Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS Australia — August 2nd, 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.

The apple of one’s eye
Meaning

Person or thing of whom one is extremely fond and proud.

Origin

Originally denoting the pupil of the eye, considered to be a globular solid body; hence extended as a symbol of something cherished and watched over.

In a sentence

Please don’t say anything negative about that painting as it’s the apple of Lisa’s eye.

Take someone aback
Meaning

Shock, surprise or disconcert someone.

Origin

The frequently used passive form of the phrase (be taken aback) was adopted from a nautical terminology, describing the situation of a ship with its sails pressed back against the mast by headwind, preventing forward movement.

In a sentence

When I first met him, I was taken aback by his rude behaviour.

Back to the drawing board
Meaning

Start again to devise a new plan from the beginning because the present plan or course of action has been unsuccessful.

Origin

An architectural or engineering project is at its earliest phase when it exists only as a plan on a drawing board.

In a sentence

Our plans to acquire the new business fell through, so it’s back to the drawing board.

Better the devil you know
Meaning

It’s wiser to deal with an undesirable but familiar person or situation than to risk a change that might lead to a situation with worse difficulties or a person whose faults you have yet to discover.

Origin

A shortened form of the mid-19th century proverbial saying better than the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

In a sentence

I don’t think Matthew is the best choice for Class President but better the devil you know.

Have one’s cake and eat it
Meaning

Enjoy the advantages of two mutually incompatible situations.

Origin

Proverbial saying

In a sentence

David can’t have his cake and eat it, he must decide if he wants the promotion or move to another country.

Hold all the cards
Meaning

Be in the strongest and most advantageous position.

Origin

The idea is of a winning hand in a card game.

In a sentence

In the current tough labour market conditions, employers hold all the cards.

Let the cat out of the bag
Meaning

Reveal a secret, especially carelessly or by mistake.

Origin

In the mid-18th century, there was a similar metaphorical use of bag cf. vider le sac literally “empty the bag’ meaning to “tell the whole story”

In a sentence

Under intense pressure to explain her visits to the doctor, Delia let the cat out of the bag and announced that she is pregnant.

Take it on the chin
Meaning

Endure or accept misfortune courageously.

Origin

A metaphor from boxing.

In a sentence

Melissa really took it on the chin today when she got reprimanded for missing her flight.

When the chips are down
Meaning

When one is in a very serious and difficult situation.

Origin

Chips refer to gambling chips here.

In a sentence

Uncle Joe is someone you can depend on when the chips are down.

Bring down the curtain on
Meaning

Bring to an end.

Origin

Referring to the screen that is lowered at the front of the stage in the theatre at the end of a performance.

In a sentence

Both leaders should be brought together to bring down the curtain on years of battling between the two countries.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms; The Free Dictionary