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

Doorsteptutor material for UGC is prepared by world's top subject experts: Get detailed illustrated notes covering entire syllabus: point-by-point for high retention.

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.