When someone uses an English idiom that you’ve never heard of before, have you ever been lost in translation?
Especially when it happens during a conversation, it can be frustrating!
You’re not alone. English idioms can be confusing, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the culture and language.
In conversations, books, songs, and movies, English idioms are used all the time.
Your speech will sound more natural and fluent if you use English idioms correctly and in context.
Let me show you how to learn idioms in a way that’s easy to understand and more memorable so you’ll feel comfortable using them.
What Is an Idiom?
An idiom is a group of words or a saying that has a figurative meaning that differs from the words used.
Literally, it doesn’t mean what it says.
When someone says that it’s raining cats and dogs, they mean that it’s heavily raining.
It’s not that animals are falling from the sky.
In many cases, idioms are used to express emotions and feelings in a way that can’t be expressed with regular words.
The Most Effective Way to Learn and Use Idioms Confidently
When it comes to learning idioms, many students are used to studying long and disconnected lists. That’s how most language learning methods teach English.
Sometimes they’re organized by how popular the idioms are.
|On the same wavelength
|To have a shared understanding or perspective
|Push the envelope
|To go beyond the usual boundaries or limits
|Hit the reset button
|To start over or try again from the beginning
|A wolf in sheep’s clothing
|Someone who appears harmless but is actually dangerous
|As stubborn as a mule
|Someone who is very stubborn and refuses to change their mind
This approach, however, isn’t very effective.
In contrast, native speakers learn English through real-life situations, where idioms are connected to specific contexts.
As a result, native speakers are better able to understand and use everyday idioms.
An example would be:
He hears his mom talking on the phone as he sits at the kitchen table doing his homework.
It sounds like she is upset and uses phrases he has never heard before.
She shouts into the phone, “I’m at my wit’s end!”.
Then he declares: “This is the last straw!”
However, he can tell from his mom’s tone of voice that she was feeling angry and frustrated despite not knowing the meaning of the words in this order.
As a result, he will be able to use the phrase even without understanding how the words are arranged.
You can imagine yourself hanging and moving down slowly until there’s no more room to go. That’s the end of the rope.
Imagine putting straws on a camel’s back one by one. At some point, the weight will be too much, and the camel will collapse. This is the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In order to learn idioms effectively, you need to learn them in context, with the situations they are useful in, and the emotions they evoke.
That’s how I’ll teach you.
Master the Idioms in These 5 Important Situations to Express Yourself Better
The more you learn, remember, and use idioms in their context, the more effective they will be.
The following situations will be discussed:
I love you
Disappointment and sadness
Failures and successes
Confusion and agreement
I’ll give you an example of how the idioms can be used, then explain where they come from and what they mean.
Anger and frustration idioms
A person losing their temper or becoming extremely angry can be described by any of the following idioms.
Anger is the focus of all of them:
- Fly off the handle
- Blow a fuse
- See red
- Go ballistic
- Makes my blood boil
Flying off the handle
Whenever someone criticizes my dad’s cooking, he flies off the handle.
As a result of a loose handle, a tool or machine became dangerous.
A person swinging an axe back and forth with a lot of force is chopping wood.
An axe head that is not properly secured to the handle can suddenly fly off and cause serious injury!
A loose handle on a tool becomes uncontrollable and dangerous when it becomes uncontrollably angry out of nowhere.
Blow a Fuse
“My boss blew a fuse when he found out that I accidentally deleted an important file from our system.”
During the early 1900s, electricity was still a new and unexplored concept.
A fuse blows in your house when an electrical system cannot handle the amount of electricity flowing through it. When a fuse blows in your house, the power must be reset to restore power.
When someone “blows a fuse,” they’ve been under a lot of pressure for a long time, and they’re about to have an emotional breakdown.
“When I saw the dent on my brand new car, I immediately started seeing red, and had to take a few deep breaths to calm down.“
Intensity is usually associated with the color red. Sometimes it means anger, but it can also mean love.
When you get angry, your body reacts by pumping adrenaline, turning red, and pounding your heart.
Consider yourself a bull charging at a matador waving a red flag. You see red, and you charge, without considering the consequences.
“The coach went ballistic on the team after they lost their third game in a row.”
This idiom originates from ballistic missiles. They’re launched into the air and then explode when they hit their target.
Imagine someone exploding in anger like a missile. It’s usually a sudden and intense outburst of anger, rather than a slow-building frustration.
There’s also fire in an explosion. Lots of RED and orange colors are associated with it.
Makes My Blood Boil
“When I see people littering on the street, it really makes my blood boil.”
The physical sensation you feel when you’re angry is similar to “seeing red” since both idioms refer to the same thing.
Boiling water is the theme of this one.
When you heat water, it starts to bubble and boil over?
It’s like that with people’s emotions when they get heated… they can’t contain it anymore and, just like hot water, all the anger boils over.
Picture someone’s blood boiling inside them so much that steam starts to pour out of their ears! That’s how intense anger can be.
Idioms to Express Love
These can all be used to express yourself when you’re in love or describe how you feel about someone you love:
- Have a crush on someone
- Head over heels
- Swept off your feet
- Heart skips a beat
- The apple of my eye
Have a Crush on Someone
“Ever since I met Sarah in class, I can’t stop thinking about her. I think I have a crush on her.”
You like someone when you have a crush on them.
Maybe you think about them often, or daydream about being with them. Maybe you feel nervous or excited around them.
It’s like you have a little spark of excitement burning inside of you that won’t let go. It’s also like you want to crush them with so much attention.
They don’t know yet. You haven’t told them how you feel. That means they might not feel the same way.
Heart Skips a Beat
“I was walking down the street when I saw my old crush from high school. My heart skipped a beat!”
Like some of the anger idioms, this one describes how your heart beats when you’re excited or nervous, especially when you see someone you like.
A sudden feeling of surprise or excitement that makes your heart beat faster. You might even feel as if your heart stopped!
Head Over Heels
“When Sarah met John, she fell head over heels in love with him. She couldn’t stop thinking about him”
Being deeply in love with someone means being deeply in love with them.
It’s like being so in love that you feel like you’re falling forward and doing somersaults.
In a state of being “head over heels,” you might feel a rush of excitement, and you might even feel a bit dizzy. There is a sense that things are moving quickly (like when you do a summersault).
Swept Off Your Feet
“I wasn’t expecting to fall in love so quickly, but when I met John, he swept me off my feet!”
As with “head over heels,” it refers to the feeling of being carried away by someone who has fallen in love.
You usually feel completely in love after an unexpected romantic encounter or gesture.
Imagine being carried away by a powerful gust of wind.
Imagine being swept away by your lover’s charm and desire, unable to resist their charm and desires.
The Apple of My Eye
“I’ve been married to Sarah for 30 years, and she’s still the apple of my eye. I can’t imagine my life without her.”
Think about Adam and Eve and the apple they ate in biblical times to understand this idiom.
The pupil of the eye was once thought to be a round, apple-shaped object that was the most important part of the eye.
Using this expression means that someone is very important and precious to you, like a pupil in your eye.
This phrase can be used to describe your child, partner, best friend, or anyone who holds a special place in your heart.
Idioms to Express Sadness and Disappointment
If you’re not feeling the happiest, these idioms can help you put your emotions into words:
- Feeling blue
- Down in the dumps
- Crying over spilled milk
- Rain on someone’s parade
- Break someone’s heart
“I’m feeling blue today because I lost my job.”
When you see red, people automatically understand how you feel.
When you say you “feel blue”, imagine sitting alone in a dark blue room, feeling sad. The color blue is associated with feeling sad or depressed.
A person who tells you they are feeling blue usually needs someone to talk to or someone to cheer them up.
Down in the Dumps
“I’m sorry I can’t come out tonight, I’m just feeling down in the dumps.”
Imagine a garbage dump or landfill, where unwanted items are abandoned.
“Down in the dumps” could mean feeling abandoned or forgotten.
The feeling of being stuck in a hole or a dark pit can be overwhelming if you’re feeling low or depressed.
This one makes us feel sad because of the lack of color.
Crying Over Spilled Milk
“It’s no use crying over spilled milk.“
In front of you is a plate of freshly baked cookies. You’ve been looking forward to them all night. You pour yourself an ice-cold glass of milk to accompany them.
Your elbow accidentally knocks over the glass!
There is a spill of milk all over the table.
The fridge is empty, and you can’t put it back in the glass.
As a result, if something goes wrong or you make a mistake, there’s no point in getting mad at yourself.
As if to say:
Yes, it’s unfortunate, but let’s move on and focus on finding a solution or preventing the same mistake from happening again.
Rain on Someone’s Parade
“I’m really proud of my project, so don’t rain on my parade by pointing out all the little mistakes.”
During a parade, everyone is laughing, dancing, and having fun. The sun is shining, and the music is playing. Suddenly, it starts raining!
In this idiom, you feel happy, like you’re at a parade, and you don’t want someone to ruin your mood with their rainy attitude.
You can use it when you want someone to respect how you feel and let you enjoy the moment.
You might feel disappointed instead of excited if someone “rains on your parade.”
Break Someone’s Heart
“I don’t know you anymore. Anakin, you’re breaking my heart.”
— Padme, Star Wars: Episode lll
Padme is deeply hurt by her husband’s actions in that quote. She cannot believe what he has done, and in the end, she dies of a broken heart.
This is a symbol of deep emotional pain compared with physical pain. While you can’t really die from a broken heart, it serves as a metaphor for traumatic physical pain.
It is used to express deep sorrow when someone hurts your feelings or disappoints you with their words or actions.
Idioms to Describe a Success or Failure
These can all be used to express your achievements or failures in a more colorful way:
- Throw in the towel
- Hit the jackpot
- Catch a break
- Back to the drawing board
- Bite the bullet
Throw in the Towel
“After months of trying to fix his old car, Jack finally decided to throw in the towel and buy a new one.”
Boxing is the origin of this idiom.
During a fight, a boxer’s team will throw a white towel into the ring to indicate that the fighter has given up.
A boxer’s coach usually throws in the towel because the boxer is too absorbed in the fight and will keep going even if they lose.
Coach throws in the towel to protect his fighter so he won’t take any more damage.
A friend or family member usually tells you “It’s time to give up.”
You might feel defeated and tired after losing a boxing match. Maybe it’s time to quit and try something else after working hard for a while.
In the opposite sense, you can use this to talk about persevering until you succeed:
“There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I kept going for my family.”
Hit the Jackpot
“After years of hard work and dedication, Shelly hit the jackpot when she finally got the lead role in the play.”
When you achieve a big win or reward, this idiom describes good luck.
The term “jackpot” originally referred to a large pot of money that builds up in poker, but eventually it became associated with slot machines and gambling.
You pull the lever of a slot machine at a casino, and three 7’s appear on the screen. You just “hit the jackpot” and win a lot of money.
Shelly “hit the jackpot,” but only after years of hard work and dedication, just like poker is a game of skill.
Catching a Break
“I caught a lucky break when I found a last-minute ticket to the concert.”
After breaking the balls, players can get lucky if the balls land in locations that give them a better chance of sinking the balls, giving them a better chance to win.
Getting what you want faster and easier is like discovering a shortcut.
In this case, you’ll feel a sense of relief and gratitude that things worked out in your favor. You’re able to take a break from the challenges you had been facing.
“Catching a break” feels like a gift you’ve been waiting for.
Back to the Drawing Board
“I thought my strategy was perfect, but my boss pointed out some major flaws. So I need to go back to the drawing board.”
Drawing boards were essential tools for creating plans and blueprints in the world of engineering and design.
Engineers and designers would have to go “back to the drawing board” when a design failed.
A plan has been crossed out with red markers, scribbles, and post-it notes. You need to start over, with a blank slate.
You failed this time, but you’ll try again.
Bite the Bullet
“I really don’t want to work this weekend, but I’ll just have to bite the bullet and get it done.“
During surgery without anesthesia, soldiers were given bullets to bite down on on the battlefield.
Biting the bullet would distract the soldier from the pain and keep him from screaming or moving around too much.
Despite the pain or discomfort they may experience, a person may clench their teeth to get through a difficult situation.
In order to be successful, you’ll have to do something you don’t enjoy.
Idioms to Express Agreement and Confusion
These can all be used to say you agree, disagree, or say you don’t understand. Notice how they relate to your sense of sight.
- On the same page
- See eye to eye
- In the dark
- A deer in the headlights
- All over the place
On the Same Page
“I’m glad we’re on the same page!”
When you use this idiom, you are expressing your agreement with someone.
Most likely, it came from the idea that everyone reads from the same page of a book.
When everyone in a group meeting has the same notes or agenda, everyone understands and agrees on what needs to be accomplished.
This implies that you are working together on a project.
A very polite way to disagree is to say “We’re not on the same page.” If you don’t agree with someone or they want to do something differently.
To See Eye to Eye
“Jane and Tom see eye to eye on the importance of open and honest communication.”
Two people standing face-to-face are more likely to communicate effectively and understand each other’s perspectives if they are looking each other in the eye.
As if we see things the same way.
If you agree with someone’s opinion or outlook, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working together.
In the Dark
“I was completely in the dark about the new project requirements.”
Imagine being in a completely dark room. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You feel lost and disoriented. The lack of light makes you feel confused and uncertain.
This idiom means you’re unaware of important information and it’s hard to know what move to make next because you can’t see a thing.
A Deer in the Headlights
“He froze like a deer in the headlights when the teacher called on him in front of the whole class!”
How do you feel when you suddenly get scared and you freeze up? When you’re unsure what to do?
Basically, “like a deer in the headlights” means that you’re so surprised or scared that you can’t move.
It’s a dark night, and you’re driving down a winding country road.
Then, suddenly, as you turn around the next turn, you see a deer standing in the middle of the road. Paralyzed by fear, the deer simply stares at you with its glossy black eyes reflecting the light of your high beams, unable to move. Despite being on collision course with you, it doesn’t move!
In this idiom, the person you are describing is like the deer – paralyzed and powerless when faced with a surprise.
All Over the Place
“Wow, you’re all over the place today! Can we stick to one topic at a time?”
If someone is unfocused or erratic, they are disorganized, chaotic, or scattered.
Imagine walking into a bedroom and seeing clothes, books, and papers all over the floor, bed, and desk.