IDIOMS are a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own. The word ‘Idiom’ comes from the Greek idios, meaning ‘personal.’

Idioms are particularly useful because they give you a new, creative way to express yourself. Rather than saying ‘You’re correct’, you could say ‘You hit the nail on the head’, which is a more complex and interesting expression.

Let's explore some of the most popular IDIOMS in the English language...

1. To drop the ball

To ‘drop the ball’ is to make a mistake, normally by doing something stupid or careless. E.g. “I’m really sorry everyone, I really dropped the ball on this one.”

The origin of the phrase “drop the ball” is rooted in sports, specifically baseball. In the game of baseball, when a fielder drops a ball that should have been caught, it’s considered a major error, which leads to a negative consequence for the team. They literally dropped the ball.

2. To kick the bucket

As in many cultures, talking about death in English can be difficult. That’s why we have a number of euphemisms that refer to death or dying. ‘To kick the bucket’ is an informal and sometimes crass way of saying ‘to die.’ 

The term ‘kick the bucket’ originated in the 16th century. The wooden frame used to hang animals by their feet for slaughter was called a bucket. As the animals struggled and spasmed, they were said to “kick the bucket.” The term gained broader definition when it was defined in Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “To kick the bucket, to die.”

3. Walking on eggshells

To walk on eggshells originates clearly from the imagery. Eggshells are very fragile so it would take great care to walk on them without smashing them. It’s alike to walking on thin ice in reality. Therefore, in the 1800s, this phrase came to be used to describe people who you have to be careful around with your words and actions in order not to get them offended, hurt or upset.

4.‘The Elephant in the room’

When someone wants to talk about “the elephant in the room”, they mean the controversial or difficult topic that people are avoiding. It’s actually attributed not to an English writer, but a Russian one. Ivan Krylov is credited with popularising its use through the proverbial tale of a man who visits a museum, notices all the small trinkets, but not the elephant. Fyodor Dostoevsky then wrote in his book ‘Demons’: “Belinsky was just like Krylov’s Inquisitive Man, who didn’t notice the elephant in the museum…”

5. ‘Lose your marbles’ 

Perhaps more of a UK-based idiom, losing one’s marbles is the act of forgetting something, being frustrated by something, or confused by something. For example, I lost my marbles trying to pick the best idioms for this article.

Why marbles? If you’re not overwhelmingly familiar, they’re small, spherical toys that pre-date the Xbox. Competitive marble playing has been raging for centuries – enthusiasts of the more popular version of the game of marbles have taken in the annual British and World Marbles Championship, based in Tinsley Green, West Sussex with wild fervour. 

6. Butterflies in one’s stomach

This is an idiom that dates to the twentieth century. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom butterflies in one’s stomach, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

When someone has butterflies in one’s stomach, he is anxious, nervous, or excited. The term butterflies in one’s stomach refers to the fluttering feeling one has when nervous, anxious or excited. The phrase butterflies in one’s stomach came into use around 1908 and originally used the singular, butterfly. By the mid-twentieth century, the term morphed into butterflies in one’s stomach.

7. ‘Hit the sack’/’Hit the hay’

It’s been a long day. You’ve worked hard, night time has come, and now you’re going to hit the sack, or hit the hay, if you prefer.

Why? Why are English speakers acting with violence towards burlap or herbacioius plants? We’re not really, these are idioms which mean “going to bed”.

The origins of this are fairly self-evident. In the past, it wouldn’t be uncommon to rest your head on some kind of loose fabric, or indeed, some hay. Sounds itchy to us!

8. To go down in flames

The phrase “go down in flames” denotes “total failure” or “being shattered to no recourse or revival”. The idiom can be used in texts both literally and figuratively – the metaphoric use is more common.
This phrase alludes to a plane that crashes to the ground and burns. It originated around the 1940s, when many combat planes in World War II met with this fate.

9. To pull the wool over someone’s eyes

To pull the wool over someone’s eyes is to deceive or hoodwink them. The phrase is an Americanism dating to at least the early nineteenth century, and the metaphor underlying it would seem to be that of pulling someone’s wig down over their eyes in order to obscure their vision. The wig in question would have been a powdered wig; such wigs were going out of fashion when the phrase first appears in print.


10. To hit the nail on the head

No one knows the exact origin of this phrase. What is known is that it is extremely old. It appears in The Book of Margery Kempe, circa 1438. This was an account of the life of religious visionary Margery Kempe and is considered to be the earliest surviving autobiography written in English:

“Yyf I here any mor thes materys rehersyd, I xal so smytyn ye nayl on ye hed that it schal schamyn alle hyr mayntenowrys.”

In modernised English, that reads as:

“If I hear any more these matters repeated, I shall so smite the nail on the head that it shall shame all her supporters.”

11. The lights are on but nobody’s home

The expression ‘the lights are on, but nobody’s home originates from America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The phrase first appears in ‘Organizational Behavior,’ a novel penned by author Jason A. Colquitt in 1974.

However, the phrase appears straightforward in use, referring to a well-lit home with no occupants inside. Language experts are unsure when the expression’s figurative meaning appeared in English or who coined the term.


12. Raining cats and dogs

The phrase might have its roots in Norse mythology, medieval superstitions, the obsolete word catadupe (waterfall), or dead animals in the streets of Britain being picked up by storm waters. The first recorded use of a phrase similar to “raining cats and dogs” was in the 1651 collection of poems Olor Iscanus.


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