English Idioms: From Take a Cake to Sow One՚s Wild Oats, to Keep Late Hours

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Take a Cake

  • Be the most outstanding in some respect, either the best or the worst. That advertising slogan really took the cake. What a mess they made of the concert — that takes the cake!
  • This expression alludes to a contest called a cakewalk, in which a cake is the prize. Its figurative use, for something either excellent or outrageously bad, dates from the 1880s.

Take Something with a Grain of Salt/Pinch of Salt

If you should take something with a grain of salt, you shouldn՚t necessarily believe it all.

To Fall Back Upon

Rely on, have recourse to I fall back on old friends in time of need, or When he lost his job he had to fall back upon his savings. [Mid-1800s]

To be Taken Aback

  • Surprise shock He was taken aback by her caustic remark.
  • This idiom comes from nautical terminology of the mid-1700s, when be taken aback referred to the stalling of a ship caused by a wind shift that made the sails lay back against the masts. Its figurative use was first recorded in 1829.

To Burn Midnight Oil

  • Stay up late working or studying the semester is almost over and we՚re all burning the midnight oil before exams.
  • This expression alludes to the oil in oil lamps. [Early 1600s]

To be in Hot Water

If you get into hot water, you get into trouble

To be on the Carpet

Summoned before someone in authority for punishment

To Give Oneself Airs

  • Assume a haughty manner, pretend to be better than one is I՚m sick of Claire and the way she puts on airs.
  • Airs here means “a manner of superiority.” [c. 1700]

To Have the Courage of One՚s Convictions

  • Behave according to one՚s beliefs Carl wouldn՚t give his best friend any of the test answers; he had the courage of his convictions.
  • This expression is believed to have originated as a translation of the French le courage de son opinion ( “the courage of his opinion” ) , dating from the mid-1800s and at first so used. By the late 1800s it had changed to the present form.

The Onlooker Sees Most of the Game

To Come to a Dead End

  • A passage that has no exit this street՚s a dead end, so turn back. [Late 1800s]
  • An impasse or blind alley, allowing no progress to be made this job is a dead end; I՚ll never be able to advance. [c. 1920]

To Turn a Deaf Ear

If someone turns a deaf ear to you, they don՚t listen to you.

To Let the Cat Out of the Bag

  • If you accidentally reveal a secret, you let the cat out of the bag, give away a secret Mom let the cat out of the bag and told us Karen was engaged.
  • This expression alludes to the dishonest practice of a merchant substituting a worthless cat for a valuable pig, which is discovered only when the buyer gets home and opens the bag. [Mid1700s]

To Put the Cart Before the Horse

  • Reverse the proper order of things or events don՚t put the cart before the horse and give away the punch line.
  • This expression has been used since antiquity but was first recorded in English in 1520.

To Sail in the Same Boat

  • If people are in the same boat, they are in the same predicament or trouble.

To Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth

  • Be critical or suspicious of something received at no cost Dad՚s old car is full of dents, but we shouldn՚t look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • This term, generally expressed as a cautionary proverb (don՚t look a gift horse in the mouth) , has been traced to the writings of the 4th -century cleric, St. Jerome, and has appeared in English since about 1500. It alludes to determining the age of a horse by looking at its teeth

To Have an 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’

To Wash One՚s Dirty Linen in Public/Air One՚s Dirty Linen or Laundry

  • Expose private matters to public view, especially unsavoury secrets
  • These metaphors are reworking of a French proverb, IL fault laver son linge sale end Famille ( “One should wash one՚s dirty linen at home” ) , which was quoted by Napoleon on his return from Elba (1815) . It was first recorded in English in 1867.

To Take to One՚s Heels

  • Run away when the burglar alarm went off, they took to their heels.
  • This expression alludes to the fact that the heels are all one sees of a fugitive running away fast. Although similar expressions turned up from Shakespeare՚s time on, the exact idiom dates only from the first half of the 1800s.

The Writing on the Wall/Handwriting on the Wall

  • If the writings on the wall for something, it is doomed to fail. A warning or presentiment of danger The Company was losing money, and seeing the handwriting on the wall, she started to look for another job.
  • This expression comes from the Bible (Daniel 5: 5 - 31) , in which the prophet interprets some mysterious writing that a disembodied hand has inscribed on the palace wall, telling King Belshazzar that he will be overthrown

To Sow One՚s Wild Oats

  • Behave foolishly, immoderately or promiscuously when young Brad has spent the last couple of years sowing his wild oats, but now he seems ready to settle down.
  • This expression alludes to sowing inferior wild oats instead of good cultivated grain, the verb sowing — that is, “planting seed” — in particular suggesting sexual promiscuity. [Mid-1500s]

To Keep Late Hours

Stay awake until late at night never call Ethel before noon; she keeps late hours and sleeps all morning.