of the military" came from this practice....


To accept the truth.
It's time to face the music on your donut addiction.

For the love of Pete

This phrase and phrases like "for Pete's sake" are euphemisms for the phrases "for the love of God/Christ" or "for God's/Christ's sake" and hail from a time when those phases were considered blasphemous. Nowadays phrases like "for the love of God" are commonly used, but the euphemisms are still used.

Why Pete? Most likely it is a reference to the catholic Saint Peter.


I am frustrated with this situation.
For the love of Pete, can we just pick a restaurant and stop searching? I am hungry.

From stem to stern

The very front of a ship is called the stem, the rear is called the stern. From stem to stern includes the entire ship.


Thorough, complete.
I searched the house from stem to stern for that cat, then found him sleeping on a shelf right in front of me.

The Letter G

Get a leg up

This phrase may incorrectly invoke images of a dog raising its leg.

In fact "Getting a leg up" is from the act of an equestrian receiving help in mounting a horse. The helper would create a foothold by cupping the hands to heft the rider upward, throwing a leg up and over the steed.


To get a boost or advantage.
I could get up a 5:00 am to get a leg up on my competition, but I don't think so.


Grand-father is often shortened to Gran'pa or simply Gramps.

Take care not to refer to an older male in this fashion unless you have a relationship that permits this type of slang to be used or you might end up offending the older person.


Hey Gramps, "Will you take me fishing today?"

The Letter H

Hat trick

"Hat trick" originated from the English game of Cricket. The term originally referred to a bowler retiring three consecutive batsman with three consecutive balls.

This is roughly equivalent to a pitcher in baseball striking out three consecutive batters using only three pitches to each! This was considered quite an accomplishment and was traditionally rewarded with a hat.

The term is now used for other sports, always referring to an accomplishment of three. A popular use today is three goals by a single player in one game of hockey or soccer.


The accomplishment of three successes or wins.
Pam has pulled off a hat trick, three divorces, three big settlements.

Hell's half acre

Hell's half acre is a lava flow about 15 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It is 4.5 miles of rough, irregular terrain that is very difficult to navigate. It is so named because its cracks, holes, and crags give the area an otherworldly, surreal, and perhaps hellish appearance. A search of Hell's half acre would indeed be a long and difficult task.

Many of the scenes in the 1997 film "Starship Troopers" (based on Robert Heinlein's novel of the same name) in which the characters were on an alien planet, were filmed at Hell's half acre.


A long and frustrating trip.
I looked all over hell's half acre trying to find a left handed monkey wrench.

High on the hog

The best meat is on the upper portion of the pig. Rich people have always been afforded this luxury while the servants, slaves and poor have always had to eat pig's feet, chitterlings, cracklings, etc. - low on the hog.


If you choose to live high on the hog, you will be low in the wallet.

Hold your feet to the fire

Pertains to torture used during the Crusade's. As a method for extracting confession for heresy, non-believers were positioned in a manner that allowed the inquisitor to apply flames to the feet of the accused. This was done until the accused confessed or died.


To hold one accountable for a commitment, make good on a promise.
You made a fair bet with me on the Superbowl and I am going to hold your feet to the fire for payment.

Horse of a different color

Horses are registered at birth and the registration includes a record of their color. When a horse trades hands due to sale, the registration is also transferred. Sometimes the color recorded on the registration may not match the actual color of the horse leading one to suspect the horse is not the one in the registration.

Horses sometimes change color as they age, just as some people's hair changes color. More likely the horse is not the one represented on the registration but is actually an entirely different horse.


Unlike the subject at hand.
Bush and Reagan are both credible, but Clinton is a horse of a different color.

Horse sense

Horses are intelligent animals. They demonstrate the ability to act sensibly and to avoid situations that might cause them harm such as taking a fall, hence good common sense.


Common sense, able to stand the test of reasonableness.
If your going to spend your time working anyway, it only makes horse sense to get a high paying job.

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