Unlocking the Meaning of English Idioms: Exploring Common Idioms and Their Origins


English is a language full of colorful expressions that can be difficult for non-native speakers to understand. One of the trickiest parts of English are idioms, which use figurative language rather than literal meanings. In this article, we’ll explore some of the most commonly used English idioms and their meanings and origins, helping you to decipher the figurative language and better understand everyday conversations.

What Are Idioms?

Idioms are phrases or expressions that have a figurative meaning, rather than a literal one. For example, “kick the bucket” means “to die,” but it’s not meant to be taken literally. Instead, the phrase is an idiom, with the meaning derived from the context in which it is used. Understanding idioms is an essential part of becoming fluent in English, as they are frequently used in everyday conversations.

The Origins of English Idioms

Many English idioms have interesting origins that reveal insights into the language and culture. For example, “raining cats and dogs” is believed to have originated in the 17th century, when people used thatched roofs that would become slippery and dangerous during heavy rain. Cats and dogs, which often slept on the roofs, would fall off during the downpours, giving rise to the expression.

Common English Idioms and Their Meanings

Here are some examples of commonly used English idioms and their meanings:

Break a leg

: Good luck

This expression is commonly used in the performing arts, where it’s considered bad luck to wish someone luck before a performance. Instead, performers will often say “break a leg” to each other as a way of wishing each other good luck.


Good luck with your audition tonight! Break a leg!

It’s raining cats and dogs

: It’s raining heavily

This idiom dates back to the 18th century and has a few different theories about its origins. One theory suggests that it comes from the Norse myth of Odin, who was believed to be accompanied by dogs and witches who could take on the form of cats. Another theory is that the phrase comes from the French word “catadoupe,” which means waterfall.


I can’t go outside right now, it’s raining cats and dogs!

Hit the nail on the head

: To be exactly right

This idiom is thought to have originated from carpentry, where hitting a nail on the head is the precise way to secure it in place.


You really hit the nail on the head with that suggestion, it’s exactly what we need.

Piece of cake

: Something that is easy to do

This expression comes from the idea that eating a piece of cake is an easy and enjoyable experience.


I thought the exam was going to be difficult, but it turned out to be a piece of cake.

Cost an arm and a leg

: Something that is very expensive

This expression is believed to have originated during World War II, when soldiers returning from battle found that portrait photography was much more expensive than it had been before the war. The high cost was said to be “an arm and a leg.”


I’d love to buy that new car, but it costs an arm and a leg.

Break the ice

: To initiate a conversation or activity

This idiom comes from the idea of breaking the ice that forms on a body of water in cold weather, allowing boats to move through.


I don’t know anyone at this party, so I’m going to try to break the ice by introducing myself.

Hold your horses

: To wait and be patient

This expression likely comes from the practice of using horses to transport goods and people. When a rider needed to slow down or stop a horse, they would pull back on the reins and say “hold your horses.”


I know you’re excited to get started, but let’s hold our horses and make sure we have everything we need first.

Spill the beans

: To reveal a secret

The origin of this idiom is unclear, but one theory is that it comes from an ancient Greek voting practice where white beans were used to indicate a positive vote and black beans were used to indicate a negative vote. If someone accidentally spilled the beans, they would reveal which way they had voted.


I promised not to tell anyone, but he spilled the beans and everyone knows now.

Pull someone’s leg

: To joke around or tease someone

This expression is believed to have originated in the 19th century, when street vendors would literally pull on the legs of passersby in an attempt to get their attention and sell their wares.


I’m just pulling your leg, I didn’t really believe you were an alien.

Cut to the chase

: To get to the point quickly

This idiom is often used when someone is giving a long and detailed explanation or story and the listener wants them to get to the most important part. The origin of this phrase is unclear, but it is believed to come from the early days of filmmaking when movies would often have a chase scene at the end. Cutting to the chase meant skipping the less important parts of the film and getting straight to the exciting climax.


I don’t have a lot of time, so let’s cut to the chase and get straight to the point.

We have introduced other idioms in a separate article, so please take a look if you are interested.

Using English Idioms in Conversation

Using idioms in conversation can help to make your language more colorful and engaging. However, it’s important to use idioms appropriately and to ensure that your listener understands the meaning behind them. Here are some tips for using idioms in conversation:

  1. Use idioms in context: It’s important to use idioms in the right context, so make sure you understand the situation and the people you’re speaking to.
  2. Use idioms sparingly: While idioms can be useful in conversation, it’s important not to overuse them. If you use too many idioms, it can be confusing for the listener and make it harder for them to understand what you’re saying.
  3. Use idioms correctly: Make sure you use idioms correctly and in the right context. Using an idiom incorrectly can make you sound foolish or unintelligent.
  4. Explain idioms to non-native speakers: If you’re speaking to someone who is not a native English speaker, it’s important to explain the meaning of any idioms you use, so they can understand what you’re saying.

In conclusion, English idioms are an essential part of everyday communication, adding depth and nuance to the language. By understanding their meanings and origins, you’ll be able to use them with greater confidence and better appreciate the richness of the English language. Remember to use idioms appropriately, sparingly, and correctly, and don’t be afraid to explain them to non-native speakers. With practice, you’ll be able to use idioms like a native speaker and add color and character to your conversations.