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.

A persistent and difficult to ignore annoyance.

The anti-capitalist campaigners turned up at every political meeting. They were are real thorn in the flesh for the government.

The United Kingdom.


In the open air.

The weather’s lovely, let’s have our lunch al fresco on the terrace.

The United Kingdom adaptation of an Italian expression


In a confused, disordered state.

He dropped his notes just before the interview and panicked. You could say he was all at sea.

Britain, late 19th century.


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.


Avoiding the main topic.

If you want Jill to go out with her, don’t beat around the bush – ask her.

Britain, 1400s. One of the oldest non-Biblical phrases in the language.


Between two unwelcome options.

The only choices I have are poverty or a boring job – I’m between a rock and a hard place.

USA, 20th century. Sometimes mistakenly thought to come from Homer’s Odyssey.


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.


Family loyalties are stronger than those to other people.

It was just me and his son in the job interview. I had no chance, blood is thicker than water you know.

Britain. Probably coined by Sir Walter Scott, 1815.


Despite any great difficult or obstacle.

I’m going to get to Cornwall by nightfall, come hell or high water.

USA, late 19th century.


Cockney rhyming slang for boots.

I can’t get them on. Either my feet have got bigger or these daisies have shrunk.


Mostly Britain.

An encouragement to be optimistic. Even bad events have a good side to them.

Okay he wasn’t faithful but at least you found out now rather than after the wedding – every cloud has a silver lining.

Britain, 17th century. From a poem by John Milton.


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 frantic competition or exploitation – like a group shark attack.

When Princess Diana was killed there was a feeding frenzy of journalists trying to get the story.

USA, mid 20th century.


A day noted for remarkable or exciting events.

When my daughter was married everyone had a real field day.

Britain, 18th century.


Take a risk to support someone or something.

He knew his boss was an army man, so saying that he was against the war was really going out on a limb.

USA, 19th century.


Retire to bed.

I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I hit the hay.

USA, early 20th century.

Mostly USA.

Knuckle tapping on wood in order to avoid bad luck or to continue having good luck.

I have never broken a bone – touch wood.

USA, early 20th century. Other variants, like ‘touch wood’ are earlier.


Fair competition where no side has an advantage.

There were six of them and only four of us, so it wasn’t really a level playing field.

USA, 20th century.


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.


A type of mushroom with hallucinogenic properties – sometimes known as ‘shrooms’.

Henry’s turned into a real dope head – stoned every night. If it’s not the wacky backy it’s the magic mushrooms.

USA, 1950s, although the plants themselves have been used for centuries.


Savings set aside for future use.

That pension will keep building until I’m 65. Its a good little nest egg.

Britain, 17th century.


A rare occurrence.

West Bromwich Albion have won the cup. but only every once in a blue moon.

Britain, 19th century.


Take the credit for something someone else did.

Joseph Swan had the first working lightbulb but Edison filed the first patent and effectively stole Swan’s thunder.

Britain, early 18th century. From a reference to the machines used in theatres to make the sound of thunder.


Nickname of the Atlantic Ocean between the UK and the USA.

London’s getting boring – I’m planning to hop the big pond and have a weekend in New York.

USA, 1840s. Previously called, in both UK and USA as ‘The Great Pond’.

Mostly USA and Britain.

Confusion caused by the chaos of battle.

After the bombing raid we had no idea where the enemy were of what was going to happen next – that’s to be expected in the fog of war.


The sound of the ball on the bat in cricket.

There’s nothing more English than this – sitting in a deckchair at the Worcester county ground, watching the match and the sound of leather on willow.

In serious difficulty, with no hope of respite.

We were halfway across the Australian outback when we realised our water bottle had leaked. We really were up shit creek.

USA, 1890s. Note: Shit creek isn’t a real place.


A past experience that you prefer not to affect your current life.

Losing my wife and my job was difficult at the time but I’ve moved on. Its all water under the bridge now.


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.