English Idioms and Its Meaning

Recently, we were in fast food place and saw a person ahead our our line ordering food. I am assuming the person was new to US as when the lady at the counter asked if the order was for “here” or “to go”, the person ordering seemed confused, why should he go and where? After explaining that does he want to food inside the restaurant or outside, he understood the words.  He seemed good at English but apparently not knowing local lingo made it difficult for him.

I can totally relate, as English is my second language and I learned it more fluently after moving to US. I thought it would be interesting to see commonly used idioms and its true meaning. According to freedictionary.com it has been said, The Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms explains over 7,000 idioms current in British, American and Australian English, helping learners to understand and use them properly. The Dictionary of American Idioms, based on the 200 million words of American English text in the Cambridge International Corpus, unlocks the meaning of more than 5,000 idiomatic phrases used in contemporary American English. Full-sentence examples show how idioms are really used.

Idioms Books:

1000 English Idioms Explained (English Language)

Webster’s New World American Idioms Handbook

Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms

Super Silly Sayings That Are over Your Head: A Children’s Illustrated Book of Idioms

I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World

Here are some most used idioms in English langauge and its supposed meaning.

1. A penny for your thought

We all would be bit more richer, if we truly got a penny for every thought we got, the idea is not bad itself. But this commonly used idiom means asking a person what he or she is thinking about or asking his or her opinion about subject they are talking about. No actual payment occurs sadly.

This phrase has been in use since middle ages when penny was worth lot more and it supposed to mean that value of personal thought was valuable and important. This phrase generally credited to a man by the name of John Heywood, a writer who penned many plays and a book.

2. Speak of the Devil!

There is no actual Devil here. It simply means if you are talking about person A, and he or she just happens to come by as you or group talks about him or her. This is short form of rarely used original idiom “Speak of the devil and he doth appear”.

Many idioms including this one has its roots starting from middle ages. There was an old superstition that if you spoke directly about evil, it will bound to appear. There are similar phrase for this idioms in many other languages: see here.

3.  Pulling Wool Over Others Eyes

Literal meaning is to blind someone through wool cloth, so he or she can not see. This idiom in reality means similar to deceive a person in a way so he or she can not see what the other person truly is doing.

4.  Sit on Fence

Sitting on fence may not be safe and you may get splinter and fall off, so do not go and sit on fence literally. This idiom means that someone is not able to make a decision  or does not want to make a choice, so he or she will wait before making a choice.

5.  Costs Arm and Leg

Losing an arm and legs would be devastating to any person. This idioms means that someone cost so outrageously priced that cost felt like losing your precious limbs. Many payday loans and delayed credit card debt payments may seems like costing an arm and legs for people who are in huge debt.

6. Taking what someone says with Pinch of Salt

Taking what someone is saying with grain of salt or pinch of salt is not what it literally means. It means that do not believe whatever the person is saying, it might be not truth or only partial truth.  Usually means to doubt the story that person is telling and not take it seriously.

7. Kill Two Bird with One Stone

This offensive and cruel sounding idiom has much simpler and much less sinister meaning, it simply means solve two problems with one single action or doing two things at the same time have been also used. For example, I had to go to post office to buy stamps and I also mailed gift to my cousin at the same time.

8.  Hearing Straight From The Horse’s Mouth

I am always amazed at doing search on idiom that who came up with all quirky phrases. Funny sounding idioms are common as this. Talking horse would make a great TV show, wait there was one in 60s, wasn’t there? This idiom means that hearing straight from the original person, source or an authority before believing any story. For example, “I heard my friend Sarah was moving to Canada, so I called her up to hear straight from the horse’s mouth before believing the gossip. She was simply going to visit and not move there as I heard.”

9.  Missing The Boat

I remember when we were in school, one of my friend said he missed the boat on applying for university. So we all joked that he should have taken a plane instead of boat, which would have been much faster. All joking aside, this idiom means that when someone has missed a chance or an opportunity for some thing, some one or some event.

10. See Eye To Eye

One can imagine seeing eye to eye, meaning two love birds are lost in to each other eyes and lost in their world, unaware of what is happening around them. Right? No. This idiom means that one or more people agree on the same thought or decision. For example, if two friends agree to visit Nigara falls during school break can be consider seeing eye to eye.


There idioms are used or spoken has cultural reference and may mean completely different meaning to its literal meanings. It could be interesting to see someone from other culture or someone who is not aware of those idioms feel confused when one of the above idiom is used without its reference.