A Dark Horse
Someone who keeps their life private. They could be hiding a skill or an interest. Or they could be hiding a romantic relationship.
My friend Neil told me he can speak Arabic. He’s a bit of a dark horse. I never knew he had any interest in learning languages.
This guy at work can play the bass guitar. He’s in a band too. He’s a real dark horse. No one in the office knew anything about it.
You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks
This means you can’t teach an older person something new.
Or someone who is very much set in their ways or stubborn.
(Just for the record, this is not true. Older people can learn things just as easily as younger people.)
I tried to teach my uncle how to use Facebook but he just can’t understand it. I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Like A Fish Out Of Water
A fish has to live in a water environment. If it doesn’t, it will die.
So when we use this idiom it means that someone is outside of their normal environment or level of experience.
They feel very uncomfortable and cannot deal with it.
I was asked to make a public speech at my company’s New Year party. But I have no experience in public speaking so I was like a fish out of water.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
This means that people who do not use their brains tend to copy other people’s thoughts, actions or behaviour.
I saw a man crossing the road at a busy junction while the crossing light was red. And a few other people followed him. Monkey see, monkey do.
To Have Butterflies In Your Stomach
If you feel very nervous or anxious about something, you might have the feeling of butterflies fluttering around in your stomach.
This is where the meaning of this idiom comes from.
Donna was asked to introduce the chairman of the company to the new marketing department. She felt very nervous to do this so she had butterflies in her stomach.
In The Dog House
This means to be in trouble.
Often it is used when a husband is in trouble with his wife. Maybe he forgot her birthday or their wedding anniversary.
Or he did or said something to make her angry.
Steve is in the dog house right now. He forgot his wife’s birthday and didn’t even give her a birthday card.
We call someone a copycat if they do or say the same things as another person.
My brother is a real copycat. I bought a leather jacket and then he got one. Then I cut my hair short and so did he!
To Pig Out
This simply means eating too much. Literally, to eat like a pig!
I went to a buffet for dinner last night and I totally pigged out!
A situation that is odd or suspicious. Or arouses feelings of doubt.
As soon as I saw the police car pull up outside my neighbour’s house, I knew something was fishy.
Busy As A Bee
This just means to be very very busy.
Since starting my new job, I have been busy as a bee.
Hold Your Horses
The meaning of this is to wait a moment, not be in a hurry or make a quick decision about something.
Hold your horses! Don’t send that email yet…
To Bug Someone
To bug means to irritate or annoy.
We usually apply this idiom when talking about things — or people — that annoy us.
We might say:
Stop bugging me!
This means: Stop annoying me.
I can’t stand John… He really bugs me.
This traffic in the morning really bugs me.
The marketing emails from this company bug me.
To Drop Like Flies
This means dying — or falling for a virus or illness going around.
This flu virus is really getting around. People are dropping like flies.
A Little Birdie Told Me
The meaning of this idiom is: Someone told me a secret…
This is a slightly humourous way of saying someone told me a secret but I can’t say who said it.
Sally: I heard you have a new boyfriend…
Maria: Who told you that?
Sally: A little birdie told me.
We can use this phrase to describe someone very stupid, insensitive or stubborn.
It’s a waste of time talking to Phil about it. He is so pig-headed.
The Black Sheep Of The Family
This describes someone very different from the rest of their family.
It is usually used negatively.
The person may be bad or do bad things.
Craig is the black sheep of his family. He went to prison when he was younger.
To Chicken Out
If someone is too scared to try something, we can say they chickened out.
Often the person might say they will do something but at the last minute not do it.
Bill said he would dive off the cliff into the sea, but he chickened out.
To Horse Around
This means to play or mess around. Usually in a place or situation where it is not allowed.
The kids were horsing around in the living room, so I told them to go outside.
All Bark And No Bite
This is an idiom about dogs.
Some dogs bark a lot and make a lot of noise — but they don’t bite.
When we apply this to people, it means that the person might threaten to do something, but will never actually do anything.
The person looks scary, but they are actually no threat at all.
Don’t worry about old Mr Jenkins next door. He’s all bark and no bite.
To Watch Someone/Something Like A Hawk
A hawk is a bird of prey with great eyesight. It can see a rabbit or mouse from very far away.
When we say to watch like a hawk it means to look at someone or something with great care and diligence.
Since John messed up the order last week, I’m going to watch him like a hawk.
The economy is going down, so we need to watch what we spend like a hawk.
A Pussy Cat
A person who is a pussy cat is someone whose appearance may be intimidating or even frightening, but in reality, they are very gentle.
Don’t worry about Cameron. He looks scary but he is a real pussy cat.
Until The Cows Come Home
This simply means for a very long time.
I could sit here and watch the view until the cows come home.
We could talk about it until the cows come home but you will never agree with me.
A Wild Goose Chase
We use this phrase to talk about something that we are trying to achieve or obtain that we find is a waste of time or too difficult.
If someone asks us to do something, but they are just making our life difficult or stressful, we can describe this as a wild goose chase.
The manager asked me to chase up all these old leads, but I think she is sending me on a wild goose chase.
I’m trying to find a new job, but the agent I am using is sending me on a wild goose chase.
Wouldn’t Hurt A Fly
We can describe a person who is non-violent and peaceful by saying He wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Simon is a very gentle person. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Plenty Of Fish In The Sea
If someone has a failed relationship and separates from their boyfriend or girlfriend, we usually want to encourage them and tell them there are lots more people they could meet.
So we use this phrase.
It means there are many other potential partners in life.
Don’t worry about him. There are plenty of fish in the sea!
A Bull In A China Shop
If someone acts like a bull in a china shop, it means they move around clumsily or carelessly.
I can’t let Colin into my office, he’s like a bull in a china shop.
To Let The Cat Out Of The Bag
This simply means to reveal a secret. Maybe a big secret!
Dan: So, I hear you’re getting married?
Brad: Who let the cat out of the bag?
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
This phrase means to leave something or a situation alone. Do not disturb someone or something as it could lead to some trouble.
I decided not to mention anything about Bob wanting to leave the company. It’s probably best to let sleeping dogs lie.
The Elephant In The Room
This idiom refers to a subject or topic that is difficult to discuss but is too big to ignore.
However, people still try to not talk about it because it could cause great embarrassment.
I think we need to talk about the elephant in the room, and that is, what are we going to do about Mark’s poor grades?
Flogging A Dead Horse
This means to repeatedly bring a subject up and hope for a different answer. When in fact, there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Stop going on about mum selling her house. You are flogging a dead horse.
To Kill Two Birds With One Stone
This simply means to get two things done at the same time.
If you can take Michael to school, you can buy some milk on the way back. That way you can kill two birds with one stone.
Straight From The Horse’s Mouth
This means that you heard something from the original source.
I know we are all getting a raise next month. The boss told me last week. I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.
At A Snail’s Pace
To move very very slowly.
Can you get a move on with cleaning your room? You’re moving at a snail’s pace.
We use this to describe someone who has limited skills or abilities. They can only do one thing well.
Mark is very good at writing marketing emails but he’s a bit of a one-trick pony.
Look What The Cat Dragged In
We use this phrase when someone we know well arrives at our home or at work.
It is a humourous phrase that we use with friends or people we know well.
Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in!
We use this phrase to describe someone who drives recklessly or is a danger to other drivers.
James is a real road hog. He lost his license because of his dangerous driving.
Take The Bull By The Horns
When we are faced with a difficult or challenging situation that we must overcome, we say take the bull by the horns.
Rebecca is trying to look for a job, but she is not making much effort. I told her she needs to take the bull by the horns.
The World Is Your Oyster
This simply means that you have many good opportunities waiting for you.
I told my son: You have just graduated from college… The world is your oyster.
That Really Gets My Goat
When we use this phrase, we mean it really annoys me.
I can’t stand this tv show. The people on the show really get my goat.
Gone To The Dogs
If something has gone bad or deteriorated in value, we say it has gone to the dogs.
That restaurant used to be really good, but it has gone to the dogs in the last few months.
If someone has a very enthusiastic or keen attitude to something, we call them an eager beaver.
Let’s ask Kevin to do the sales pitch. He is a real eager beaver.
Ants In (Sb) Pants
This means that someone is very nervous or excited and unable to sit still.
I was really nervous before the job interview. I had ants in my pants all day.
Dog Eat Dog
This simply means that a situation or a place is highly competitive.
We often say: It’s a dog eat dog world.
This means that the world is full of competition.
The banking industry is a dog eat dog world.
The Cat’s Meow
We can describe someone, in a sarcastic way, who thinks they are really great as the cat’s meow.
Philip is really quite arrogant. He thinks he is the cat’s meow.
But we can describe someone very important as the top dog.
William is the top dog in the marketing department.
Smell A Rat
This means that you suspect something or think someone is trying to trick or cheat you.
As soon as Martin called me, I could smell a rat.
Open A Can Of Worms
We use this phrase to describe a situation that could create many other new problems.
I don’t think we should do business with this company, it could open a can of worms for us.
The Lion’s Share
If someone gets the biggest part of something, then we can say they got the lion’s share.
Whenever we order pizza, my friend always seems to get the lion’s share of it.
The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back
This means the final reason why something went wrong or failed.
We often shorten this to the last straw.
When the boss yelled at me in front of everyone, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So I quit that afternoon.
The Cat Got Your Tongue?
This is a question we might ask someone if they do not speak — or refuse to answer — after asking them an important question.
You’ve gone very quiet. The cat got your tongue?
Like Shooting Fish In A Barrel
This means that something or someone is very easy to catch or deceive.
It can also refer to something that is very easy to do.
There are so many people waiting to buy my products. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Weasel Out Of Something
If someone is very sneaky and able to avoid doing a task or not fulfilling their responsibility, we can say they weasel out of something.
Jason never does any of the cleaning. He always weasels out of it.
And there it is!
52 animal idioms that you can use in your everyday English.
Start practising today!
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