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Idioms and Phrases

These idioms are compiled from the Cambridge International Dictionary.The Cambridge International Dictionary explains over 7,000 idioms current in British, American and other English speaking countries, helping learners to understand them and use them with confidence. The Cambridge Dictionary, based on the 200 million words of English text in the Cambridge International Corpus, unlocks the meaning of more than 5,000 idiomatic phrases used in contemporary English. Full-sentence examples show how idioms are really used.

The Cambridge University Press is respected worldwide for its commitment to advancing knowledge, education, learning and research. It was founded on a Royal Charter granted to the University by Henry VIII in 1534 and has been operating continuously as a printer and publisher since the first Press book was printed in 1584.

Here is the list of idioms beginning with A.

A bit much: If something is excessive or annoying, it is a bit much.

A day late and a dollar short: (USA) If something is a day late and a dollar short, it is too little, too late.

A fool and his money are soon parted: This idiom means that people who aren't careful with their money spend it quickly. 'A fool and his money are easily parted' is an alternative form of the idiom.

A fool at 40 is a fool forever: If someone hasn't matured by the time they reach forty, they never will.

A little bird told me: If someone doesn't want to say where they got some information from, they can say that a little bird told them.

A little learning is a dangerous thing: A small amount of knowledge can cause people to think they are more expert than they really are. Eg. He said he'd done a course on home electrics, but when he tried to mend my table lamp, he fused all the lights! I think a little learning is a dangerous thing

A lost ball in the high weeds: A lost ball in the high weeds is someone who does not know what they are doing, where they are or how to do something.

A OK: If things are A OK, they are absolutely fine.

A penny for your thoughts: This idiom is used as a way of asking someone what they are thinking about.

A penny saved is a penny earned: This means that we shouldn't spend or waste money, but try to save it.

A picture is worth a thousand words: A picture can often get a message across much better than the best verbal description.

A poor man's something: Something or someone that can be compared to something or someone else, but is not as good is a poor man's version; a writer who uses lots of puns but isn't very funny would be a poor man's Oscar Wilde.

A pretty penny: If something costs a pretty penny, it is very expensive.

A problem shared is a problem halved: If you talk about your problems, it will make you feel better.

A rising tide lifts all boats: This idiom, coined by John F Kennedy, describes the idea that when an economy is performing well, all people will benefit from it.

A rolling stone gathers no moss: People say this to mean that that a go-getter type person is more successful than a person not doing any thing.

A steal: If something is a steal, it costs much less than it is really worth.

A still tongue keeps a wise head: Wise people don't talk much.

A watched pot never boils: Some things work out in their own time, so being impatient and constantly checking will just make things seem longer.

A1: If something is A1, it is the very best or finest.

Abide by a decision: If you abide by a decision, you accept it and comply with it, even though you might disagree with it.

Abject lesson: (India) An abject lesson serves as a warning to others. (In some varieties of English 'object lesson' is used.)

About as useful as a chocolate teapot: Someone or something that is of no practical use is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

About face: If someone changes their mind completely, this is an about face. It can be used when companies, governments, etc, change their position on an issue.

Above board: If things are done above board, they are carried out in a legal and proper manner.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: This idiom means that when people are apart, their love grows stronger.

Accident waiting to happen: If something is an accident waiting to happen, there's definitely going to be an accident or it's bound to go wrong. ('Disaster waiting to happen' is also used.)

Ace up your sleeve: If you have an ace up your sleeve, you have something that will give you an advantage that other people don't know about.

Achilles' heel: A person's weak spot is their Achilles' heel.

Acid test: An acid test is something that proves whether something is good, effective, etc, or not.

Across the board: If something applies to everybody, it applies across the board.

Across the ditch: (NZ) This idiom means on the other side of the Tasman Sea, used to refer to Australia or New Zealand depending on the speaker's location.

Across the pond: (UK) This idiom means on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, used to refer to the US or the UK depending on the speaker's location.

Act of God: An act of God is something like an earthquake or floods that human beings cannot prevent or control.

Actions speak louder than words: This idiom means that what people actually do is more important than what they say- people can promise things but then fail to deliver.

Adam's apple: The Adam's apple is a bulge in the throat, mostly seen in men.

Add fuel to the fire: If people add fuel to the fire, they make a bad situation worse.

Add insult to injury: When people add insult to injury, they make a bad situation even worse.

After your own heart: A person after your own heart thinks the same way as you.

Against the clock: If you do something against the clock, you are rushed and have very little time to do it.

Against the grain: If doing something goes against the grain, you're unwilling to do it because it contradicts what you believe in, but you have no real choice.

Age before beauty: When this idiom is used, it is a way of allowing an older person to do something first, though often in a slightly sarcastic way.

Agony aunt: An agony aunt is a newspaper columnist who gives advice to people having problems, especially personal ones.

Ahead of the pack: If you are ahead of the pack, you have made more progress than your rivals.

Ahead of time: If something happens ahead of time, it happens early or before the set time.

Albatross around your neck: An albatross around, or round, your neck is a problem resulting from something you did that stops you from being successful.

Alike as two peas: If people or things are as alike as two peas, they are identical.

Alive and kicking: If something is active and doing well, it is alive and kicking. (It can be used for people too.)

All along: If you have known or suspected something all along, then you have felt this from the beginning.

All and sundry: This idiom is a way of emphasizing 'all', like saying 'each and every one'.

All bark and no bite: When someone talks tough but really isn't, they are all bark and no bite.

All bark and no bite: Someone who talks a lot, but does nothing to back up their words-- like a dog that barks at strangers, but won't actually bite.

All bets are off: (USA) If all bets are off, then agreements that have been made no longer apply.

All dressed up and nowhere to go: You're prepared for something that isn't going to happen.

All ears: If someone says they're all ears, they are very interested in hearing about something.

All eyes on me: If all eyes are on someone, then everyone is paying attention to them.

All fingers and thumbs: If you're all fingers and thumbs, you are too excited or clumsy to do something properly that requires manual dexterity. 'All thumbs' is an alternative form of the idiom.

All hat, no cattle: (USA) When someone talks big, but cannot back it up, they are all hat, no cattle.('Big hat, no cattle' is also used.)

All heart: Someone who is all heart is very kind and generous.

All hell broke loose: When all hell breaks loose, there is chaos, confusion and trouble.

All in a day's work: If something is all in a day's work, it is nothing special.

All in your head: If something is all in your head, you have imagined it and it is not real.

All mod cons: If something has all mod cons, it has all the best and most desirable features. It is an abbreviation of 'modern convenience' that was used in house adverts.

All mouth and trousers: (UK) Someone who's all mouth and trousers talks or boasts a lot but doesn't deliver. 'All mouth and no trousers' is also used, though this is a corruption of the original.

All my eye and Peggy Martin: (UK) An idiom that appears to have gone out of use but was prevalent in the English north Midlands of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Derbyshire from at least the turn of the 20th century until the early 1950s or so. The idiom's meaning is literally something said or written that is unbelievable, rumor, over embellished, the result of malicious village gossip etc.

All of the above: This idiom can be used to mean everything that has been said or written, especially all the choices or possibilities.

All over the map: (USA) If something like a discussion is all over the map, it doesn't stick to the main topic and goes off on tangents.

All over the place: If something is completely disorganised or confused, it is all over the place.

All over the shop: If something is completely disorganised or confused, it is all over the shop.

All over the show: If something is all over the show, it's in a complete mess.An alternative to 'All over the shop'.

All roads lead to Rome: This means that there can be many different ways of doing something.

All set: If you're all set, you are ready for something.

All skin and bone: If a person is very underweight, they are all skin and bone, or bones.

All square: If something is all square, nobody has an advantage or is ahead of the others.

All talk and no trousers: (UK) Someone who is all talk and no trousers, talks about doing big, important things, but doesn't take any action.

All that glitters is not gold: This means that appearances can be deceptive and things that look or sound valuable can be worthless. ('All that glistens is not gold' is an alternative.)

All the rage: If something's all the rage, it is very popular or fashionable at the moment.

All the tea in China: If someone won't do something for all the tea in China, they won't do it no matter how much money they are offered.

All your eggs in one basket: If you put all your eggs in one basket, you risk everything at once, instead of trying to spread the risk. (This is often used as a negative imperative- 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket'. 'Have your eggs in one basket' is also used.)

All's fair in love and war: This idiom is used to say that where there is conflict; people can be expected to behave in a more vicious way.

All's well that ends well: If the end result is good, then everything is good.

All-singing, all-dancing: If something's all-singing, all-dancing, it is the latest version with the most up-to-date features.

Alter ego: An alter ego is a very close and intimate friend. It is a Latin phrase that literally means 'other self'.

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride: If someone is always a bridesmaid, never a bride, they never manage to fulfill their ambition- they get close, but never manage the recognition, etc, they crave.

Ambulance chaser: A lawyer who encourages people who have been in accidents or become ill to sue for compensation is an ambulance chaser.

Amen: Some use 'Amen' or 'Amen to that' as a way of agreeing with something that has just been said.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away: Eating healthy food keeps you healthy.

An old flame: An old flame is a person that somebody has had an emotional, usually passionate, relationship with, who is still looked on fondly and with affection.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: This expression means that is is better to try to avoid problems in the first place, rather than trying to fix them once they arise.

And all that jazz: This idiom means that everything related or similar is included.

Angry as a bear: If someone is as angry as a bear, they are very angry.('Angry as a bear with a sore foot' is also used.)

Angry as a bull: If someone is as angry as a bull, they are very angry.

Answers on a postcard: This idiom can be used to suggest that the answer to something is very obvious or that the person would really like to hear what people think.

Ants in your pants: If someone has ants in their pants, they are agitated or excited about something and can't keep still.

Any port in a storm: This means that in an emergency any solution will do, even one that would normally be unacceptable.

Any Tom, Dick or Harry: If something could be done by any Tom, Dick or Harry, it could be done by absolutely anyone.

Apple of your eye: Something or, more often, someone that is very special to you is the 'apple of your' eye.

Apron strings: A man who is tied to a woman's apron strings is excessively dependent on her, especially when it is his mother's apron strings.

Argue the toss: (UK) If you argue the toss, you refuse to accept a decision and argue about it.

Arm and a leg: If something costs an arm and a leg, it is very expensive.

Armchair critic: An armchair critic is someone who offers advice but never shows that they could actually do any better.

Armed to the teeth: If people are armed to the teeth, they have lots of weapons.

Around the clock: If something is open around the clock, it is open 24 hours a day. For example, an airport is open around the clock.

Arrow in the quiver: An arrow in the quiver is a strategy or option that could be used to achieve your objective.

As a rule: If you do something as a rule, then you usually do it.

As cold as ice: This idiom can be used to describe a person who does not show any emotion.

As cold as stone: If something is as cold as stone, it is very cold. If a person is as cold as stone, they are unemotional.

As cool as a cucumber: If someone is as cool as a cucumber, they don't get worried by anything.

As mad as a hatter: This simile means that someone is crazy or behaves very strangely. In the past many people who made hats went insane because they had a lot of contact with mercury.

As much use as a chocolate fire-guard: A fire-guard is used in front of a fireplace for safety. A chocolate fire-guard is of no use. An alternative to 'As much use as a chocolate teapot'.

As much use as a chocolate teapot: Something that is as much use as a chocolate teapot is not useful at all.

As much use as a handbrake on a canoe: This idiom is used to describe someone or something as worthless or pointless.

As neat as a new pin: This idiom means tidy and clean.

As one man: If people do something as one man, then they do it at exactly the same time or in complete agreement.

As the actress said to the bishop: (UK) This idiom is used to highlight a sexual reference, deliberate or accidental.

As the crow flies: This idiom is used to describe the shortest possible distance between two places.

As you sow, so shall you reap: This means that if you do bad things to people, bad things will happen to you, or good things if you do good things.

Asleep at the switch: If someone is asleep at the switch, they are not doing their job or taking their responsibilities very carefully. 'Asleep at the wheel' is an alternative.

Asleep at the wheel: If someone is asleep at the wheel, they are not doing their job or taking their responsibilities very carefully. 'Asleep at the switch' is an alternative.

At a drop of a dime: (USA) If someone will do something at the drop of a dime, they will do it instantly, without hesitation.

At a loose end: (UK) If you are at a loose end, you have spare time but don't know what to do with it.

At a snail's pace: If something moves at a snail's pace, it moves very slowly.

At arm's length: (India) If something is at arm's length, it is very close to you.

At arm's length: Keep somebody at arm's length means not allowing somebody to be become to friendly with you or close to you.

At cross purposes: When people are at cross purposes, they misunderstand each other or have different or opposing objectives.

At daggers drawn: If people are at daggers drawn, they are very angry and close to violence.

At death's door: If someone looks as if they are at death's door, they look seriously unwell and might actually be dying.

At each other's throats: If people are at each other's throats, they are fighting, arguing or competing ruthlessly.

At full tilt: If something is at full tilt, it is going or happening as fast or as hard as possible.

At large: If a criminal is at large, they have not been found or caught.

At loggerheads: If people are at loggerheads, they are arguing and can't agree on anything.

At loose ends: (USA) If you are at a loose end, you have spare time but don't know what to do with it.

At odds: If you are at odds with someone, you cannot agree with them and argue.

At sea: If things are at sea, or all at sea, they are disorganized and chaotic.

At the bottom of the totem pole: (USA) If someone is at the bottom of the totem pole, they are unimportant. Opposite is at the top of the totem pole.

At the coalface: If you work at the coalface, you deal with the real problems and issues, rather than sitting in a office discussing things in a detached way.

At the drop of a hat: If you would do something at the drop of a hat, you'd do it immediately.

At the end of the day: This is used to mean 'in conclusion' or 'when all is said and done'.

At the end of your rope: (USA) If you are at the end of your rope, you are at the limit of your patience or endurance.

At the end of your tether: (UK) If you are at the end of your tether, you are at the limit of your patience or endurance.

At the fore: In a leading position

At the top of my lungs: If you shout at the top of your lungs, you shout as loudly as you possibly can.

At the top of the list: If something is at the top of the list, it is of highest priority, most important, most urgent, or the next in one's line of attention.

At the top of your voice: If you talk, shout or sing at the top of your voice, you do it as loudly as you can.

At your wit's end: If you're at your wit's end, you really don't know what you should do about something, no matter how hard you think about it.

At your wits' end: If you are at your wits' end, you have no idea what to do next and are very frustrated.

Average Joe: An average Joe is an ordinary person without anything exceptional about them.

Avowed intent: If someone makes a solemn or serious promise publicly to attempt to reach a certain goal, this is their avowed intent.

Away with the fairies: If someone is away with the fairies, they don't face reality and have unrealistic expectations of life.

Awe inspiring: Something or someone that is awe inspiring amazes people in a slightly frightening but positive way.

AWOL: AWOL stands for "Absent without Leave", or "Absent without Official Leave". Originally a military term, it is used when someone has gone missing without telling anyone or asking for permission.

Axe to grind: If you have an axe to grind with someone or about something, you have a grievance, resentment and you want to get revenge or sort it out. In American English, it is 'ax'.

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