Idioms are important to many languages – and especially to English. Idioms are commonly defined as phrases that have a cultural meaning different than the literal combination of words would suggest. Because idioms are so important to truly knowing the English language, we have set up a list of ten amazing idioms that will make you sound more like a native speaker. These idioms are common in social English and also appear often in business English conversations.
1. It’s not rocket science.
This is a way of saying that something really is not hard to understand. Generally, rocket science can be rather hard to understand, so if something is easy to understand, “it’s not rocket science.” Therefore, anyone can understand it. Warning: this can sound a bit insulting!
Example: “Come on Jerry, this cooking lesson isn’t rocket science. The chef has explained it three times. Just look it up if you still don’t get it.”
2. Keep one’s eye on the ball.
This means to stay fully focused on one thing and give it your full attention. This idiom comes from ball games, such as baseball, golf and tennis. In these games, you are more likely to succeed if you keep your attention and visual focus on the ball and don’t get distracted.
Example: “If I want to get that promotion, I need to keep my eye on the ball and do an excellent job on my current project.”
3. Put all one’s eggs in one basket.
This idiom is used to warn someone that relying too much on one thing can be unwise. Saying that “you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket” is a way of telling someone that counting on just one thing– or person – to produce happiness or success can be a mistake.
Example: “Wow, Sam really put all his eggs in one basket when he married his boss!”
4. Take the bull by the horns.
“Taking the bull by the horns” means to directly confront a difficult situation in a brave and determined way. The idiom comes from bullfights in which the matador would bravely take the bull by the horns before killing it. It is a way of strongly and directly facing a problem.
Example: “My friend took the bull by the horns and confronted her colleague’s inappropriate behavior.”
5. The elephant in the room.
“The elephant is the room” is the obvious problem or controversial issue that no one wants to discuss. This often refers to highly sensitive topics that everyone is aware of, but afraid or reluctant to talk about. In situations like that, the topic is the “elephant in the room” because everyone sees (is aware of) the problem, but no one talks about it.
Example: “Are we ever going to talk about the sexual harassment culture in our company? That’s the elephant in the room!”
6. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
This means that you shouldn’t count on something good happening until it’s happened. In some situations it seems like something good is bound to happen, but things do not always go as well as we hope. This idiom comes from the fact (as every farmer knows) that not every egg produces a chick. The only way to know for sure is to wait for the eggs to hatch.
Example: “If you buy a new car now, you are counting your chickens before they hatch. You cannot be sure that you are going to get a raise.”
7. Every cloud has a silver lining.
This is a common way of reminding people that even a bad situation can have some positive aspects or results. This idiom comes from the fact that when the sun is behind a (rain) cloud, the cloud appears to have a silver lining (edge or border).
Example: “You know, it’s true that every cloud has a silver lining. I lost my job, but I ended at a much better company, and with better pay!
8. Get a taste of your own medicine.
This is most often used as a negative idiom, meaning to get treated the way you’ve been treating others. This is linked to the idea that, in the past, medicine often tasted bad. It was easy to give it to someone else, but not nice to take yourself! When someone “gets a taste of their own medicine” they realize how bad it actually is. Example: “One of my colleagues was always trash-talking other people on the team. He did not understand how hurtful it was until the team started saying terrible things about him. Then he really got a taste of his own medicine.”
9. Play devil’s advocate.
To “play devil’s advocate” is to argue the opposite, just for the sake of argument. This means that people will argue a point they don’t believe in, either to make a point, or to make sure people don’t get too “set in their ways.” (opinionated) In this case, the devil represents the opinion you don’t personally believe in.
Example: “My role on the team is to play devil’s advocate, even when I really agree with my colleagues. My strong opposition helps them find the flaws in their arguments.”
10. Calm before the storm.
In most cases, this idiom is used to explain the time right before something bad is going to happen or before it’s going to get really busy. The idiom comes from the moments before a big storm hits, when you can feel that really bad weather is coming but everything is still quiet.
Example: “This week has been pretty slow, but next week is going to be crazy. It feels like the calm before the storm.”
11. Ballpark estimate/figure.
Generally this means to give someone a rough estimate. This term is used solely for speculation before the actual numbers are known. This is useful because discussions and negotiations can then continue without the exact number being known.
Example: “If I had to give you a ballpark estimate, I would say there are roughly 20 million bikes in the Netherlands.”
Idioms can be hard to understand at first. But over time, the patterns of meaning start to become clearer. If these were easy or you already knew them, try looking up some more. The English language is filled with interesting idioms.
Call us at +31 20 823 0569 to learn about our many English study options. We look forward to speaking with you.
By Isabelle Tomlow
PR and Communications Intern
The English Center