Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS Australasia — May 16th, 2018

When it comes to idioms, you’ll probably understand every word, but you might have trouble interpreting the meaning. You must dig more and go deeper to understand what is behind the phrase. Let’s examine the meanings and historical information of 10 popular idioms to expand your grasp of the English language.

An idiom (also called idiomatic expression) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers. This meaning is different from the literal meaning of the idiom’s individual elements. In other words, idioms don’t mean exactly what the words say. They have, however, hidden meaning.

For your IELTS Speaking test, idiomatic language can be important because it is one of the elements in this component of the test the examiner looks for. You can see the marking criteria for your Speaking test here.

Click each idiom to see the history, meaning and use in a sentence.

A whole new ball game
Meaning

Join others in doing or supporting something fashionable or likely to be successful.

Origin

Bandwagon was originally the US term for a large wagon able to carry a band in a procession.

In a sentence

When your TV show does extremely well, advertisers will be competing to be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

Jump (or climb) on the bandwagon
Meaning

Join others in doing or supporting something fashionable or likely to be successful.

Origin

Bandwagon was originally the US term for a large wagon able to carry a band in a procession.

In a sentence

When your TV show does extremely well, advertisers will be competing to be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

Pass (or hand) (on) the baton
Meaning

Join others in doing or supporting something fashionable or likely to be successful.

Origin

Bandwagon was originally the US term for a large wagon able to carry a band in a procession.

In a sentence

When your TV show does extremely well, advertisers will be competing to be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

Off (or way off) beam
Meaning

Join others in doing or supporting something fashionable or likely to be successful.

Origin

Bandwagon was originally the US term for a large wagon able to carry a band in a procession.

In a sentence

When your TV show does extremely well, advertisers will be competing to be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

Beat a (hasty) retreat
Meaning

Join others in doing or supporting something fashionable or likely to be successful.

Origin

Bandwagon was originally the US term for a large wagon able to carry a band in a procession.

In a sentence

When your TV show does extremely well, advertisers will be competing to be the first to jump on the bandwagon.

At someone’s beck and call
Meaning

Always having to be ready to obey someone’s orders immediately.

Origin

Beck in the sense of “significant gesture of command” comes from the verb beck, which is shortened form of beckon and is now found mainly in this phrase.

In a sentence

She is going to be confined to a wheelchair for the next three weeks but she’s not complaining as she will have a nurse at her beck and call.

Bed of nails
Meaning

A problematic or uncomfortable situation.

Origin

Originally a board with nails pointing out of it, as used by Eastern fakirs and ascetics.

In a sentence

My parents are very judgmental and living with them can be a bed of nails.

Make a beeline for
Meaning

Go rapidly and directly towards.

Origin

The bee was supposed to fly in a such a way when returning to its hive.

In a sentence

They hungry tourists made a beeline for the buffet that featured delicious food from all over the world.

Beggar on horseback
Meaning

A formerly poor person made arrogant or corrupt through achieving wealth and luxury.

Origin

The proverbial saying set a beggar on horseback and he’ll ride to the devil.

In a sentence

It’s not surprising that he lost everything and is being investigated by the authorities as he was a beggar on a horseback.

Work like a beaver
Meaning

To work steadily and industriously or to work very hard and energetically. Also, work like a dog, work like a horse.

Origin

The beaver is referred to here because of the industriousness with which it constructs the dams.

In a sentence

He worked like a beaver to clean the house.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of IdiomsThe Free Dictionary

Learn idiomatic expressions for IELTS

The Speaking test in IELTS is just like a conversation that you would have in everyday life. You may notice many native English speakers use idioms in everyday speech. If you want a higher score for your IELTS Speaking test, you should include some idioms (and use them correctly). In our next Idioms A-Z post, you can learn some more most common idioms in English.

Are you unsure if you use idioms correctly? With IELTS Speaking Assist, you can practice your English speaking with an official IELTS expert and receive feedback on your performance. This is just one of the ways to study for IELTS.