You’re talking to your native English-speaking friend about your recent breakup and how depressed you are when suddenly he turns toward you and says “Don’t worry about it man, girls like that are a dime a dozen!” You then stare at your friend in confusion. You simply don’t understand why your good friend is comparing the girl that was once the love of your life to $1.20.
Actually “dime a dozen” doesn’t mean anything even remotely close to what the individual words in the phrase implies. For native speakers of English, a dime a dozen simply means that something is common and easy to obtain. Because we cannot figure out the meaning by examining the phrase alone, “dime a dozen” is what we call an idiom. As a non-native speaker of English, the best way to understand idioms is to memorize their meanings from the standpoint of a native speaker. We’ve listed the 10 most common idioms in English and their actual meanings.
1. Piece of cake – No, when someone says that the assignment they just finished was a piece of cake, it does not mean that their professor gave them a red velvet cupcake for their midterm paper, what piece of cake actually means is that something is very easy to complete.
2. Costs an arm and a leg – It would be a strange world we lived in if buying that fancy shiny purse literally required us to chop off our body parts to give as tribute to the Louis Vuitton gods. When something costs an arm and a leg it actually means that something is very expensive.
3. Break a leg – Oh, look, another idiom about legs. You’re about to take your dreaded calculus final and before you head into your classroom your roommate texts you, “Break a Leg!” Why, you think in your head, would he ever wish that upon me? I thought we were cool with each other. Well, your roommate surely doesn’t want your bones to break while walking to your seat in the exam room that’s for sure. Break a leg actually means good luck!
4. Hit the books – If you’re a student in an English speaking environment you’re probably going to be hearing this phrase a lot. Before you imagine students running into their campus library and punching, kicking and wrestling apart the complete works of Shakespeare, we would just like to say that hit the books actually means to study. There there, you can still punch books in your spare time if you want, we won’t judge you.
5. Let the cat out of the bag – Why would someone put their cat in a bag? What did the cat ever do to them? Our last idiom actually means to disclose a secret that was supposed to be kept, well, as a secret. The next time someone lets the cat out of the bag do not immediately pick up your phone and call animal cruelty control.
6. Hit the nail on the head – This idiom has to do with doing or saying something that is precisely right. If you don’t understand this, just think about that sweet feeling you get when you swing a hammer at a nail and hit it perfectly.
7. When pigs fly – So, have you ever seen a pig fly before? Never? Me neither. This idiom basically means that something will never happen, like fat little pink mammals soaring toward the sun!
8. You can’t judge a book by its cover – How many awesome books do you think you’ve never read in your life just because the cover did not catch your eye? This idiom does not only apply to books however, but can be used for everything in general. Essentially it means that you should not decide upon something based just on outward appearances.
9. Bite off more than you can chew – Imagine your waiter brings you the biggest juiciest hamburger from your favorite American restaurant. In your hunger, you grab it quickly and take a giant bite out of it. Unfortunately, the bite you’ve taken is too big, and you end up looking like an idiot trying to shove this bite down your throat while drinking water and trying not to choke. That is the most literal sense of the meaning, but in general it just means to attempt to take on a task that is too much for you to handle.
10. Scratch someone’s back – We all know how difficult it is to scratch that itch on your back that your hand just aren’t flexible enough to reach, so why would you want to scratch some random person’s smelly back? Because if you do, they may eventually be willing to scratch your own smelly back when you need it! What this idiom means is to help someone out with the assumption that they will return the favor in the future!
That’s all for now, be sure to keep checking our blog for more idioms in the future! (No that wasn’t an idiom, seriously, check our blog out, and let the cat out of the bag!)
Here are 15 common English idioms and phrases that will enrich your English vocabulary and make you sound like a native speaker in no time.
1. ‘The best of both worlds’ – means you can enjoy two different opportunities at the same time.
“By working part-time and looking after her kids two days a week she managed to get the best of both worlds.”
2. ‘Speak of the devil’ – this means that the person you’re just talking about actually turns up at that moment.
“Hi Tom, speak of the devil, I was just telling Sara about your new car.”
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3. ‘See eye to eye’ – this means agreeing with someone.
“They finally saw eye to eye on the business deal.”
4. ‘Once in a blue moon’ – an event that happens infrequently.
“I only go to the cinema once in a blue moon.”
5. ‘When pigs fly’ – something that will never happen.
“When pigs fly she’ll tidy up her room.”
6. ‘To cost an arm and a leg’– something is very expensive.
“Fuel these days costs and arm and a leg.”
7. ‘A piece of cake’– something is very easy.
“The English test was a piece of cake.”
8. ‘Let the cat out of the bag’ – to accidentally reveal a secret.
“I let the cat out of the bag about their wedding plans.”
9. ‘To feel under the weather’ – to not feel well.
“I’m really feeling under the weather today; I have a terrible cold.”
10. ‘To kill two birds with one stone’ – to solve two problems at once.
“By taking my dad on holiday, I killed two birds with one stone. I got to go away but also spend time with him.”
11. ‘To cut corners’ – to do something badly or cheaply.
“They really cut corners when they built this bathroom; the shower is leaking.”
12. ‘To add insult to injury’ – to make a situation worse.
“To add insult to injury the car drove off without stopping after knocking me off my bike.”
13. ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ – to not judge someone or something based solely on appearance.
“I thought this no-brand bread would be horrible; turns out you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
14. ‘Break a leg’ – means ‘good luck’ (often said to actors before they go on stage).
“Break a leg Sam, I’m sure your performance will be great.”
15. ‘To hit the nail on the head’ – to describe exactly what is causing a situation or problem.
“He hit the nail on the head when he said this company needs more HR support.”
To test your new-found knowledge here are some sentences to practice with. Fill in the blank!
A) I can’t afford this purse! It _______. I won’t be able to pay my rent!
B) His birthday was supposed to be a surprise! I can’t believe you _____. Now he knows!
C) Ha! John has been promising to paint the house for five years…. Maybe when _______.
D) Yeah, it’ll _______. I need to sign some papers at Jenny’s school anyway so i’ll pick her up for you too.
E) I don’t really like going out to bars anymore. I only go _______.
F) I’m sorry I can’t come into work today. I’m ________. I have a sore throat and runny nose.
G) They tried ________ when installing the pipes for the house and now we have leaks only one month after purchasing it!
H) We missed our flight to Paris because the connecting flight was late and to ______ they made us pay for a new ticket as if it was our fault!
I) I can’t wait to see you perform on stage tonight! ______!
J) Jane is just never on time to work, it’s really annoying. O wow, ______ here she comes…
K) So we’re going to London, then Munich, then we will fly out of Athens, right? Great. I’m so glad to be traveling with someone I _______ with.
L) Wow, she found her dream man and has now landed an amazing job. She really does have ______.
M) OK, she might not be the most attractive but _________. I’m sure she is a sweetheart.
N) I have been trying to figure this out for ages. Thanks so much, you’re right. You _______.
O) I can’t believe that was our test. I think it was easier than some of our homework! It was a ______.
So how did you do? Don’t forget to try and use these idioms and phrases when practicing your English. And do let us know if you need further clarification on commonly used idioms by leaving a comment below.
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Answers: 6, 8, 5, 10, 4, 9, 11, 12, 14, 2, 3, 1, 13, 15, 7