Do You Know These Common English Phrases?

By: Zoe Samuel
Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

While being one of the most popular languages on the planet and massively dominating the digital space, English is widely regarded as one of the hardest languages in which to achieve fluency. Partly this is because it has a tremendous array of nuance. Partly it is a result of borrowing and stealing words and expressions from all over the world, meaning that there is plenty of inconsistency in how different nouns and verbs work.

However, one of the big issues with mastering the language of Shakespeare is that it is chock-full of colorful sayings and phrases that you really just have to know in order to understand. Obviously nobody is literally saying that a person's eyes are bigger than their stomach when they are unable to finish the food they put on their plate. No one believes there are necessarily actual double-edged swords involved in a situation that has a benefit as well as a downside. We're clearly not suggesting that when you feel envious, that you truly turn green.

All of these are sayings of various kinds: idioms, proverbs and so on, that help to add flair and provide a linguistic shortcut whereby a speaker can be easily understood. Of course, in order for that to work, the audience has to know what they're on about. Let's see how well you know these phrases. It's time to hit the nail on the head!

A stitch in time saves nine.

If you put in one stitch as soon as your garment is torn, you may not need to put in nine stitches later after the hole gets bigger. This saying is a cousin to "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".

Back to the drawing board

Going back to the drawing board means throwing out whatever you've made or built and returning to the design stage, known as the drawing board. That's where you brainstorm and put down your ideas.

Chink in the armor

If there is a chink in the armor, then it is possible to stab or shoot through that chink. Thus this saying means that strong people - or ideas, institutions, etc - can have a weakness that means they can be brought down easily, despite their overall strength.

Don't put the cart before the horse.

If you don't have a horse, then a cart isn't much use. That's why it's important to get a horse and ensure it's ready to go before you worry about getting a cart. Doing things in the right order is thus the best idea.

Empty vessels make the most noise.

Empty vessels make more noise because they rattle and echo inside - so this saying means that if you have no ideas and you're not very smart, you are probably louder than smart people with good ideas.

Fresh as a daisy

Daisies close at night and open first thing in the morning. If you're fresh as a daisy, it means you're up early after a good night's rest and you're raring to go!

Grasp the nettle.

Stinging nettles hurt to touch, but sometimes you have to touch them to get where you want to go. Grasping the nettle is thus a way of just gritting your teeth and doing what has to be done because it's necessary, even though it's not pleasant.

Happy as a clam

Due to the shape of clams, they look like they have a massive goofy grin at all times. So if you are as happy as a clam, you are the happiest you can be!

In the nick of time

A nick used to be a marker that would show where something should be, for example in carpentry. So doing something in the nick of time meant finishing it precisely on time, but no earlier or later.

Jump on the bandwagon.

Jumping on a bandwagon means following a trend even though it is unlikely to last very long. For example, when a movie about penguins was successful in the early 2000s, all the movie studios put out a penguin movie within the next couple of years.

Knee-jerk reaction

A knee-jerk reaction comes from reflex testing where your doctor taps you on the knee: your reflex reacts before your brain is in the loop. A knee-jerk reaction is thus one you didn't think about at all. It's not necessarily a bad reaction, but it is more likely to be because it is thoughtless

Lead balloon

Since the point of balloons is to float, and lead is really heavy, making a balloon out of lead is a stupid idea. Thus when an idea goes down like a lead balloon, it means that it is an instant and total failure.

Lead you up the garden path

This is a variant of "stringing a person along". It means promising things that you don't mean to deliver.

Many a true word is spoken in jest.

While things are indeed often funnier because they are true, this saying is actually about how a joke might accidentally contain more truth than intended. It also carries a connotation of a person using humor to say the unsayable, for example, a person using comedy to make fun of a politician for being corrupt without being sued, while knowing that really, they are indeed corrupt.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

When you buy a horse, one way to verify its age and health is to look at its teeth, as horses' teeth tell you an enormous amount about their history and treatment. Knowing what to look for is how you avoid getting tricked into buying a horse that isn't as young or healthy as the seller claims. However, if someone gives you a gift horse, looking at its teeth would suggest that you don't trust or respect the person giving the gift - that either they're trying to buy your favor with an old, crummy horse, or that they have bad taste in horses. Thus it is polite not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and just say thank you.

Off the top of your head

The thought that comes off the top of your head is the most accessible one, thus the one that comes out first. For example, "What should I wear to the Oscars?" "Off the top of my head, I'd say you should wear a dress."

Playing hardball

If you play hardball, it means you compete to win and play aggressively. There is no inherent connotation of being willing to cheat, however.

Quelle surprise

This French saying means "what a surprise", and is used ironically to indicate that something is really not a surprise. For example, "Quelle surprise. Little Tommy has scribbled all over the wall of the playroom."

Raining cats and dogs

This saying allegedly comes from how dogs and cats might sometimes hang out in the thatched roofs of old dwellings, where it was comfy and warm for them. If the rain was heavy, the animals would be rained out.

Safe as houses

If something is safe as houses, that means it won't go wrong. For example, "The procedure is safe as houses; you'll feel much better soon."

The tail is wagging the dog.

An example of the tail wagging the dog might be if a patient has to explain their condition to their doctor, or if a tiny nation were to dictate the terms of a treaty to several larger powers.

Uphill battle

This comes from the military, where in a traditional battle, the side that had the higher ground was far more likely to win. The side that had to fight the "uphill battle" was thus at a huge disadvantage, but they could win.

Vote with your wallet

Voting with your wallet means putting your money behind things that you care about. For example, if you are concerned about habitat loss in Indonesia, you might choose to buy sustainably-sourced palm oil products.

When hell freezes over

This is used to indicate a thing that will never happen, as in, "I will go out with that jerk when hell freezes over." Hell is very hot and will be until eternity, hence it will never freeze over.

Walk all over someone

Walking all over someone means always telling them what to do and seeing to it that they comply.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

This phrase means that tough people respond to adversity by getting stronger and swinging into action, rather than buckling under pressure.

X marks the spot.

This is from a legend of pirate maps that have an X on them to mark the location of buried treasure. Nowadays, it is a way of telling someone that a place will be easy to find.

You can't be what you can't see.

This phrase is about representation and role models. For example, girls who know female CEOs or who see them in books, movies, etc. are more likely to believe that girls can be leaders, and thus that they personally might achieve this.

Yes man

A yes man is a person who never speaks truth to power, and instead just agrees with the boss even when he or she is obviously saying something stupid.

Zero in

This term comes from the military, where "zeroing in" meant sighting your artillery so that you would hit your target.

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