Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS Australia — September 18th, 2017

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.

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

Have an ace up one’s sleeve
Meaning

Have an effective resource or piece of information kept hidden until it is necessary to use it; a secret advantage.

Origin

The ace, the card marked with a single pip, is the highest card in many card games, so a cheating player might well conceal one to use against an unsuspecting opponent.

In a sentence

Josephine, our school’s star sprinter, was the ace up our team’s sleeve.

Have people rolling in the aisles
Meaning

Make an audience laugh uncontrollably. To be very amusing (informal).

Origin

It is based on the idea of uncontrollable laughter, causing people watching a show to fall on the floor in the aisles. (the long narrow spaces between rows of seats in a theatre)

In a sentence

Russell’s jokes had everyone rolling in the aisles.

All-singing, all-dancing
Meaning

Technologically advanced, with every possible attribute, able to perform any necessary function.

Origin

Applied particularly in the area of computer technology, but ultimately driving from descriptions of show business acts.

In a sentence

We love the all-singing, all-dancing mobile phone that was launched today.

Up (or raise) the ante
Meaning

Increase what is at stake or under discussion, especially in a conflict or dispute.

Origin

From the Latin ante ‘before’. As an English noun, it was originally a term in poker and similar gambling games, meaning ‘a stake put up by a player before drawing cards’.

In a sentence

We upped the ante another $5,000 for the house on the hill as we want it badly.

A rotten (or bad) apple
Meaning

A bad person in the group, typically one whose behaviour is likely to have a corrupting/bad influence on the rest.

Origin

With reference to the fact that a rotten apple causes other fruit with which is it in contact to rot.

In a sentence

Despite the occasional bad apple, I enjoy working with our regional sales team.

Upset the apple cart
Meaning

Spoil an advantageous project or disturb the status quo.

Origin

Apple cart as a metaphor for a satisfactory but possible risky state of affairs is recorded in various expressions from late 18th century onward.

In a sentence

If there’s another top management resignation next week, it could really upset the apple cart.

Argue the toss
Meaning

Dispute a decision or choice already made.

Origin

Toss is the tossing of a coin to decide an issue in a simple and definite way according to the side of the coin visible when it lands.

In a sentence

I agree with the CEO’s decision, although some employees will argue the toss.

Alive and well
Meaning

Still existing and active.

Origin

Often used to deny rumours or beliefs that something has disappeared or declined.

In a sentence

Many may disagree but chivalry is still alive and well in Melbourne.

Rise from the ashes
Meaning

Be renewed after destruction.

Origin

In classical myth, the phoenix was a fabulous bird which, when it became old, sacrificed itself upon a funeral pyre and was born again from the ashes with renewed youth.

In a sentence

With the failing economy, there are serious doubts that the company shares can rise from the ashes.

Have an axe to grind
Meaning

Have a (private, sometimes damaging) motive for doing or being involved with something.

Origin

The expression originated in a story told by Benjamin Franklin and was used first in the US. Especially with reference to politics, but now generally. Often in negative.

In a sentence

The people attempting to destroy the evidence definitely have an axe to grind.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms; The Free Dictionary