Here are 255 English sayings and idioms. This started off with my husband, Barnet Boy, and I trying to write down things when we said them. Then we started to notice sayings and idioms as we were on Social Media or reading the press. And the list expanded! You are going to love some of these! Some may be familiar, some may be new ones to you. And I may have missed some that you think I should add (tell me in the comments).
255 English Sayings And Idioms
First of all, what is the difference between a saying and an idiom? A saying is a short expression of general truth, or words of wisdom and advice. An idiom is a phrase that where the meaning is not immediately obvious from the words used.
- Food and drink
- Appearance or character
- Expressions of surprise
- When things have gone wrong
- Words of wisdom
So here we go, 255 English sayings and idioms – buckle up for the long read!
There are a wonderful collection of English sayings and idioms that relate to visiting the bathroom. For example ‘siphon the python’, ‘spend a penny’ and ‘see a man about a dog’ though that can also mean going off to an undisclosed appointment. Ladies are said to go to the bathroom to ‘powder their nose’. Here are a few others relating to the need to urinate:
- Pointing Percy at the porcelain
- Split the whisker; and my personal favorite
- Shake hands with the unemployed
- Spend a penny which originates from the 19th Century when public toilets were locked and could only be unlocked using a penny coin.
There is also a saying ‘down the pan’ which means something that is being wasted or lost. It refers to a lavatory pan.
It is inevitable that the weather would appear in my list of 255 English sayings and idioms. Many of them relate to rain of course. It is well known that it usually rains a lot in the UK. That is why the 2022 drought was such a shock to everyone.
Examples include ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ which refers to heavy rainfall. Another saying relating to rain is ‘it’s coming down like stair rods’. This means there are long, straight, streaks of rain. There are several expressions that relate to an ominous looking sky before rainfall or a storm. For example ‘the sky looks full of it’ and ‘it’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mother’s.’ Then there is ‘never cast a clout until May’s out’ which means don’t change your winter clothes for summer until June (basically another comment on typical British weather).
But aspects of the weather appear in other sayings that mean something completely different. Here are some examples.
- Steal my thunder – someone taking the praise for someone else’s effort
- Storm in a teacup – getting upset or angry over something that doesn’t really matter
- If it doesn’t rain it pours/when it rains it pours – when something bad happens other bad things happen at the same time. But also there is ‘right as rain’ which means perfectly fit and well.
- What an absolute shower – derogatory, meaning a group of people are not up to a job
- Make hay while the sun shines – make the most of a good situation while it lasts
- It is like peeing into the wind/you might as well pee in the wind – to waste time on something pointless. Yet there is also ‘throw caution to the wind’ which means stop being careful and take a risk.
- Cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey – nothing to do with the animal, refers to when cannon balls used to be put on a dimpled plate on a warship. When it was really cold the brass would contract causing the cannon balls to fall out. Who knew?
There are quite a few English sayings and idioms about death. For example ‘to kick the bucket’ means to die. Other expressions meaning the same thing are ‘she popped her clogs’, meaning she died. ‘He is pegging out’ means someone is dying and shouldn’t be confused with someone ‘pegging out the washing’ which means to hang the laundry out to dry. Here are couple of other death-related sayings.
- Dead as a door nail – something is quite dead
- Ready for the knacker’s yard – something that is in a state of ruin, obsolete or useless. Comes from the use of a slaughterhouse for old or injured horses.
I should also mention the use of death in sayings relating to something completely different, for example:
- Charlie’s dead – used to tell a woman her underwear (petticoat) is showing
- Flogging a dead horse – effort is futile
By the way, one quick illness related saying that we use quite a lot is ‘I’m feeling a bit moby’ – ie Moby Dick Cockney rhyming slang for feeling sick. There are a lot of sayings relating to Cockney rhyming slang, probably the subject of a separate blog!
I am amazed how many of my list of 255 English sayings and idioms relate to animals! We have already seen a few animal related English sayings and idioms that feature horses. Let’s start by having a look at some more horse related sayings.
- Don’t put the cart before the horse – do things in the right order
- Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted – trying to prevent something when it is too late
- Straight from the horse’s mouth – hearing something from someone with direct personal knowledge of a subject
- To back the wrong horse – make a wrong choice
- Hold your horses – wait a minute, slow down
- Shanks’s pony – walking on your own two legs
- A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse/blind man – no need to explain as the person already knows what you are going to say
- A dark horse – someone who unexpectedly wins or succeeds
I was familiar with a few sayings involving pigs but still had a few surprises. Check these out:
- Don’t cast pearls before swine – offering something valuable to someone who does not understand the value
- Sweating like a pig – pigs don’t sweat, this is short for pig iron and refers to industrial iron production and the need to heat pig iron
- Couldn’t stop a pig in a passage – general incompetence
- As much use as teats on a boar – absolutely futile
- As happy as a pig in muck/mud – very happy
- A pig in a poke – means buying something without properly looking at it first, falling foul of a confidence trick.
Cattle are not safe either. Here are a few that you may know:
- Like a bull in a china shop – someone who breaks things or who makes mistakes or creates damage in circumstances that require careful thought or behaviour
- Talk until the cows come home – something that will have no effect now matter how long you try; and a new one to me that I love
- Couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo – used to describe a footballer who is unable to score goals
Who knew there were so many idioms and sayings relating to sheep? Here are a few of my favorites.
- Two shakes of a lamb’s tail – something that can be done very quickly
- Like lambs to the slaughter – walking into a situation innocently without knowing something bad is about to happen (eek!)
- A wolf in sheep’s clothing – something or someone that seems harmless but is actually the opposite.
- I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb – might just as well do something worse as the punishment is the same
- Make sheep’s eyes at someone – to give an adoring or amorous look at someone.
- The black sheep of the family – someone not like other family members and is not viewed favorably by them.
Now we come to man’s best friend, and I never realized there were so many English sayings and idioms where they are mentioned. We regularly use phrases like ‘he made a dog’s dinner/breakfast of that’ which means something that is badly organised, untidy or a complete mess. We also talk about something being ‘a shaggy dog story’, ie a story that goes on and on and comes to an anticlimax or have a silly ending. Here are a few more:
- The dog’s bollocks – something you consider extremely good
- Fit as a butcher’s dog – a person is extremely fit and healthy
- You can’t teach an old dog new trick – traditionally used to suggest old people can’t learn new things but can also refer to someone who is stubborn or set in their ways.
- It’s going to the dogs – something that is being let run down and going into a bad condition.
- Be like a dog with two tails – obviously very excited and happy.
- If you lie down with dogs you catch fleas – if you spend time with bad people and it will eventually rub off on you.
- Let the dog see the rabbit – this is a reference to greyhound racing and means get all obstacles out of the way so you can see the objective.
Similarly, cats get a good mention in many of these sayings. Since my childhood I have used the phrase ‘there is not enough room to swing a cat’, meaning there is very little space, cramped conditions. Oh, and ‘let the cat out of the bag’ which means to reveal a secret by mistake or carelessly. Hands up those who have never done that before (my hands are firmly not being raised). Here are a few more
- The cat’s whiskers – when something or someone is very appealing
- There is more than one way to skin a cat/there are many ways to skin a cat – there are several ways to achieve the same goal
- That’s put the cat among the pigeons – to say or do something that really upsets people
- It’s like herding cats – something that is extremely difficult to do. Note, I have 16 cats and I can herd them … when they let me.
- Looking like something the cat dragged in (one of my Grandmother’s favorites) – looking dirty, exhausted or unkempt.
- Looking like the cat that got the cream – someone looks pleased with themselves because they have been successful at something
Having looked at sayings and idioms relating to cats, here are just a couple about rodents. One we use is to say that someone ‘looks like a drowned rat’ when they have been caught in the rain.
- Like a church mouse – to be really quiet
- As poor as a church mouse – to have little or no money
- Like a rat up a drainpipe – to do something very quickly or eagerly
- The best laid plans of mice and men – in spite of all the planning and preparation something goes wrong.
A quick mention about insects. The first three of these are ones we use regularly at home.
- A fly in the ointment – a minor thing that spoils the enjoyment or success of something
- Snug as a bug in a rug – extremely comfortable
- The bee’s knees – a highly admired thing or person
- Mind your beeswax – mind your own business, stay out of my affairs, stop being nosy
I asked Barnet Boy if we had heard from someone recently and he responded that he ‘not a dicky bird’, meaning nothing at all. Here are a few more expressions that include reference to birds.
- Charm the birds out of/down from the trees – to be appealing and persuasively charming
- That bird has flown – too late to respond to something
- Stone the crows – an expression of surprise
- Have a gander at something – take a look at something
- As rare as a hen’s tooth – exceptionally rare
My Mum often uses the idiom ‘that’s a different kettle of fish’ meaning it is something completely different to what was being looked at or discussed. Here are few other ‘fishy’ sayings:
- Done up like a kipper – to be tricked with false information
- That’s fishy – something is not quite right about something
- A big fish in a small pond – someone who has more experience or knowledge than others in a small group.
- Like a fish out of water – in an unfamiliar environment
- Drinks like a fish – to frequently drink a lot of alcohol
- Going on a fishing expedition – going to find out some information
I already mentioned the saying ‘cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey’. Another popular saying is that you ‘couldn’t give a monkey’’- meaning to not care about something at all. How about these:
- Softly, softly catchee monkey – a slow and careful way of solving an issue
- I’ll be a monkey’s uncle – meaning surprise or shock, amazement
- Don’t monkey around – not to fiddle with something or be frivolous
Phew! The creatures section was quite long but could have been longer! We are now just over a third of the way through 255 English sayings and idioms, keep reading for more surprises!
Food and Drink
There are a whole plethora of food and drink related sayings and idioms. Buckle up, here we go:
- Know your onions – to be very knowledgeable about something
- Keen as mustard – very enthusiastic
- Couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery – a simple task that a person or group of people can’t accomplish
- Three sheets to the wind – to be drunk
- A few sandwiches short of a picnic – not very intelligent
- He is a good egg – a good or kind person
- Selling like hot cakes – something that sells quickly and in large numbers
- Fine words butter no parsnips – empty words or flattery achieve nothing
- Like Piffy on a rock bun – a person who is being left out or ignored, left waiting endlessly etc
- Cheesed off – to be fed up, angry or annoyed
- Sweating cobs – producing large drops of sweat
- As much use as a chocolate teapot – not useful at all
- Piece of cake – something easily achieved
- Cheap as chips – very inexpensive
- Take it with a pinch of salt – believe only part of something, something is exaggerated
- Your eyes are bigger than your belly/stomach – when someone wants or takes more food than they can possibly eat
- I should cocoa – from cockney rhyming slang meaning I agree strongly, usually ironic or sarcastic
- Don’t teach your granny/grandmother to suck eggs – to try and give advice to someone who knows more about the subject than you do
- A load of tripe – silly and worthless
- Shut your cake hole – stop talking now, be quiet
- Better than a slap round the face with a wet fish/lettuce – not ideal but you accept it because things could be worse.
- Wet my whistle – to have a drink
- Eat humble pie – offer an apology
Almost half way through my really long list of 255 English sayings and idioms and some great ones still to come! Don’t forget, if you think I have missed any please mention them in a comment.
Appearance or Character
Is it a surprise that there are a fair few of the 255 English sayings and idioms that are comments on someone’s appearance or character? For years my friend has said that I am ‘nutty as a fruitcake’ meaning crazy or idiotic (hey, I wear it with pride). We often make the comment ‘Red Arrows’ referring to a flying display team roaring over head and meaning something has not been noticed by someone or it is over their head. Here are some more, some less than flattering sayings.
- Bottled it – lost their courage at the last moment
- As mad as a hatter – completely insane, crazy
- Curtain twitcher – someone who likes to watch what other people are doing without being seen
- A legend in one’s own lifetime – a well known successful person but can also be used sarcastically to suggest that someone thinks they are successful when they are not
- The lights are on but no-one’s at home – suggests someone is lacking intelligence or awareness
- Handsome is as handsome does – character and behavior are more important than appearance
- Thick as two short planks – very stupid
- As common as muck – of low social status
- All mouth and no trousers – someone who talks a lot about doing something but never does it
- Big girls blouse – a weak, cowardly or oversensitive man
- You can’t polish a turd – something that is bad can’t be improved
- Hoist by his own petard – when plans to cause trouble backfire on the perpetrator
- There’s nowt as queer as folk – sometimes people behave strangely
- Cut me some slack – not to judge someone severely because they have problems
- Like a fart in a colander – flustered and agitated, trying to find a way out. This was another of my grandmother’s favourite phrases that has been passed down through the family.
- Taking the mick(y)/piss – making fun of someone or a situation
- Not the sharpest knife in the drawer (not so bright)
- Not the sharpest tool in the shed (not so bright)
- Tuppence short of a shilling (not so bright)
- Dimmer than a Toc H lamp – means dimwitted
- Staying tight lipped – keeping quiet
- Nail your colours to the mast – to openly declare your intentions or beliefs
- Knickers in a twist – to get upset at something that is not very important
- A diehard – fanatically determined or devoted, strongly resisting change
- Clutching at straws – to make a desperate attempt, probably futile, to save yourself or a situation
- Turning up like a bad penny – to turn up where you are not welcome or wanted
- Sent to Coventry – not speaking to someone or generally frosty towards them
- On the level – speaking honest
- Dobbing someone in – telling someone in authority that someone has done something wrong
- Out on a limb – isolated, not supported by anyone
- Sticking your neck out – to take a risk
- Laughing his head off – to laugh out loud
Expressions Of Surprise
I’ve already mentioned ‘Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle’ as an expression of surprise. Here are a few more:
- That’s a turn up for the books – a surprise, an expected or unusual turn of events
- Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs – expressing astonishment
- Knock me down with a feather – great surprise
- Knock your socks off – to amaze or impress
- Gordon Bennett – used to express surprise, frustration, outrage or disgust
- Bowl me over – to overwhelm or greatly impress
When Things Have Gone Wrong
We use so many sayings relating to when things have gone wrong. ‘Dropped a clanger’ is a regular one meaning to make an embarrassing mistake. Another one is ‘I was going at something half-cocked’, meaning to do something without having adequately prepared for it. We say something that was stolen has ‘fallen off the back of a lorry’ and a careless job we refer to as a ‘bodge job’. Here are a few more:
- Friday afternoon job – something that is below standard. I wrote a blog about my cat where I referred to him as a Friday afternoon job.
- You’ve been through the mangle – an unpleasant experience or trial
- Gone for a Burton – to be missing or die
- Bent as a nine bob note – to be dishonest or criminally minded
- Rock the boat – say or do something to upset people or disturb a situation
- Bite the bullet – do something difficult or unpleasant you have been trying to avoid
- Between a rock and a hard place – whatever you do you can’t win
- Fiddlers elbow – a very crooked job or thing
- Sixpence short of a shilling (meaning looking like you lost a shilling and found sixpence)
- Light at the end of the tunnel – a bad situation or long job will end soon
I am most familiar with most of these, I guess the one most used by us would be ‘get a grip’ meaning to get control of yourself or a situation. Another one would be ‘leave it out’ meaning to stop something or leave something alone. Here are some more:
- Read the riot act – warn or reprimand forcefully
- Toe the line – accept the rules being imposed and behave
- Be there or be square – if you don’t attend an event you are not ‘cool’, you are missing out
- Put a sock in it – stop talking, shut up
- Put the wood in the hole – close the door
- Put that in your pipe and smoke it – accept a situation even if it is not what you want
- Do give over – stop doing something annoying
- Belt up Mate – be quiet
- Bob’s your uncle – meaning and there it is, suggesting the ease with which something can be done
- It’s a doddle – easy or effortless to do
- Easy peasy – straightforward and easy
- Stop kicking up a stink – making a fuss
- Were you born in a barn? – when you leave a door open
- Get your finger out – stop hesitating and do something
- Put your cards on the table – to be completely honest about something
- Don’t beat around the bush – be direct and straightforward
- Call it a night – stop what you are doing and go to bed
- Break a leg – good luck
- I’ll have your guts for garters – someone will be punished severely, usually if something isn’t done.
- Take a long walk off a short pier – used to tell someone to go away
Words of Wisdom
I thought it would be worth having a section on words of wisdom. Wise old sayings we all know like ‘a blessing in disguise’, meaning a piece of bad luck that turns out to be beneficial in the long run. Another is the advice to ‘keep your powder dry’ meaning to be calm and ready for possible future problems. It can also mean that you have some pertinent information that you will release at the right time of course. Here are a few more:
- Don’t burn the candle at both ends – to overextend yourself, usually by working very long hours
- A stitch in time saves nine – sort out a problem immediately and it will save time later
- Every little helps said the old woman as she piddled in the sea – even small things can make a difference
- Cut your coat according to your cloth – only do what you have the money and ability to do
- It works both ways – compromise, a comparable effect on both parties in an agreement
- The game’s not worth the candle – something is not worth the effort to achieve it
- Many a little makes a mickle/many a muckle makes a mickle – small amounts accumulate to make a big amount
- It’s not rocket science – it is easy to understand and not difficult to do
- Something is worth its weight in gold – very useful, valuable or important
- It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – impossible to find
- Better than poke in the eye with a blunt stick – pleasing though other things may be better
- We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it – don’t worry about a problem until it occurs
- Can’t see the wood for the trees – not seeing the bigger picture because of focusing on one small aspect
- Better late than never – better to do something or arrive eventually than to not do something or arrive at all
- You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours – if they help you then you will help them
- The luck of the draw – results cannot be controlled and are down to chance
- Six of one and half a dozen of the other – both equally to blame
- It’s like coals to Newcastle – supplying something to somewhere when there is already a plentiful supply
We are nearing the end of my really long list of 255 English sayings and idioms. Here are some final thoughts.
This last list relates to other English sayings and idioms that are used in every day language and don’t easily fit into the above categories. Some are similar such as ‘being on the pull’ which looking to attract a sexual partner and ‘get your coat you’ve pulled’ meaning you have done it! The latter is often used as a joke. I have been out having a meal with my Mum and if a waiter has been really chatty my Mum will say ‘get your coat you’ve pulled’. Here are a few more sayings that are used in every day conversation.
- Get the sack – lost your job
- Sweet Fanny Adams – absolutely nothing
- Flash in the pan – a sudden or brief success that is not repeated
- Tickety boo – everything is fine or in good order
- A load of codswallop – nonsense
- It’s chock-a-block – full up, crowded
- Drop them a line – write to someone
- Having a chinwag – to have a chat with someone
- It cost a bomb – it was expensive
- Chuffed to bits – really pleased about something
- Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire – to go to bed
- You’ve hit the nail on the head – exactly right
- Like an explosion in a paint factory – bright, richly varied colours, sometimes referring to interior decor but could be someone’s outfit
- Ship shape and Bristol fashion – all in good order, efficiently arranged
- Come hell or high water – regardless of what difficulties may arise
- A wind up – a joke or a trick
- A shedload – a large amount
- Doing themselves a mischief – to do something that harms oneself
- Never in a month of Sundays – very unlikely to happen
- My neck of the woods – where I live
- A load of cobblers – what nonsense
- Over the moon – happy or delighted
- Tickle my fancy – something that is interesting or attractive
- You’re having a laugh – something is a joke, not reasonable or fair
- That’s right on the nose – exactly or precisely
- I know this like the back of my hand – to have a very good knowledge of something
- By hook or by crook – by any way possible
- Burning the midnight oil – to work late
- It sticks out like a sore thumb – to be very noticeable and in a bad way
- At the drop of a hat – without hesitation
- Miss the boat – to miss an opportunity
- It’s as clear as mud – not at all easy to understand
- Making a mockery of the whole thing – to make something seem stupid or valueless
- A close shave – a near miss, a close escape from danger or accident
- Wrapped in cotton wool – well protected, cosseted
- To show someone the ropes – show someone how to do something
That concludes my really long list of 255 English sayings and idioms. Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments. By the way, don’t miss my blog looking at the Collision of English and Italian sayings. All that leaves is for me to say ‘toodle-oo’ and ‘toodle pip’, goodbye for now!
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!