The human body

1. A misfortune. 2. A serious bone fracture.

1. Tony has lost his job, just when he needed the cash to move house. That’s a bad break. 2. Tanya’s leg was crushed when the rock fell on it – a really bad break the doctor said.

1. USA 2. UK.

1. USA. 2. Widely used.

A day on which everything seems to go wrong.

I missed the bus and was late on the one day the boss was early and now I’ve laddered my tights! – talk about a bad hair day.


Predominantly in the USA but also more widely.

A fist, as used in a fight.

Punch me would you? How’d you like a bunch of fives in your eye?

The United Kingdom.

Mostly in the UK, but occasionally elsewhere too.

A sense of inferiority characterized by a quickness to take offence.

He’s the only cabinet minister that didn’t go to Eton and it’s given him a bit of a chip on his shoulder.



An initial inroad that may lead to greater influence in future.

I convinced them to start displaying my artwork. I’m making a loss on it but it’s a foot in the door.



A kindred spirit. Someone who thinks as I do.

We’ve both supported Manchester United since we were kids. You could say he was a man after my own heart.



A reliable person, who can be trusted not to fail in a a task.

When Margaret Thatcher passed the Prime Ministership to John Major she thought he would be a safe pair of hands.

The United Kingdom. An allusion to a cricket fielder who had a reputation for reliably making catches.

Worldwide, but more in the UK than elsewhere.

A boost or encouragement.

I was out on my feet after ten miles’ running but seeing the kids cheering me on was a real shot in the arm.

USA, initially alluding to a shot of drugs but now used without that connotation.

Worldwide, very commonly used.

A welcome sight that you weren’t expecting.

Wow. You’re a sight for sore eyes. They told me you were abroad and would miss my wedding.

The United Kingdom – 18th century.


A secret and possibly ruinous source of shame.

No one in the family ever talked about Grandad being convicted of child abuse. It was the skeleton in our closet.

The United Kingdom.

Worldwide, although the British now use ’cupboard’ and the USA still uses ’closet’.

A mild rebuke, often given when a more severe punishment might be expected.

Those muggers should get a jail term but these days they’ll probably just get a fine and a slap on the wrist.



A fatal weakness in an otherwise strong person or thing.

JFK’s Achilles heel was his inability to ignore the charms of a long-legged blonde.

The United Kingdom – 19th century.

Worldwide, but more commonly amongst the older generation.

Clumsy or physically inept.

I just can’t manage to tie this bow tie – I’m all thumbs.

Britain, 19th century. A variant of the 16th century expression ‘each finger was a thumb’.

Worldwide, more used by the older generations.

Very expensive. A large amount of money.

That new lawnmower is top of the range. It cost me an arm and a leg.

USA, mid-20th century. Often mistakenly thought to be related to the high cost of painting full-length portraits.


A slang term for small child.

Janice is pregnant again. With the twins still only two there’s soon going to be three ankle biters around the place.

USA, 19th century.


Cockney rhyming slang for hair.

I’m not sure about that new hairdresser – he cut my barnet much too short.


Mostly Britain.

Avoid speaking.

I knew his wife wasn’t faithful but I didn’t like to say – I thought it best to bite my tongue.

Britain. Early (pre 1000AD) English, in the form of hold or keep one’s tongue.


Cockney rhyming slang for face.

Stupid am I! Look into my boat and say that again!


Mostly Britain.

Cockney rhyming slang for arse.

He slipped on those wet leaves by the gate. Legs in the air and landed on his bottle.


Mostly Britain.

A superstitious way to wish ‘good luck’ to an actor before a performance while avoiding saying ‘good luck’ out loud, which is considered unlucky.

People often said ‘break a leg’ to Olivier, but he didn’t really need it.

USA, 20th century.


Slogan of breastfeeding campaign.

I bottle-fed all my kids. I know they say breast is best but they all lived to tell the tale.

Said to be possessed by someone who is able to eat anything with no ill effects.

Nine burgers in one sitting! He must have a cast iron stomach.

Trapped by an opponent in a situation you can’t escape.

I knew he had been stealing but he was the boss’s son. If I said anything he would get me sacked – he had me by the short and curlies.

Britain, late 19th century. People assume this expression has a vulgar origin but, in fact, when coined the hairs referred to were those on the back of the neck.


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.

Side by side; close together.

It looks as though Barry and Freda are an item. They were certainly cheek by jowl in the club all last evening.

Britain – 16th century.


To hope that something happens.

Cross your fingers – I’ve put £500 in number 29.

Britain, 18th century.


Don’t hurt someone that helps you.

Shouting at the people who are offering you somewhere to stay isn’t a good plan. Have you never heard of the proverb Don’t bite the hand that feeds you?


Sound that is loud or that catches the attention.

Led Zeppelin were good on stage and ear-poppingly loud.

USA, early 20th century.


Energetic labour, especially in the polishing of household items.

That silver will never get a shine like that – put some elbow grease into it.

Britain, late 17th century.

Britain, mostly by the older generation.

Something that creates shock or surprise.

Everyone expected Brokeback Mountain to get the Oscar. When the announcement said Crash had won it was truly eyebrow raising.

USA and Britain, early 20th century.


To become conscious of and develop one’s expertise.

I didn’t cope well when I started my new job but after a few weeks I began to find my feet.

Britain, 16th century.


Making a round of visits at New Year.

As soon as the clock strikes midnight on 31st December we’ll be off around town first footing all our neighbours.

Britain, especially Scotland, from 19th century onward.

Mostly Scotland but has travelled with Scots throughout the world.

1 – One’s family. 2 – the bodily stuff we are made of.

1 – We aren’t putting Dad into a home. He is our flesh and blood after all. 2 – It’s so hot in here – almost more than flesh and blood can stand.

Britain, 10th century, from a biblical source.


To aggressively raise your middle finger at someone as a sign of displeasure.

I stopped the car a little too close when he crossed the road and he flipped the bird as a response.

USA, mid 20th century.

Mostly USA.

To show vehement rage.

He was mad as hell – really foaming at the mouth.

Britain, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.


Make a bad start in a relationship or task.

My new boss overheard me calling her obese – that really got us off on the wrong foot.

USA, late 19th century.


Understand something, especially something difficult to comprehend because it is complex or surprising.

Jill’s mother had a baby girl after Jill had baby Jimmy, so Jimmy now has an auntie who is younger than him! That’s weird. It took me a while to get my head around that.

Britain, 20th century.

Mostly Britain.

Become badly and permanently inoperative.

The company has gone belly up – they had millions in debts and their only customer went elsewhere.

Britain, 20th century. The allusion is to fish floating dead in the water.


Said ironically when two people have matching thoughts.

So, you backed Windsor Boy in the 2.30 too did you? Great minds think alike.

Britain, 19th century.


Cockney rhyming slang for neck.

It’s freezing out there. Better get a scarf round your Gregory if you’re going out.


Mostly Britain.

A personal intuition, based on feeling rather than fact.

Even before the trial, I always had a gut feeling that O J Simpson was a wrong un.


Said of someone who the speaker has a deep dislike of.

Savile was a sexual predator for 50 years. Just seeing a picture of his stupid face now makes my skin crawl.

Britain, 15th century.


Very excited, especially when in love.

She said yes! We are to be married and I’m head over heels.

Britain, 18th century.


1. A choice forced upon someone. 2. Cockney rhyming slang for voice.

1. There was only one room left in the hotel when we arrived, so we got Hobson’s choice. 2. I’ve had a sore throat for a couple of days – now I’m beginning to lose my hobsons.

Britain, 17th century. Derived from the name of the carrier Thomas Hobson.

Worldwide, although mostly amongst the older generation.


Midnight swimming in the buff? Not for me – I prefer a costume.

Britain. From Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.


Aggressive confrontation.

The police kept interrogating him. They were in his face for hours.

USA, 1970s.


An overweight person.

I wish I could cut down on the cakes and get some more exercise – I’m turning into a real jelly belly.

Britain, late 19th century.

Worldwide, but not common everywhere. Most used in Britain and Australia.

Observe carefully to make sure something bad isn’t done.

He’s got convictions for theft you know. Keep an eye on him when he’s near the till.

Britain, 16th century.


Earn sufficient money in order to keep yourself alive.

The minimum wage is too low. Its hardly enough to keep body and soul together.

Britain, 17th century.


Remain positive in a tough situation.

Sorry to hear that you were made redundant on the day your buried your mother. Keep your chin up mate.

USA, late 19th century.

Although derived in the USA this idiom is more commonly heard now in Britain.

A quick and automatic response.

When Isis bombed Paris the knee-jerk reaction was to bomb them back.

Britain, 19th century. Driving from the medical test involving tapping the knee.


Sexual intercourse between two people standing up.

They had nowhere to go to make love and had to resort to a knee-trembler in the alley.

Britain, 19th century.

Mostly Britain.

Politely ask for someones full attention.

Hey, lend an ear to this – Suzy is getting married.

Britain. From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.


Cockney rhyming slang for head.

Betting your wages on the toss of a coin isn’t the best way to get out of debt – use your loaf mate.


Mostly Britain.

Said when you absolutely refuse to allow something to happen.

He bullied me at school and now you want to promote him. Over my dead body!

Britain, circa 1800. From the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


Cockney rhyming slang for feet.

I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to help with the Christmas post. Ten miles up and down stairs today – my plates are killing me.


Mostly Britain.

A foul mouthed person.

I couldn’t believe that string of swearwords that Jill gave the teacher – she’s a real potty mouth.

USA, mid 20th century.

Worldwide, but not particularly common.

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.


Deceive someone.

He convinced us all that he was going straight, then the police found him with ten stolen watches. He really pulled the wool over our eyes.

USA, 19th century.


Become less ambitious; curb your enthusiasm.

The team came bottom of the league last year and now has no money. They’ll have to pull their horns in when making bids for new players.

Britain – 19th century.


Tricking someone as a joke.

You believed her when she said she was the Queen’s cousin? I think she was pulling your leg mate.

USA, 19th century.


A rough estimate.

I’ve no tape measure with me but I’d say, as a rule of thumb, that building is twelve metres high.

Britain, 1600s. Not, as is often thought, derived from the size of stick a man was permitted to beat his wife with.


When two or more people agree.

Our taste in music is the only thing we don’t agree on. Apart from that we see eye to eye on everything.

Britain, 17th century. Ultimately deriving from the Bible.


The side of a female breast revealed by skimpy clothing.

That T-shirt is way too loose on Jane. She’s showing acres of side boob.

Britain, late 20th century.

Worldwide, amongst the younger generations.

Blonde hair that is turning grey.

Thirty years ago Janine had strawberry blonde hair. These days she’s going grey, or as she prefers to say silver threads among the gold.

Worldwide, but rather old-fashioned.

Eloquent or persuasive manner of speech.

Reagan didn’t always have much in the way of policies but he certainly could hold a crowd with his silver tongued speeches.

Britain, 16th century.


Hurt someone who was close to us by betraying them secretly and breaking their trust.

All my friends promised to vote for me but when the election came and I got no votes I knew I’d been stabbed in the back.

First seen in James Joyce’s Ulysees, 1922.


Someone who is cherished above all others.

She’s my only child – the apple of my eye.

Britain, 9th century – making it one of the oldest phrases in the language that is still in regular use in its original form.


Refuse to acknowledge something that you know is genuine.

I knew where my grandson was hiding nut I decided to turn a blind eye and let him have his fun.

Britain, early 19th century. Most probably directly related to Nelson’s refusal to view an unwelcome signal.


Persuade someone to do something they don’t really want to do.

I was tired after work and I didn’t really fancy the abstract expressionist exhibition but my wife twisted my arm and in the end I enjoyed it.

Britain, mid-20th century.


Think smart.

Sending money to that Nigerian email scam. Use your loaf, mate – wasn’t it obvious it was a con?

Britain, mid-20th century.

Worldwide, but most commonly in Britain.

Tone deaf.

I’d love to join the choir but my audition was a disaster. The conductor said I had Van Gogh’s ear for music.

An ironic joke alluding to Van Gogh’s celebrated loss of his ear, coined in Britain in the late 20th century. The source idiom ‘ear for music’ has been used in Britain since the 18th century.

Mostly Britain and not a common idiom.

Openly express your emotions.

He went on his knees in the town square and sang her a love song. You can’t say that he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.

Worldwide, although somewhat old-fashioned.

Said of a man with large genitals.

The legend is that Errol Flynn was well hung, but it’s probably a myth.

The idiom might be thought to be fairly modern but, in fact, its first use was in Britain in the 17th century. Before being applied to humans the expression was used to refer to dogs that had large ears.


Young and naive, like a new-born baby.

That Justin Bieber; he thinks he’s all grown up but he’s really pretty wet behind the ears.

Britain, 1910s


A coward.

He wouldn’t fight in WWI. Some said he was a yellow belly, but I’d call him a pacifist.

Britain, late 18th century.


Say nothing; keep your mouth shut. Often shortened to ‘zip it’.

I saw Kevin put sneezing powder in the staff room but he told me to zip my lip about it or it would spoil the joke.

USA, 1940s. Deriving from the allusion to closing a garment with a zipper.

Worldwide, but most common in the USA.

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.