Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS Australasia — July 20th, 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.

Go belly up
Meaning

Go bankrupt (informal); to break or malfunction, fail or come to an end.

Origin

The implied comparison is with a dead fish or other animals floating upside down in the water.

In a sentence

We must be prepared because if the merger deal doesn’t materialise, the company may go belly up.

Below the belt
Meaning

Unfair or unfairly; not regarding the rules.

Origin

From the notion of a low, and therefore illegal, blow in boxing.

In a sentence

His joke about Jason’s misfortune was below the belt.

On bended knee (or knees)
Meaning

Kneeling, especially when pleading, asking for something or showing great respect.

Origin

Bended was the original past participle of bend, but in Middle English it was superseded in general use by bent. It’s now archaic and survives only in this phrase.

In a sentence

Simon went down on bended knee and surprised Jenny with a marriage proposal.

Better late than never
Meaning

It’s preferable for something to happen or be done belatedly than not at all.

Origin

An expression used in Latin (Livy IV.ii potius sero quam nunquam) and known in its current form in English from the mid-15th century.

In a sentence

I didn’t know how to swim until I was 45, but better late than never.

Bide one’s time
Meaning

Wait quietly for a good opportunity.

Origin

This phrase employs the verb to bide in the sense of “to wait for,” a usage dating from about A.D 950 and surviving mainly in this idiom.

In a sentence

I am just biding my time, planning and looking for a property that’s perfect for my family.

Bite the hand that feeds one
Meaning

Deliberately hurt or offend a benefactor; act ungratefully.

In a sentence

We couldn’t understand how Stacy could bite the hand that fed her.

Be in someone’s black books
Meaning

Be in disfavour with a person.

Origin

Although generally an official book in which misdemeanours and their perpetrators were noted down, the phrase perhaps originated in the black-bound book in which evidence of monastic scandal and abuses was recorded by the commissioners of Henry VIII in the 1530s before the suppression of the English monasteries.

In a sentence

I am quite sure I won’t be selected to represent the school as I ‘m in the coach’s black books at the moment.

Bleed someone dry (or white)
Meaning

Drain someone of all their money or resources.

Origin

Since the late 17th century, bleeding has been a metaphor for extorting money from someone. White refers to the psychological effect of loss of blood.

In a sentence

Private medical costs are bleeding us dry.

One’s heart bleeds for someone
Meaning

One sympathizes very deeply with someone or the phrase can be also said sarcastically to mean the opposite.

Origin

Used by Chaucer and Shakespeare to express sincere anguish, but now most commonly ironic, indicating the speaker’s belief that the person referred to doesn’t deserve the sympathy they are seeking.

In a sentence

My heart bleeds for Nathan who missed his chance to meet his sister who was given up for adoption 10 years ago.

As blind as a bat
Meaning

Having very bad eyesight. Informal

Origin

Probably arising from the bat’s nocturnal habits and its disorientated flutterings if it’s disturbed by day; A mid-17th-century collection of idioms has this expression in the form “blind as a bat at noon”. The poor eyesight of bats (and less frequently, moles) has been proverbial since the late 16th century.

In a sentence

Chin is blind as a bat without her glasses.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms; The 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.