Can You Understand These American Idioms and Common Phrases?



By: Tasha Moore

6 Min Quiz

Image: atakan/E+/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Taking this American idioms exam is a "piece of cake" if you can understand the mysterious meanings of frequently used sayings that define the English language that is specific to the U.S. of A. Idioms are not to be taken literally, or lightly for that matter. You'd better beware of sayings like, "add fuel to the fire." If not, things could get really hot! Every region has its own manner of speaking; it's just that America's manner is extremely expressive, and a tad confusing.

We've compiled common and a few unusually flowery sayings to test your know-how of the way Americans communicate their daily desires and states of mind. And if you're not so familiar with these figures of speech, it's your time to learn what to expect when someone spews phrases like, "by the way" or "in any case." Here, we divulge what they really mean. Moreover, America has enjoyed a rich religious history. So don't be surprised if you spot a few biblical sayings, mainly from the Book of Proverbs.

America's idioms are not only intense, but they are also highly informative. "Tar and feather" might sound like a bizarre Halloween getup, but the expression has loads of history and meaning. So "take a load off" and let us guide you through some of these fun common sayings!

What is the meaning of the common phrase: "Add fuel to the fire"?

Adding flammable fuel to an existing physical fire can lead to tragic consequences. The phrase "add fuel to the fire" or "add fuel to the flame" implies dire results from aggravating an already volatile situation or person.


Do you know the missing word here: "That's easy for you to ________"?

"That's easy for you to say" does not mean that someone can verbalize one or more words with ease. The phrase implies that you perceive that someone who has spoken in regard to something is not or would not be as affected by that something like other people would be.


To sum up the phrase "over the hill" you might use the words ________?

The phrase does not emphasize a person's location in relation to a geological hill structure. It's a "nice" way of implying that someone has passed an age considered ideal for performing a task, or in general.


The American idiom, "above the law" means what?

Anyone who is "above the law" is not bound by part or all of jurisdictional law. Moreover, it is not usual to hear the expression "below the law" because ascendancy implies superior status, which is what people who are not bound by law are assumed to have.


"Elbow grease" is best used for what?

Biologically, humans do not normally secrete oily lubricant from the joint between their upper arm and forearm. "Elbow grease" suggests performing a cleaning task to the best of one's ability.


Can you identify the adverb that best summarizes this phrase: "by the way"?

"By the way" can introduce a new topic during formal conversation or speech to delineate its significance or meaning from what has been previously spoken. The phrase also introduces nuance or adds further explanation to a current subject.


Can you identify the choice that best exemplifies: "center of attention"?

Anything that consumes your attention (e.g., a person on stage captivating your focus) is the center of attention. Intangible "attention," per se, does not have a center that can be determined physically.


You might say "out of the mouths of babes" in acknowledgement of whom?

The long form of the phrase is expressed: "Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems." "Gems" are valuable nuggets of verbal wisdom. The idiom is closely tied in meaning to the phrase: "Kids say the darndest things."


What kind of thing "comes with the territory"?

The phrase is also expressed as "go with the territory." If you embrace one aspect of something, it's logical that you'd also need to contend with any issues, reasonable or otherwise, that are associated with that something.


To "tar and feather" someone is to ________ them?

In former times, humiliation was a preferred form of punishment for ordinary criminals. Tar served as a hard-to-remove adhesive for bothersome animal feathers. To "tar and feather" is to imply a severe punishment through mocking or verbal lashing.


Choose the option that best conveys the meaning of this phrase: "You've got to be kidding!"

"Kidding" means "playful," as a child or "kid" at play. The verb also connotes derision, like a child who issues insults. "You've got to be kidding!" expresses disbelief or ridicule of what one has heard or seen.


The missing word in the phrase, "Own ________ and blood," is?

Your "own flesh and blood" refers to your relatives or your kinfolk. The phrase is usually expressed to emphasize the point in instances where said kinfolk or family has behaved other than such, especially when the behavior is in opposition to whomever subsequently utters the expression.


Can you choose another way to communicate: "Cheaters never prosper"?

"Cheaters never prosper" or "cheats never prosper" is a proverb of consequence. The saying implies that dishonesty does not enrich, monetarily or morally. One way or another, a cheater must pay the price for their deception and will not prosper, in total.


What does "it" symbolize in the idiomatic phrase: "No matter how you slice it"?

You won't need a cutting utensil to execute this phrase's meaning. "No matter how you slice it" means that no matter how you might try to explain away something so obvious and matter-of-fact, "it" or the "issue at hand" will always be what is has always been despite verbal enhancements.


"Look out for ________ one." What is the missing word in this phrase?

The phrase is not a command or promise to watch out for numerical digits. The idiom means nurturing one's own self-interests before those of others. "Number one" is a figurative way of referring to oneself.


What type of person would "go to any length"?

It's been said that a mother could find enough strength to lift a car off of her pinned child. In this instance, the mother would not have hesitated to use any means available to her, to "go to any length," to solve her and her child's shared problem.


When someone tells you, "You're welcome" what do they mean?

"You are welcome" or "you're quite welcome" are slight variations of this very common idiom that communicates politeness. These few words that are uttered to acknowledge the propriety of someone having said "Thank you" is a further demonstration of good taste.


Can you choose the word that best denotes the common phrase: "Pain in the neck"?

To have physical pain in one's neck is not a rare occurrence, but the phrase is typically used to express emotional frustration. Someone who is annoyed with something or someone else vocalizes the phrase usually with the hope that the annoyance will stop after it is uttered.


For the common phrase "Catch you later," what does "catch" imply?

Idiomatic phrases that use "catch" usually imply one person interacting with another and the word insinuates randomness, like catching a small fish in a vast ocean. Phrases like "catch you later" suggest that it is often difficult to interact with others, as most people are consistently preoccupied.


The following idiomatic phrase means what: "Do you mind?"

"Do you mind" is used to communicate consideration of someone else's time, personal space or property. It's another way of saying "Excuse me." The phrase "do you mind" can also express frustration to mean that the communicator is actually annoyed by whomever they are addressing.


Can you select another way to express this phrase: "Batten down the hatches"?

Among navy soldiers, you might hear the exclamation, "seal the hatches." In preparation for a looming storm, a ship crew literally fastens hatches. "Batten down the hatches" suggests that you should prepare for a physical or metaphorical blow.


Who has been "caught red-handed"?

You'd be expressing similar sentiment if you say, "caught flat-footed." The phrases suggest the element of surprise for both the observer and the someone who has been caught doing something immoral. "Flat-footed" and "red-handed" are pejoratives.


The very common idiom "Give me a ________" is missing what word?

"Give me a break of your candy bar" or "give me a break for lunch at noon" are possible literal meanings of the expression "give me a break." The idiomatic meaning, however, implies disbelief or implores relief.


What is the meaning of this idiom: "piece of cake"?

"Piece of cake" is not a question; it's an exclamation of confidence said before or after an endeavor that's typically perceived as arduous. When said before a task, the idiom is most synonymous with the expression, "No problem!"


For whom is the following phrase best suited? "How many times do I have to tell you?"

A literal meaning of the phrase implies that there are set times, such as 1 p.m., that might be communicated upon request. The phrase serves as an indication of annoyance, as one or more people have forgotten instructions. Parents often use this phrase when disciplining their young children.


Who would most likely communicate the phrase: "No news is good news"?

The phrase "no news is good news" is rooted in logic. News stories are usually loaded with undesirable or unfortunate tales of events; therefore, not hearing news suggests that unfortunate events have not occurred. A pessimist may understand the phrase to mean there is no news that is good news.


Who would most likely say the following phrase? "Tonight I'm going out on the town."

Expect to hear related phrases "out on the town" or "night on the town." Science fiction giants may have their way with entire towns (e.g., stepping on a town, sleeping for a night on top of an entire town), but in the real world the expression implies partying away from home at night with verve.


"As a matter of fact"; which word summarizes this idiom?

"As a matter of fact" can mean "actually" and is used to enhance or alter the meaning of what one has expressed. The phrase can also introduce a new timely and unexpected idea, also in reference to what has already been communicated.


Of the following choices, which best summarizes: "Chomp at the bit."

A horse chomping (or champing) at its bit is associated with anxiousness to get moving (although a horse tends to chomp at its bit while moving too). The idiom implies that a person is trying to relieve anxiety by "chomping at their bit" to compensate for some lack that is usually beyond their control.


In the phrase "thick as thieves" what does "thick" imply?

"Thick as thieves" is an expression used to describe close friends or allies who share the same objectives, as consorting thieves might. The "thieves" reference suggests a less-than-favorable connotation in some instances.


"A golden key can open any door." According to the phrase, what's the best example of a "golden key"?

"Golden key" is not just money but plenty of it. Keys that happen to be colored gold do not automatically open any door. The right amount of money affords financially sound individuals access, opportunity and resources that ensure success.


"You win some, you lose some." What does "some" mean in this common phrase?

The idiom is also conveyed: "You win a few, you lose a few." The phrase provides a reasonable appraisal of what to expect out of life. Of all endeavors that one engages in during a lifetime, it is reasonable to assume that not all attempts will prove successful and not all endeavors will fail.


How can you best rephrase "a whistle in the dark"?

A "whistle" symbolizes jest or playfulness. The idiomatic phrase "whistle in the dark" is the same as a remark made without much serious thought, or a speculation based on little to no substance.


What is the gist of the common saying: "in any case"?

"In any case" has a few meanings. The idiom is synonymous with the adverb "anyway," which affirms a belief or supports a point that's been expressed. "In any case" is also a mildly rude way of changing or interrupting a conversation, usually to bring it to a close.


According to the following phrase, what is a good example of "medicine"? "A taste of one's own medicine"

You may also observe the similar idiom: "a dose of one's own medicine," which further drives the point of the phrase because it acknowledges the degree of wrongdoing. A "taste" implies a smaller degree of iniquity than the offender had dispensed initially.


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