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Idioms A-Z: Explained

by IELTS

College student learning English

 
Idioms are commonly heard in everyday English speech but aren’t always easy to make sense of. They may have a different meaning from the definition of the words in the expression. It’s also helpful to appreciate the culture behind the idiom to truly understand it.

So, to help you better communicate in English, we’ve put together a new monthly series to expand your grasp of idioms. Join us as we examine the meanings and historical information of popular idioms.
 

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

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