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American  Idioms



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Penny wise, dollar foolish   Time and time again
Play a waiting game A tongue twister
Play possum Tourist trap
Play up Turn over a new leaf
A pretty penny Turn the tables
A price on someone's head Under someone's spell
Promise the moon Use one's head
Put someone on a pedestal Walk a tightrope
Read oneself to sleep Walls have ears
Rogue's gallery Never take no for an answer
Sing for one's supper Work hand in glove
A skeleton in the closet Worlds apart
Speak with a forked tongue Worth its weight in gold
Square deal Worth one's salt
Status symbol Chips and down ( the )
Steal the show Eat humble pie
Sweets for the sweet Blow hot and cold
Take pains Like water off a duck s back
Talk a mile a minute Run the gauntlet
Crack of dawn Grasp the nettle
The old guard Blue stocking
The world is someone s oyster Up to scratch
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Penny wise, dollar foolish

In the money sense, this describes someone who is cautious about spending small amounts of money but is reckless when spending large amounts. In a non-money sense, this describes someone who is careful in small matters but incautious when tending to larger matters. "Paul is penny wise and dollar foolish in both senses of this expression !"



Play a waiting game

In a situation or an activity in which a person plays a waiting game, he withholds action -- or actions -- until his chances for success improve or seem certain. "Tony would like to be team captain. Meanwhile, he's playing a waiting game hoping the coach will recognize his great talent."



Play possum

The possum ( or oppossum ) is a small animal that pretends to be dead when it is threatened. People play possum when they hide from unpleasant things or avoid responsibilities by pretending they know nothing about them, " We can't play possum and hope our problems will disappear," the sales manager warned.



Play up

Play up can mean (1) something that causes trouble or annoyance, or (2) to give special attention to something. "I'm worried that all this exercise will cause my sore leg to play up." ( Cause annoyance ) "The newspapers played up the story about a little boy being carried away by a kite." ( Gave it special attention )



A pretty penny

This is one of the prettiest idioms in the English language. Some people might even think it's beautiful. Why ? Because a pretty penny means lots and lots of money !" Max has a new car. He must be earning a pretty penny." "I'm saving my money. It's going to cost me a pretty penny to fly to Europe this summer," Jenny said.



A price on someone's head

When a person has a price on his head it's because he is wanted by someone -- and the reason he's wanted is because he is considered a criminal. In this expression, "price" means a reward. "The police are looking for a guy with a patch over one eye. They've placed a large price on his head.



Promise the moon

Here's a riddle : what does a politician campaigning for office have in common with a young man in love ? Answer : they are both likely to promise the moon. That is, they make generous promises that aren't likely to be fulfilled. "Don't promise the moon, Henry. Just tell me you'll love me forever," Cathy sighed.



Put someone on a pedestal

People we respect or think of as heroes often end up as statues in parks and museums. The base of a statue is called a pedestal. Metaphorically, to admire a person to an extreme degree is to put him on a pedestal. "I think Alvin and Susan have put their teacher on a pedestal."



Read oneself to sleep

Mrs. Maple is reading herself to sleep. She's doing what many people do to relax their minds and put themselves in a calm state before turning out the lights and going to sleep. "I'm reading my autobiography," Mrs. Maple yawned. "I find it's an ideal book to read oneself to sleep."



Rogue's gallery

Officer Snupp has been a policeman for many years and in that time he has met a lot of dishonest citizens. That's the reason he ahs such an extensive rogue's gallery in his office. A rogue is a wicked person and a rogue's gallery is a police file of photographs of dangerous or undesirable people.



Sing for one's supper

In this expression, "supper" can mean money, food, or a home to live in. "Sing" means about the same as "to work". Therefore, the expression says that one must work to have what one desires. "Long ago I learned that I would have to sing for my supper if I wanted to succeed," Benny said.



A skeleton in the closet

A closely kept secret that, if revealed, would be a source of shame to a person, a family, a group -- or even to a country or government. Except for Emma, no one knows that her husband had once been in prison. The secret remains a skeleton in the closet and Emma, of course never talks about it.



Speak with a forked tongue

Things that are forked are divided into two or more branches. A person speaking with a forked tongue, however, is saying one thing while thinking something else. In other words, he is lying. "Long ago I learned not to believe any of Rod's promises. He speaks with a forked tongue."



Square deal

Robert has just sold a very original work of art to Mr. Kane. Mr. Kane is convinced he's made a square deal. Robert is happy because he's sure he has received a square deal for his masterpiece. A square deal is a fair and honest agreement or business transaction.



Status symbol

Some people believe that possessing certain material objects are signs of prestige or success or wealth. Things that fall into this category -- like expensive watches or fancy cars -- are called status symbols. "A new car might be a status symbol to a bank manager, while a pair of designer jeans may be a status symbol to his secretary," Philip explained.



Steal the show

A person stealing the show takes attention away from an important actor ( in a play ) or gets more notice than a prominent personality ( at an event such as a party, meeting, etc )  "Lucy gave a wonderful performance but an unknown comedian stole the show with his funny jokes."



Sweets for the sweet

If we reworded this expression to read, "I am giving something sweet to someone who is very sweet," perhaps you would understand why it is used when giving sweets or candy to a person -- especially to a child or a young girl -- considered sweet and wonderful. "The rest of this is for you, Jessie. Sweets for the sweet," Jerard said.



Take pains

To take pains is to give careful attention -- or make a special effort -- to do something thoroughly and correctly. At his circus performances, for instance, Ranjit takes pains to see that his act is genuine and worth watching. "I also take pains to see that I don't injure myself," Ranjit muttered.



Talk a mile a minute

Sybil is a continuous talker. When Winston bought a new motorbike he thought he might be able to silence her. But no. Fast a she goes, she still talks a mile a minute. To talk a mile a minute is to talk on and on rapidly.



Crack of dawn

"I know Sean likes to get up early but this is ridiculous !" he cat cried. "Look, he's getting up at the crack of dawn !" What the cat is complaining about is that Sean is getting up just as the sky is showing the first light of day that is called the crack of dawn.



The old guard

The people who have been associated with a group for a long time and support its ideals and policies are referred to as the old guard. Usually they are old, powerful, and their ideas may be out of date. "There won't be any changes in company policy as long as the old guard still works here." Frank complained.



The world is someone's oyster

Shakespeare used this remark in one of his plays. If he were alive today there's no doubt the world would be his oyster for it means to be able to do whatever or go wherever one wants in life. Having luck and some money would be an advantage, of course. "I've just sold a play ! The world's my oyster," William cried.



Time and time again

Time and again Oliver's parents warned him about playing in the sand near the clock factory. Oliver didn't heed their warnings .. and that's why time and time again he finds himself riding back and forth inside an hourglass. Time and ( time ) again means often or on many occasions.



A tongue twister

If you can say "Certain savory soaring insects sailing skyward at the seaside certainly cause Cecil confusion" without making a mistake, you have just done something Cecil can't do. That is, you have said a tongue twister. A tongue twister is a sentence, phrase or word that is difficult to say without making an error.



Tourist trap

A shop, a restaurant, a bar, or any place that uses tourists greedily to profit from them is called a tourist trap. "Wilcox returned from Miami saying it was a terrible tourist trap." "Kitty and Floyd visited a tourist trap in Paris where they were charged $250 for just two drinks !"



Turn over a new leaf

Walter was greedy. He ate so much he couldn't move. Then a bird swooped down and ate him. Walter's last words were, "If I could live my life again, I'd turn over a new leaf and learn to control my appetite !" "To turn over a new leaf is to change one's way of acting or thinking in order to improve oneself.



Turn the tables

In this illustration we see that the cook and the waitress have grown tired of working. Today they have turned the tables on their customers and are insisting that they wait on them. To turn the tables is to change a situation completely around so that you gain an advantage over those who once had an advantage over you. ( In this idiom, it's always tables -- never table )



Under someone's spell

There's something so enchanting, so compelling, so overwhelming about her that Marvin has come under Lizzie's spell. If you should ever be near Lizzie, be careful ! To be under someone' spell is to be unable to resist his or her influence. "I can't explain it but Lizzie has me under her spell," Marvin sighed.



Use one's head

It seems to me if I use my head I should be able to think of a way to get out of this place," Albert thought. Apparently Albert doesn't know that to use one's head is to use one's mind to think intelligently. "Give me some help, "Albert said. I've used my head and have thought of a way to get out of here."



Walk a tightrope

This idiom originated with acrobats who perform dangerous acts on tightropes. When someone walks a tightrope he's in an awkward or hazardous situation where he cannot afford to make mistake. "I walk a tightrope trying to please my boss, keep the audience happy, and not make any errors," Eric sighed.



Walls have ears

If you have a secret or information that you'd like to keep private, it's well to take care how you reveal it to someone. Walls have ears. It is said and too often our most intimate conversations have a way of being overheard. "Pass this on to Julia -- but be careful about it. Remember, the walls have ears," Agnes whispered.



Never take no for an answer

Mandy is a very, very determined girl. When she wants something she usually gets it for she will not take no for an answer. People like Mandy refuse to pay attention when a person says "No !" "Hurry along, Harry. You know I never take no fro an answer," Mandy smiled.



Work hand in glove

"We've got a new patient today," the doctor said, "but working hand in glove we'll soon have him well and on his feet, nurse." what the doctor is saying is that by working together he and the nurse will accomplish the tasks, for to work hand in glove means to work in close partnership with someone.



Worlds apart

I thought we all lived in one world. This idiom, though, says that there is more than one. What's more, to be worlds apart means to be completely different or in total disagreement. "The twins look alike but their characters are worlds apart." "Jack and Anna never agree on anything. They're worlds apart in their thinking."



Worth one's/its weight in gold

Winnie is so proud ! She says her new baby ( it's her first ! ) is such a wonderful little fellow that he's worth his weight in gold. What Winnie means is that her child is exceedingly valuable. "A little silence in the house world be worth its weight in gold to me," her husband sighed.



Worth one's salt

Long ago workers were paid wages in salt. In fact, our word salary comes from the Latin word for salt. From that, a person worth his salt is very worthy, either because he has a good character or because he is a competent and valuable worker. "You're sure worth your salt here," the boss said to Ryan.



Chips are down ( the )

A point during an important situation when you are forced to make a decision or take action.


A : I heard about a woman who survived a plane crash in the jungle and had to live for three weeks on worms and insects ! I could never do that -- I'd rather starve to death.

B : I disagree. I think that if the chips were down you'd eat anything.

A : Perhaps you're right. After all I do eat your cooking !

This expression originates from gambling. Bets are sometimes placed in the form of plastic counters called chips. when the chips are down or placed on the table the game is at a critical point because the players have committed heir money.



Eat humble pie

Be very submissive after regretting an action or words


A : Last week Charles accused his new secretary, Fiona, of stealing his wallet. It disappeared from his briefcase during lunchtime.

B : How awful ! I expect she lost her job immediately.

A : No, Charles gave her a pay rise. The next day he found his wallet at home. It hadn't been stolen after all, so he had to eat humble pie all week and offer Fiona more money before she agreed to stay !

In the Middle Ages umbles were the unpleasant but edible parts of a deer which were cooked in a pie. The best deer meat was eaten by the rich, whereas the umble pie was eaten by their servants who were of a lower social class. Over time the word umble became confused with the word humble which means meek or submissive to give the current expression. It is often used in the following forms, have to eat humble pie and make someone eat humble pie.



Blow hot and cold

Continually change one's mind about something/someone


A : I can't understand it. First my wife says she wants to go to Paris with me and then she doesn't. Why do you think she's blowing hot and cold ?

B : Well it's a lovely romantic idea to take her there but perhaps she's worried that it will cost you a lot of money -- hotels, air tickets, restaurants ... you know.

A : No, it can't be that. She'll be paying for everything !

This expression originates from one of the famous fable written by the ancient Greek author, Aesop. The story is about a man who meets a demon in a wood. The man blows on his hands to warm them and so the demon invites him home and gives him a bowl of hot soup. When the man starts blowing on his soup to cool it the demon is terrified and throws him out of the house. The reason is that he is frightened of anything which can blow hot and cold from the same mouth !



Like water off a duck's back

Be unaffected by an unpleasant experience


A : Anita, the ageing ballerina, is starring in a new production of 'San Lake'. All the newspaper critics said she was too old and should retire.

B : Oh dear, I'm sure Miss Anita was very upset when she read the reviews.

A : No, the comments were like water off a duck's back to Anita. She invited all the critics to her house and told them she was still the best dancer in the world !

It's very common to shorten the saying by omitting like. E.g. : It was water off a duck's back to Anita.



Run the gauntlet of something/someone

Suffer an attack/pressure/criticism


A : Did you hear about Freda ? Apparently she had to run the gauntlet of dozens of newspaper reporters when she arrived at a charity dinner in a real fur coat.

B : But lots of people wear real fur, why did they decide to pick on Freda.

A : Well, the dinner was in aid of the local animal rights group !

Although gauntlet is an English word meaning glove, this expression has nothing to do with either England or gloves. It originates from the Swedish expression, gatlopp ( gata means gate and lopp means course ) which was a military punishment in the 17th century. Two lines of soldiers would stand facing each other and hit the punished man as he ran between them. Now running the gauntlet can refer to any situation which is unpleasant to bear because of the way you are treated.



Grasp the nettle

Deal with a problem quickly and directly even though it may require some courage


A : I borrowed Harry's best suit for a job interview. Unfortunately, afterwards I spilt black ink on it and now it's ruined.

B : My advice is to grasp the nettle and tell Harry what's happened. The longer you don't tell him about it the more angry he'll be when he finds out.

A : Yes, You're right -- I must do it. But how do I tell him about the interview ? It was for his job !

A nettle is a plant which grows wild and can sting if touched. The only way to avoid being hurt is to take hold of it quickly and grasp it firmly. Obviously this takes some courage !



Blue stocking

A woman who is very intellectual or academic


A : My brother's fiancee is definitely a blue stocking -- quite honestly I'm surprised she wants to marry him. Sam left school at fourteen and has never read a book in his life !

B : That's true, but on the other hand he does look like that tall, handsome actor, Tom Hank !

Lady Elizabeth Montagu lived in London during the 18th century and held 'intellectual' parties at her home. Instead of gambling and gossiping, the guests listened to lectures given by learned people. A favourite speaker was the academic Benjamin Stillingfleet who talked about natural history and always wore blue stockings. As intellectual parties became popular, blue stocking clubs started all over London and their members wore blue stockings in admiration of Stillingfleet.

The reason that the expression is now only used to describe women may be because of the evolution of stockings. In the 18th century these were garments for both men and women. today, stockings are only worn by women.



Up to scratch

Be of an acceptable /desired standard


A : I think you should go to the optician and find out if your eyesight is up to scratch.

B : Why do you say that ?

A : Well last week I saw you talking to a lamp-post and asking it round for dinner !

Boxing was a common sport during the 18th and 19th centuries, but the rules were very different from those of today. The fight was not divided into bouts of a few minutes but continued non-stop until one of the men was knocked to the floor. Both fighters then had to go to a mark which had been scratched in the middle of the ring. If a man had been so badly injured that he could not come up to scratch within thirty seconds, he lost the fight and his opponent won.

The expression is often used in the negative -- for example, She wanted to be a singer but her voice wasn't up to scratch.



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