It’s better to have a lesser but certain advantage than the possibility of a greater one that may come to nothing.

The questions in the final round looked hard so we opted out of the big prize and took the smaller $2,000 second prize. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush you know.

The United Kingdom.

One of the most widely used proverbs throughout the English-speaking world.

Cockney rhyming slang for a row or argument.

They were shouting and screaming at each other – a real bull and cow.

The United Kingdom.

Mostly in the UK, but occasionally elsewhere too.

Someone in an unfamiliar circumstance.

He’s a fine golfer but in this dance competition he’s a fish out of water.

The United Kingdom – 17th century.


A small flaw that spoils the whole.

It was good to win the gold but not being able to attend the ceremony to collect it was the fly in the ointment.

The Bible.


1. An unperceived observer – able to see and hear but not be seen or heard. 2 – A form of cinema in which events are recorded without direction.

1 – I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Putin met Obama. 2 – These reality shows are just the same as the old fly-on-the-wall documentaries.



You cannot change your innate self.

He was a bully at school and he’s a bully now – a leopard can’t change its spots.


Widespread but rather formal form of expression. Not widely used by the young.

I was told by an undisclosed source.

How do I know it’s your 25th anniversary? Well, a little bird told me.



A commodity that is bought without first examining it.

Jim said that car was a good buy so I bid for it on eBay and it turned out to be a real rust bucket. That’s what you get for buying a pig in a poke.

The United Kingdom. An old expression that exists in various forms in many languages.


A deliberate provocation.

Telling Putin that he is macho as a response to being small in stature was like a red rag to a bull.

The United Kingdom. An allusion to bullfighting, where the bull is provoked by a waved cloth.


Someone who uses the pretence of kindliness to disguise their evil intent.

He was 38 but tried to pass himself off as a thirteen year old in order to get a date with a schoolgirl – a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


Widely used.

Said by someone who has experience of a situation.

You don’t need to show me how to peel the potatoes – this ain’t my first rodeo you know.

Having lots to say but not willing to engage in a fight.

There’s always one loud guy at the back who disappears when trouble starts – all bark but no bite.

Britain, as a variant of ‘his bark is worse than his bite’, which is of early 19th century origin.


1. A cat that lives wild in a town. 2. Slang term for a prostitute.

1. Those alley cats were screeching and chasing rats in the yard all night. 2. Jack’s getting to be a sex addict. He spends all his time with bimbos and alley cats.

USA, 20th century.

Mostly USA

1. Very high up in the sky. 2. High on drugs or excitement.

1. The Petronas Tower is as high as a kite. 2. She was ecstatic that she won the gold medal. She was high as a kite afterwards.

1. Britain – 17th century. It probably refers to Red Kites, birds that were common in the UK in the 17th century, rather than children’s kites. 2. USA.

1. In the UK. 2. Worldwide.

Responding to something which isn’t the important issue.

The government is blaming the immigrants for the banking crisis, but they’re barking up the wrong tree there.

Britain, 19th century.


An important person but only so within a small area of influence.

Alison is the queen of the post room. She’s a big fish in a small pond though – no one in the rest of the company knows who she is.

USA, late 19th century.


Extremely cold weather. The full expression is ‘Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’.

The weatherman says minus 10 degrees and strong winds for tomorrow. That’s brass monkey weather.

The UK and USA in the early 20th century.

Worldwide, mostly among people in their 20/40s, as a slang expression.

A question addressed to someone who is inexplicably silent. The implication is that the person’s tongue is missing.

All you have to do is tell us who attacked you and we will arrest them. Why so quiet? Has the cat got your tongue?

America, 19th century.

Worldwide, but little used amongst the young.

Stiffness or cramp in the arm or leg.

He was just on the verge of scoring his first hundred and then got a charley horse and couldn’t hold the bat.

USA, late 19th century.

Little-known outside the USA.

An imaginary idealistic state where everything is perfect. It is usually used with reference to someone who has an overly optimistic and unrealistic belief.

If you think you can get a managerial job without any qualifications or experience you are living in cloud cuckoo-land.

‘Cloud cuckoo-land’ derives from a comment made by was coined by the 4th century BC Greek playwright Aristophanes in the whimsical and extravagant play The Birds. First used in English in the 1820s, in the United Kingdom.


An unbelievable tale.

She said that she went to school with George Clooney but she’s only twenty two – I think it’s a cock and bull story.

Britain, 17th century, although the precise source is unknown.


Intentionally raise a false alarm.

Now Billy, there’s no point crying wolf just to stay up a bit later. We all know that there are no witches in your bedroom.

From the ‘Shepherd Boy who cried Wolf’ story in Aesop’s Fables, translated into English in the 17th century.


Being inquisitive can lead you into a dangerous situation.

I heard a noise outside and went to have a look. It turns out I should have ignored it, it was a bear. Curiosity killed the cat they say.

USA, late 19th century. Probably deriving from a much older British phrase – ‘care killed the cat’.


Cockney rhyming slang for telephone.

I need to talk to Jackie. Get her on the dog and bone for me would you?


Mostly Britain.

The hottest days of the summer season.

I’m roasting – I suppose we should expect that on the dog days.

Britain, 14th century, deriving ultimately from ancient Rome.

Don’t count on receiving some benefit until you actually have it.

I know you felt good about that exam, but you haven’t passed until you get the result – don’t count your chickens.

Britain, 16th century proverb.


When you receive a gift accept it with good grace and don’t find fault with it.

I gave her a $700 phone and she said it wasn’t the right colour. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!

Britain, 16th century proverb.


1. Cockney rhyming slang for ears. 2. A very long time.

1. Prince Charles has a fine pair of donkeys. 2. This is the first school reunion we’ve had since 1982. I haven’t seen some of these people in donkey’s years.


Mostly Britain.

Drink very heavily.

Dean Martin drank like a fish.

Britain, 17th century.


Many people either falling ill or dying.

In the Black Death in 1348 Londoners were dropping like flies.

USA, early 20th century.


Cockney rhyming slang for drunk.

He’s been in the bar since we opened six hours ago. It’s fair to assume that he’s totally elephants by now.


Mostly Britain.

Rearing livestock under industrial conditions.

I’m dead against factory farming of pigs. I prefer to see them out in the open air, rooting about for their food.

USA, mid-20th century.


A market used to buy and sell inexpensive goods. The kind of place that might sell carpets infested with fleas.

I need some cheap costume jewelry for the school play. Maybe the flea market would be the place.

Britain, early 20th century.


A downmarket cinema – allegedly verminous.

When we were kids we used to go to the local flea pit every saturday to watch B-movies.

Britain, mid 20th century.


To attempt to make progress with something that has no future.

Reissuing Betamax tapes? You’re flogging a dead horse there mate.

Britain, 17th century.


Talking hot air.

He claims that he was taught to to wire walk by his parents in the circus, but he’s full of bull – I know his father was a greengrocer.

USA, 20th century.

Mostly USA.

Childish term for a horse.

Now Jimmy, whats that picture? Is it a bar lamb or is it a gee-gee?


Widely used, but more in the UK than elsewhere and mainly in conversation with small children.

A very small (imaginary) unit of measurement.

I was lucky to survive – the bullets were flying everywhere. One missed me by a gnat’s bollock.

Britain, 20th century.

Mostly Britain.

Become excessively agitated and excited.

John had been promised the job. He went ape shit when he found out it went to one of his subordinates.

Originally USA (as ‘go ape’). Britain, 1950s (as ‘go ape shit’). Derived from the habit of apes of throwing faeces at adversaries when agitated.

Worldwide, but not in polite company.

An alcoholic drink, intended to cure a hangover. It is mistakenly believed that a small measure of the same drink that made a person drunk will sober them up and cure the drinks ill effects. The expression is also used in other contexts, whenever an additional dose of whatever caused a problem is thought to be an appropriate remedy.

I feel rough. I shouldn’t have had those last six tequila slammers last night. Here goes another – maybe it will be the hair of the dog.

England, 16th century.



That upgrade to first class has really put us high on the hog.

USA, 20th century.


Be patient.

I know you want to get off home but hold your horses, there’s another ten minutes before the school bell is due.

USA, 19th century.


Introduce a ridiculous or unbelievable plot device into a TV series in order to boost flagging ratings.

Melodrama turned into jumping the shark when one of the main characters was killed by a milk truck in order to boost Christmas ratings.

USA, 1977. Deriving from the American TV series Happy Days.

Mostly USA.

Keep something away.

The water was rising up to the back door but putting out sandbags managed to hold the flood at bay.

Britain, 14th century.


Accomplish two things with a single action.

When I chop the wood I get warm too. You could say I kill two birds with one stone.

Britain, 17th century. Found in the writings of Thomas Hobbes.


A person or thing that is no longer properly able to function. Also, more specifically, a person in authority, for example a president or prime minister, in their final period of office after a successor has already been elected.

The boss is pretty much a lame duck now that he’s announced his retirement and we know he won’t be here next month.

Britain – 18th century.


Avoid restarting a conflict.

I knew he was stealing from me but, he is proud and he really needs the money. I preferred to let sleeping dogs lie and to say nothing.

Britain. 19th century but much earlier as a similarly-worded proverb.

Worldwide, but like many proverbs, now considered rather old-fashioned.

Share a secret that wasn’t intended to be shared.

I thought Mom already knew Jenny was pregnant. She was furious when I mentioned her pre-natal check and let the cat out of the bag.

Britain, 18th century.


In a frenzied manner.

He was shouting and swearing because they had lost the contract – he was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

USA, late 19th century.

Worldwide, but not particularly common.

Someone considered unimportant compared to their more significant peers.

Jimmy’s first school only had seven pupils and he was the star, but when he got to high-school he was a little fish in a big pond.

USA, early 20th century.


An awkward or confined space.

This hotels room is supposed to be for two people! Hardly, there’s not room to swing a cat in here.

Britain, 17th century. Not, as is often believed, derived from the use of the cat o’ nine tails.


Said of people who are no longer young but may behave as though they were.

Dad’s marrying again, to a woman in her 60s. Mind you, he’s no spring chicken either.

USA, 20th century. Young chickens are considered more tasty to eat than those slaughtered later in the year.


To overeat in a slovenly manner.

I told the babysitters not to pig out but when we got back there were nine pizza boxes on the floor.

USA, late 20th century.

Worldwide, but mostly by the younger generations.

Said when referring to something that is highly unlikely.

I heard that bankers might give their bonuses to the poor this year. Yes, and pigs might fly!

Britain, 17th century.

Worldwide, but somewhat old-fashioned.

Listen very carefully – like a dog or horse with erect ears.

Prick up your ears folks – this is important and I’ll only be saying it once.

Britain, 16th century.


Cockney rhyming slang for talk.

He just goes on and on about his hobbies – rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!


Mostly Britain.

Raining very heavily.

The monsoon will be here soon – then it will rain cats and dogs.


A handsome grey-haired man.

Richard Gere used to be the typical matinee idol. These days he’s a real silver fox.


To begin to suspect that things aren’t as they should be.

It was when he said I needed to email him my bank details that I began to smell a rat.

Britain, 16th century.


Detect that something isn’t as it should be.

He’s always hanging around outside the women’s dorm with a camera. It looks a bit fishy to me.

Britain, 19th century. Deriving from an allusion to things that are ‘as slippery as a fish’.

Mostly Britain.

Jokey term for the early morning.

I know we have to get the early flight but isn’t 2am too soon to be getting up? It isn’t even sparrow fart yet.

Britain, 19th century. Originally an example of rural slang.

Mostly Britain.

Heard from the authoritative source.

There’s going to be an election in May. My sister is the Prime Ministers secretary so I got that straight from the horses mouth.

Uncertain origin, probably 20th century USA.


Jokey term for artificial insemination.

Leaving things to nature hasn’t worked down here on the farm – only 10% of the cows are pregnant. We need a visit from the bull in the bowler hat.

Mostly Britain.

The 12th of August – the start of the British grouse shooting season.

Just two weeks to go. I’ve booked all the beaters and the trip to the grouse moor is all set – bring on the glorious twelfth.


A small and usually insignificant factor (or person) dominates over one that is normally more powerful and influential.

Even small countries like Estonia have a veto in European Union voting and can’t be over-ruled. I’d call that the tail wagging the dog.

USA, 1870s.


An object that appears magnificent but which is a burdensome financial liability.

The Empire State Building was a remarkable achievement but, for years after it was built, it had few tenants and was really a white elephant for its developers.

Britain, late 19th century.


You can encourage someone to to do something but, in the end, what they do is their own choice.

I bought her a car; I even paid for the driving lessons, but she still travels everywhere by bus.

Britain, 12th century. One of the oldest proverbs in the English language


Once animals (and people) are set in their ways they struggle to assimilate new ideas.

I tried to learn Mandarin after I retired but I got nowhere with it. I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Britain, 16th century proverb. One of the oldest proverbs in English.

Worldwide, but like many proverbs, now mostly used by the older generation.

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.