Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS Australia — March 26th, 2018

Literally, idioms don’t make sense. They usually have a different meaning from the definition of the words in the expression. The trick is to understand the culture behind an idiom to truly comprehend it. We’ve put together a new series, “Idioms A-Z: Explained,” to expand your grasp of idioms. Join us as we examine the meanings and historical information of popular idioms.

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

An armchair critic
Meaning

A person who knows about a subject only by reading or hearing about it and criticises without active experience or first-hand knowledge.

Origin

Armchair critic is first recorded in 1896 but the concept was around at least a decade earlier when Joseph Chamberlain sneered at opponents as ‘arm-chair politicians’ (1886). Another common variant is armchair traveller, meaning ‘someone who travels in imagination only’.

In a sentence

Ignore the armchair critics and get professional advice from the experts before you start your business.

Throw the baby out (or away) with the bathwater
Meaning

Discard something valuable along with other things that are inessential or undesirable.

Origin

Based on a German saying recorded from early 16th century by Thomas Carlyle who identifies it as German and gives it in the form, “You must empty out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.”

In a sentence

Parts of this strategy are brilliant, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon the entire project.

By (or through) the back door
Meaning

Using indirect or dishonest means to achieve an objective.

Origin

The proverb – a postern (back) door makes a thief, recorded in English since the mid-15th century.

In a sentence

Susan has influential friends, she secured a high-ranking position in the company by the back door.

The ball is in someone’s court
Meaning

It’s that particular person’s turn to act next.

Origin

A metaphor from tennis or a similar ball game where different players use particular areas of a marked court.

In a sentence

I have done my part so the ball is in your court now.

Bark up the wrong tree
Meaning

Pursue a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action.

Origin

The metaphor is of a dog that has mistaken the tree in which its prey has taken refuge and is barking at the foot of the wrong one.

In a sentence

Sarah is angry at John for cheating but I’m sure she’s barking up the wrong tree.

Get to first base
Meaning

Achieve the first step towards one’s objective.

Origin

Base in this idiom refers to each of the four points in the angles of the ‘diamond’ in baseball.

In a sentence

I hope to get to first base with this business deal before I update the company directors on its progress.

With bated breath
Meaning

In great suspense; very anxiously or excitedly.

Origin

Baited, which is sometimes seen, is a misspelling, since bated in this sense is a shortened form of abated, the idea being that one’s breathing is lessened under the influence of extreme suspense.

In a sentence

The suspense is killing me, I’m waiting with bated breath for the announcement about the winner.

Batten down the hatches
Meaning

Prepare for a difficulty or crisis.

Origin

Originally a nautical term meaning ‘make secure a ship’s hatches with gratings and tarpaulins’ in expectation of stormy weather.

In a sentence

A tornado is expected tomorrow evening so I better batten down the hatches.

Beat around the bush
Meaning

Discuss a matter without coming to the point; be ineffectual and waste time.

Origin

A metaphor originating in the shooting or netting of birds.

In a sentence

I hope she would stop beating around the bush and answer my question immediately.

Beat the bushes
Meaning

Search thoroughly.

Origin

The expression originates in the practice of hunters who walk through undergrowth with long sticks to force birds or animals hiding in the bushes out into the open where they can be shot or netted.

In a sentence

Shelley is beating the bushes for new customers because business hit an all-time low.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms