10 must-know English idioms and their amazing histories

best english idioms and phrases
"Spill the tea" is one of the most popular and best English idioms and phrases to know today. Source: AFP

The most useful language to learn today is English. It’s the official language in 67 countries, spoken by 1.5 billion people, and is widely used in hundreds of the world’s top universities.

Even in places where it’s not the official language, English is the second most-spoken language globally. So wide is its reach that many of us use English idioms and phrases in our everyday lives — sometimes without even knowing it.

While learning English can open doors all over the world, it’s no secret that mastering English can be challenging for those who didn’t grow up with it.

The spelling, grammar, and pronunciation can be confusing, and just when you think you’ve grasped the rules, you discover even more rules.

What makes English complex is how long it’s been around and how it’s been adapted across the many places it’s used at.

A person speaking English in Mumbai, for example, will sound different and use different words from someone speaking English in Beijing or Boston.

But while it may be hard, learning the world’s language can be fun too — and that’s thanks to English idioms and phrases.

What are English idioms and phrases?

The word “idiom” comes from the Greek word “idioma,” which means weird phrasing. And that’s what English idioms and phrases are about.

Idioms are groups of words that we can’t find the meaning from based on the individual words. They just make sense when these words are said together and in that order.

Every language has its own version of this and English is no exception. 

Knowing common English idioms and phrases adds substance, humour, and authenticity to your language. They add nuance and depth to what you say too.

At the same time, you can’t understand what others are saying if you don’t know common English idioms and phrases.

All of which goes to say: it’s important to know Engish idioms and phrases if you want to connect with the nearly half a billion people who speak English in the world today.

Most commonly used English idioms and phrases with examples

English idioms and phrases

The idiom “great minds think alike” is used when people have the same thoughts or ideas. Source: AFP

1. Great minds think alike

The phrase “great minds think alike” is an idiomatic expression used when you find out someone else is thinking about the same thing as you.

You’re implying that someone else must be very intelligent or great because they had the same idea as you. 

It is also used to emphasise a coincidence, or two people reaching the same conclusion in any manner at the same time.”

Example: As Sarah and John suggested the same idea for the new marketing campaign, they laughed and said, “Great minds think alike!”

English idioms and phrases

“Burning the midnight oil” originated from the days when people used oil lamps to see at night. Source: AFP

2. Burning the midnight oil 

Burning the midnight oil” is an idiom that means to work late into the night, usually referring to staying up late to study, work on a project, or complete tasks. This phrase is very common among students. 

When someone is “burning the midnight oil,” they’re putting in extra hours of effort or staying awake long past regular sleeping hours to accomplish their goals or meet deadlines.

The phrase originates from the time when people relied on oil lamps or candles to provide light at night.

Working late into the night would require burning more oil or candles to extend the hours of productivity. It suggests a strong dedication to a task or a willingness to go the extra mile to get things done.

Example: With the final exams just a week away, Alia knew she had to start “burning the midnight oil” to catch up on all the material she had missed.

best english idioms and phrases

3. Spill the tea

When you say “spill the tea,” you don’t mean you’re pouring a hot drink all over you. 

Instead, it means to share gossip or juicy or exclusive details about a situation or person.

It’s said to originate from Black drag culture — specifically, John Berendt’s nonfiction bestseller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

In an interview with famous drag performer The Lady Chablis, he asked about her dating life, to which she replied she avoids certain men because they’re prone to violence when they “find out her T”:

“Your T?”
“Yeah, my T. My thing, my business, what’s goin’ on in my life.”

Example: As the personal assistant to Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, Meena’s family often asks her to spill the tea about him.

4. Costs an arm and a leg

Don’t worry it’s just a phrase. When something costs an arm and a leg, you won’t literally have to cut off your arm and leg to buy it.

It just means it costs a lot of money so it would be painful but only for your wallet.

It’s used figuratively to show that something is very expensive, often used humorously to emphasise the high cost of a product or service.

Example: Repairing the vintage car after the accident was expensive; it practically cost an arm and a leg to get it back on the road.

English idioms and phrases

“Once in a blue moon” refers to an occasion that is so rare. Source: AFP

5. Once in a blue moon

This is an idiom that refers to something that happens rarely.

As one of the most common English idioms and phrases, “once in a blue moon” is based on the rare astronomical event known as a “blue moon.” A blue moon is the second full moon that occurs within a calendar month, which happens once every few years. 

It’s a way of emphasising that the occurrence is exceptional and stands out from the norm.

Example: My childhood friends and I rarely get a chance to meet nowadays, but once in a blue moon, we plan a reunion and remember the good old days.

6. A piece of cake

When you say that a task or activity is “a piece of cake,” you mean that it’s so easy it’s like eating dessert.

The meaning behind this expression comes from the idea that eating a piece of cake is enjoyable and effortless since it’s soft and easy to consume. 

Example: “The English test was a piece of cake.” After studying for weeks, the final exam felt like a piece of cake to Sarah, and she aced it with ease.

English idioms and phrases

The phrase “feeling under the weather” does not mean literally standing under bad weather. Source: AFP

7. Under the weather

When someone says they are “under the weather,” they mean they feel unwell, sick, or not in good health.

In the past, sailors used the term “under the weather bow” to describe the side of the ship most affected by the wind and rough seas, making it an uncomfortable and turbulent area.

Over time, this term evolved to mean feeling unwell or affected by bad weather.

Example: I won’t be able to join the hiking trip tomorrow because I’m feeling a bit under the weather, and I don’t want to risk making my cold worse.

8. Make a long story short

We all know someone who, instead of getting straight to the point, loves to ramble on and on. They instead:

  • diverge from the point, or
  • embellish the story with too much detail

Sometimes they might realise what they’re doing and quickly interrupt the flow of their babbling by using the expression “to make a long story short.”

Usually, by this point, you’ve stopped listening, so it’s a good way of getting a quick summary of their story. 

The phrase signals to the listener that the speaker is about to wrap up the story or provide a condensed version of it.

It’s a way of saving time and getting to the main point without going into unnecessary details. 

Example: We got lost on our road trip, stopped for directions, and encountered a few unexpected detours. To make a long story short, we finally arrived at our destination three hours later.

9. A penny for your thoughts

This phrase is a way of asking someone what they think or feel.  

The word “penny” is used here to suggest that one’s thoughts are valuable enough that someone would be willing to pay a small amount to hear them.

Unfortunately, you won’t actually be getting any money here. 

Example: Sitting across from her friend, Lily noticed a pensive look on her face and asked, “Penny for your thoughts?” hoping to encourage her to share what was on her mind.

English idioms and phrases

One of the most commonly used English idioms and phrases is “don’t judge a book by its cover,” which is not to judge someone or something based on what you see on the outside. Source: AFP

10. Don’t judge a book by its cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is an idiom that advises against forming opinions or making assumptions about something or someone based solely on their appearance. 

It suggests that what something looks like can be deceiving and that a true understanding of something or someone requires looking beyond the surface and delving deeper into their qualities and character. 

The idiom is often used metaphorically, comparing a book’s cover to the outward appearance of a person, an object, or a situation.

Just as a book’s cover may not fully represent the content or value of the book, making judgments solely based on external appearances can lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities to appreciate the true essence of a person or thing.

Example: The old house may look shabby and rundown, but don’t judge a book by its cover; inside, it holds a rich history and fascinating stories waiting to be explored.