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 C.

Cake's not worth the candle : If someone says that the cake's not worth the candle, they mean that the result will not be worth the effort put in to achieve it.


Calf lick: A calf lick is the weird parting in your fringe where your hair grows in a different direction, usually to one side.


Call a spade a spade: A person who calls a spade a spade is one speaks frankly and makes little or no attempt to conceal their opinions or to spare the feelings of their audience.


Call on the carpet: If you are called on the carpet, you are summoned for a reprimand by superiors or others in power.


Call the dogs off: If someone calls off their dogs, they stop attacking or criticizing someone.


Call the shots: If you call the shots, you are in charge and tell people what to do.


Call the tune: The person who calls the tune makes the important decisions about something.


Calm before the storm: A calm time immediately before period of violent activity or argument is the calm before the storm.


Can of worms: If an action can create serious problems, it is opening a can of worms.


Can't dance and it's too wet to plow: (USA) When you can't dance and it's too wet to plow, you may as well do something because you can't or don't have the opportunity to do anything else.


Can't do it for toffee: If you can't so something for toffee, you are incapable of doing something properly or to any sort of standard.


Can't hold a candle: If something can't hold a candle to something else, it is much worse.


Can't see the forest for its trees: If someone can't see the forest for its trees, they are too focused on specific details to see the picture as a whole.


Canary in a coal mine: (UK) A canary in a coal mine is an early warning of danger.


Card up your sleeve: If you have a card up your sleeve, you have a surprise plan or idea that you are keeping back until the time is right.


Carpetbagger: A carpetbagger is an opportunist without any scruples or ethics, or a politican who wants to represent a place they have no connection with.


Carrot and stick: If someone offers a carrot and stick, they offer an incentive to do something combined with the threat of punishment.


Carry the can: If you carry the can, you take the blame for something, even though you didn't do it or are only partly at fault.


Case by case: If things are done case by case, each situation or issue is handled separately on its own merits and demerits.


Case in point: Meaning an instance of something has just occurred that was previously discussed. For instance, a person may have told another that something always happens. Later that day, they see it happening, and the informer might say, 'case in point'.


Cash in your chips: If you cash in your chips, you sell something to get what profit you can because you think its value is going to fall. It can also mean 'to die'.


Cast a long shadow: Something or someone that casts a long shadow has considerable influence on other people or events.


Cast aspersion: If you cast aspersion, you try to blacken someone's name and make people think badly of them.


Cast doubt on: If you make other people not sure about a matter, then you have cast doubt on it.


Cast iron stomach: A person with a cast iron stomach can eat or drink anything without any ill effects.


Cast pearls before swine: If you cast pearls before swine, you offer something of value to someone who doesn't appreciate it- 'swine' are 'pigs'.


Cast sheep's eyes at: If you cast sheep's eyes at someone, you look lovingly or with longing at them.


Cast your mind back: If somebody tells you to cast your mind back on something, they want you to think about something that happened in the past, but which you might not remember very well, and to try to remember as much as possible.


Cast your net widely: If you cast your net widely, you use a wide range of sources when trying to find something.


Casting vote: The casting vote is a vote given to a chairman or president that is used when there is a deadlock.


Castles in the air: Plans that are impractical and will never work out are castles in the air.


Cat among the pigeons: If something or someone puts, or sets or lets, the cat among the pigeons, they create a disturbance and cause trouble.


Cat and dog life: If people lead a cat and dog life, they are always arguing.


Cat burglar: A cat burglar is a skillful thief who breaks into places without disturbing people or setting off alarms.


Cat fur and kitty britches: (USA) when I used to ask my grandma what was for dinner, she would say 'cat fur and kitty britches'. This was her Ozark way of telling me that I would get what she cooked. (Ozark is a region in the center of the United States)


Cat got your tongue? : If someone asks if the cat has got your tongue, they want to know why you are not speaking when they think you should.


Cat nap: If you have a short sleep during the day, you are cat napping.


Cat's lick: (Scot) A cat's lick is a very quick wash.


Cat's pajamas: (USA) something that is the cat's pajamas is excellent.


Cat's whiskers: Something excellent is the cat's whiskers.


Catch as catch can: This means that people should try to get something any way they can.


Catch hell: If you catch hell, you get into trouble or get scolded. ('Catch heck' is also used.)


Catch someone red-handed: If someone is caught red-handed, they are found doing something wrong or illegal.


Caught with your hand in the cookie jar: (USA) If someone is caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar, he or she is caught doing something wrong.


Chalk and cheese: Things, or people, that are like chalk and cheese are very different and have nothing in common.


Champ at the bit: If someone is champing at the bit, they are very eager to accomplish something. ('Chomping at the bit' is also used.)


Change horses in midstream: If people change horses in midstream, they change plans or leaders when they are in the middle of something, even though it may be very risky to do so.


Change of heart: If you change the way you think or feel about something, you have a change of heart.


Change tack: If you change tack, you use a different method for dealing with something.


Change your tune: If someone changes their ideas or the way they talk about them, they change their tune.


Charity begins at home: This idiom means that family members are more important than anyone else, and should be the focus of a person's efforts.


Chase rainbows: If someone chases rainbows, they try to do something that they will never achieve.


Chase your tail: If you are chasing your tail, you are very busy but not being very productive.


Cheap as chips: (UK) If something is very inexpensive, it is as cheap as chips.


Cheap at half the price: If something's cheap at half the price, it's very cheap indeed.


Cheap shot: A cheap shot is an unprincipled criticism.


Cheat death: If someone cheats death, they narrowly avoid a major problem or accident.


Cheek by jowl: If things or people are cheek by jowl, they are very close together.


Cherry pick: If people cherry pick, they choose things that support their position, while ignoring things that contradict it.


Chew on a bone: If someone is chewing on a bone, he or she is thinking about something intently.


Chew the cud: If you chew the cud, you think carefully about something.


Chew the fat: If you chew the fat with someone, you talk at leisure with them.


Chickenfeed: If something is small or unimportant, especially money, it is chickenfeed.


Chinese walls: Chinese walls are regulatory information barriers that aim to stop the flow of information that could be misused, especially in financial corporations.


Chinese whispers: (UK) when a story is told from person to person, especially if it is gossip or scandal, it inevitably gets distorted and exaggerated. This process is called Chinese whispers.


Chip off the old block: If someone is a chip off the old block, they closely resemble one or both of the parents in character.


Chip on your shoulder: If someone has a chip on their shoulder, they are resentful about something and feel that they have been treated badly.


Chop and change: If things chop and change, they keep changing, often unexpectedly.


Cigarette paper: If you cannot get or put a cigarette paper between people, they are so closely bonded that nothing will separate them or their positions on issues.


Circle the wagons: (USA) If you circle the wagons, you stop communicating with people who don't think the same way as you to avoid their ideas. It can also mean to bring everyone together to defend a group against an attack.


Circling the drain: If someone is circling the drain, they are very near death and have little time to live. The phrase can also describe a project or plan or campaign that that is on the brink of failure.


Class act: Someone who's a class act is exceptional in what they do.


Clean as a whistle: If something is as clean as a whistle, it is extremely clean, spotless. It can also be used to mean 'completely', though this meaning is less common nowadays. If somebody is clean as a whistle, they are not involved in anything illegal.


Clean bill of health: If something or someone has a clean bill of health, then there's nothing wrong; everything's fine.


Clean break: If you make a clean break, you break away completely from something.


Clean hands: Someone with clean hands, or who keeps their hands clean, is not involved in illegal or immoral activities.


Clean sheet: When someone has a clean sheet, they have got no criminal record or problems affecting their reputation. In football and other sports, a goalkeeper has a clean sheet when let no goals in.


Clean slate: If you start something with a clean slate, then nothing bad from your past is taken into account.


Clean sweep : If someone makes a clean sweep, they win absolutely everything in a competition or contest.


Clear as a bell: If something is as clear as a bell, it is very clear or easy to understand.


Clear as mud: If something is as clear as mud, then it is very confusing and unclear.


Cliffhanger: If something like a sports match or an election is a cliffhanger, then the result is so close that it cannot be predicted and will only be known at the very end.


Climb on the bandwagon: When people climb on the bandwagon they do something because it is popular and everyone else is doing it.


Cling to hope: If people cling to hope, they continue to hope though the chances of success are very small.


Close at hand: If something is close at hand, it is nearby or conveniently located.


Close but no cigar: (USA) If you are close but no cigar, you are close to success, but have not got there.


Close call: If the result of something is a close call, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the parties involved and to say who has won or whatever.


Close shave: If you have a close shave, you very nearly have a serious accident or get into trouble.


Close the stable door after the horse has bolted: If people try to fix something after the problem has occurred, they are trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. 'Close the barn door after the horse has bolted' is alternative, often used in American English.


Close to your heart: If something is close to your heart, you care a lot about it. ('Dear to your heart' is an alternative.)


Closed book to me: If a subject is a closed book to you, it is something that you don't understand or know anything about.


Cloth ears: If you don't listen to people, they may suggest you have cloth ears.


Cloud cuckoo land: If someone has ideas or plans that are completely unrealistic, they are living on cloud cuckoo land.


Cloud nine: If you are on cloud nine, you are extremely happy. (‘Cloud seven' is a less common alternative)


Cloud of suspicion: If a cloud of suspicion hangs over an individual, it means that they are not believed or are distrusted.


Cloud on the horizon: If you can see a problem ahead, you can call it a cloud on the horizon.


Clutch at straws: If someone is in serious trouble and tries anything to help them, even though their chances of success are probably nil, they are clutching at straws.


Coals to Newcastle: (UK) Taking, bringing, or carrying coals to Newcastle is doing something that is completely unnecessary.


Cock a snook: To make a rude gesture by putting one thumb to the nose with the fingers outstretched.


Cock and bull story: A cock and bull story is a lie someone tells that is completely unbelievable.


Cock in the henhouse: This is used to describe a male in an all-female environment.


Cold day in hell: This is used as a prediction there is no chance some event or condition will ever happen.’ There will be a cold day in hell before he manages it.'


Cold feet: If you get cold feet about something, you lose the courage to do it.


Cold fish: A cold fish is a person who doesn't show how they feel.


Cold light of day: If you see things in the cold light of day, you see them as they really are, not as you might want them to be.


Cold shoulder: If you give or show someone the cold shoulder, you are deliberately unfriendly and unco-operative towards them.


Cold sweat: If something brings you out in a cold sweat, it frightens you a lot.


Cold turkey: If someone suddenly stops taking drugs, instead of slowly cutting down, they do cold turkey.


Colder than a witches tit: If it is colder than a witches tit, it is extremely cold outside.


Collateral damage: Accidental or unintended damage or casualties are collateral damage.


Collect dust: If something is collecting dust, it isn't being used any more.


Color bar: Rules that restrict access on the basis of race or ethnicity are a color bar.


Come a cropper: (UK) Someone whose actions or lifestyle will inevitably result in trouble is going to come a cropper.


Come clean: If someone comes clean about something, they admit to deceit or wrongdoing.


Come hell or high water: If someone says they'll do something come hell or high water, they mean that nothing will stop them, no matter what happens.


Come on the heels of: If something comes on the heels of something, it follows very soon after it.


Come out in the wash: If something will come out in the wash, it won't have any permanent negative effect.


Come out of the woodwork: When things come out of the woodwork, they appear unexpectedly. ('Crawl out of the woodwork' is also used.)


Come out of your shell: If someone comes out of their shell, they stop being shy and withdrawn and become more friendly and sociable.


Come rain or shine: If I say I'll be at a place come rain or shine, I mean that I can be relied on to turn up; nothing, not even the vagaries of British weather, will deter me or stop me from being there.


Come to bear: If something comes to bear on you, you start to feel the pressure or effect of it.


Come to call: If someone comes to call, they respond to an order or summons directly.


Come to grips: If you come to grips with a problem or issue, you face up to it and deal with it.


Come to heel: If someone comes to heel, they stop behaving in a way that is annoying to someone in authority and start being obedient.


Come up roses: If things come up roses, they produce a positive result, especially when things seemed to be going badly at first.


Come up smelling of roses: (UK) If someone comes up smelling of roses, they emerge from a situation with their reputation undamaged.


Come up trumps: When someone is said to have 'come up trumps', they have completed an activity successfully or produced a good result, especially when they were not expected to.


Come what may: If you're prepared to do something come what may, it means that nothing will stop or distract you, no matter how hard or difficult it becomes.


Come with the territory: If something comes with the territory, it is part of a job or responsibility and just has to be accepted, even if unpleasant.


Comes with the territory: If something comes with the territory, especially when undesirable, it is automatically included with something else, like a job, responsibility, etc.('Goes with the territory' is also used.)


Comfort zone: It is the temperature range in which the body doesn't shiver or sweat, but has an idiomatic sense of a place where people feel comfortable, where they can avoid the worries of the world. It can be physical or mental.


Constitution of an ox: If someone has the constitution of an ox, they are less affected than most people by things like tiredness, illness, alcohol, etc.


Cook someone's goose: If you cook someone's goose, you ruin their plans.


Cook up a storm: If someone cooks up a storm, they cause a big fuss or generate a lot of talk about something.


Cool as a cat: To act fine when you a actually scared or nervous


Cool your heels: If you leave someone to cool their heels, you make them wait until they have calmed down.


Coon's age: (USA) A very long time, as in 'I haven't seen her in a coon's age!'


Corner a market: If a business is dominant in an area and unlikely to be challenged by other companies, it has cornered the market.


Couch potato: A couch potato is an extremely idle or lazy person who chooses to spend most of their leisure time horizontal in front of the TV and eats a diet that is mainly junk food.


Could eat a horse: If you are very hungry, you could eat a horse.


Couldn't give two hoots: If you couldn't give two hoots about something, you don't care at all about it.


Count Sheep: If people cannot sleep, they are advised to count sheep mentally.


Country mile: (USA) A country mile is used to describe a long distance.


Cover all the bases: If you cover all the bases, you deal with all aspects of a situation or issue, or anticipate all possibilities. ('Cover all bases' is also used.)


Crack a nut with a sledgehammer: If you use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you apply too much force to achieve a result. ('Jackhammer' is also used.)


Crash a party: If you crash a party, or are a gatecrasher, you go somewhere you haven't been invited to.


Cream of the crop: The cream of the crop is the best there is.


Cream rises to the top: A good person or idea cannot go unnoticed for long, just as cream poured in coffee or tea eventually rises to the top.


Creature comforts: If a person said "I hate camping. I don't like giving up my creature comforts." the person would be referring; in particular, to the comfortable things he/she would have at home but not when camping. At home, for example, he/she would have complete shelter from the weather, a television, a nice comfortable warm bed, the ability to take a warm bath or shower, comfortable lounge chairs to relax in and so on. The person doesn't like giving up the material and psychological benefits of his/her normal life.


Crème de la crème: The crème de la crème is the very best of something.


Crocodile tears: If someone cries crocodile tears, they pretend to be upset or affected by something.


Crooked as a dog's hind leg: Someone who is very dishonest is as crooked as a dog's hind leg.


Cross swords: When people cross swords, they argue or dispute. This expression is used when some groups accuse each other for non-adherence to norms. Actually no sword is used but the tempo of the argument is high enough to cause worsening of the already bad situation. It is a tussle (vehement struggle without use of arms) between the parties to establish supremacy.


Cross that bridge when you come to it: If you will cross that bridge when you come to it, you will deal with a problem when it arises, but not until that point


Cross to bear: If someone has a cross to bear, they have a heavy burden of responsibility or a problem that they alone must cope with.


Crossing the Rubicon: When you are crossing the Rubicon, you are passing a point of no return. After you do this thing, there is no way of turning around. The only way left is forward.


Crunch time: When people, companies, etc, have to make an important decision that will have a considerable effect on their future, it is crunch time.


Cry wolf: If someone cries wolf, they raise a false alarm about something.


Cry your eyes out: If you cry your eyes out, you cry uncontrollably.


Cry-baby: A cry-baby is a person who gets emotional and cries too easily.


Cuckoo in the nest: Is an issue or a problem, etc, is a cuckoo in the nest, it grows quickly and crowds out everything else.


Cupboard love: (UK) To show love to gain something from someone


Curate's egg: (UK) If something is a bit of a curate's egg, it is only good in parts.


Curiosity killed the cat: As cats are naturally curious animals, we use this expression to suggest to people that excessive curiosity is not necessarily a good thing, especially where it is not their business.


Curry favour: If people try to curry favour, they try to get people to support them. ('Curry favor' is the American spelling.)


Curve ball: (USA) If something is a curve ball, it is deceptive.


Cut a rug: To cut a rug is to dance.


Cut above: If a person is described as a cut above other people, they are better in some way.


Cut and dried: If something is cut and dried, then everything has already been decided and, in the case of an opinion, might be a little stale and predictable.


Cut and run: If people cut and run, they take what they can get and leave before they lose everything.


Cut corners: If people try to do something as cheaply or as quickly as possible, often sacrificing quality, they are cutting corners.


Cut down the tall poppies: (AU) If people cut down the tall poppies, they criticise people who stand out from the crowd.


Cut it fine: If you cut it fine, you only just manage to do something- at the very last moment. 'Cut things fine' is the same. 'Cut it a bit fine' is a common variation.


Cut off your nose to spite your face: If you cut off your nose to spite your face, you do something rash or silly that ends up making things worse for you, often because you are angry or upset.


Cut someone some slack: To relax a rule or make an allowance, as in allowing someone more time to finish something.


Cut the Gordian knot: If someone cuts the Gordian knot, they solve a very complex problem in a simple way.


Cut the mustard: (UK) If somebody or something doesn't cut the mustard, they fail or it fails to reach the required standard.


Cut to the chase: If you cut to the chase, you get to the point, or the most interesting or important part of something without delay.


Cut to the quick: If someone's cut to the quick by something, they are very hurt and upset indeed.


Cut your coat according to your cloth: If you cut your coat according to your cloth, you only buy things that you have sufficient money to pay for.


Cut your teeth on: The place where you gain your early experience is where you cut your teeth.


Cute as a bug: (USA) If something is as cute as a bug, it is sweet and endearing.


Cuts no ice: If something cuts no ice, it doesn't have any effect or influence.


Cutting edge: Something that is cutting edge is at the forefront of progress in its area.


Idioms and Phrases Index



From Idioms and Phrases to HOME PAGE