Do You Know These Common English Phrases?

By: Zoe Samuel

Do You Know These Common English Phrases?
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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.
Fixing a problem early is boring.
Fixing a problem after it gets bad is more fun.
If you ignore a problem, it might go away.
Fixing a problem early will save time and money.
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".

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Back to the drawing board
Starting over from the second step
Starting over from the middle
Looking back over the process to evaluate progress
Starting over from the beginning
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.

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Chink in the armor
Even very strong people should be flexible.
Even very strong people can be gentle.
Even very strong people have weaknesses.
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.
Very strong people can be complicated.

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Don't put the cart before the horse.
Do things in whatever order you like.
The established order may be wrong so you should question it.
Do things in the proper order.
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.
Doing things in the right order is not as fun.

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Empty vessels make the most noise.
People with good ideas are the loudest.
People with no credibility or ideas are the loudest.
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.
People who have said all their ideas loudly are exhausted.
People with no ideas should shut up.

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Fresh as a daisy
Being energetic and not at all tired
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!
Being very tired and droopy
Being energetic but only in the morning
Being energetic once you have had a drink

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Grasp the nettle.
Doing an unnecessary and unpleasant thing
Doing an unnecessary but pleasant thing
Doing a necessary but unpleasant thing
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.
Doing an unnecessary and pleasant thing

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Happy as a clam
Super happy
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!
Miserable
Angry
Happy, but only sometimes

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In the nick of time
Doing something just before running out 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.
Doing something quickly
Doing something at the appropriate pace, neither fast nor slow
Doing something slowly

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Jump on the bandwagon.
Ignore the current trend.
Do what used to be fashionable, but is not any more.
Follow the current trend.
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.
Make fun of people who are not following the trend.

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Knee-jerk reaction
A slow response
An immediate response
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
A stupid response
A smart response

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Lead balloon
An idea that everyone immediately hates
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.
An idea that everyone immediately loves
An idea that is really, really original
An idea that everyone loves but that is actually really bad

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Lead you up the garden path
Corrupting an innocent person
Pretending you own a nicer house than is the case
Tricking a person who deserves it
Making promises you don't intend to keep
This is a variant of "stringing a person along". It means promising things that you don't mean to deliver.

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Many a true word is spoken in jest.
It's funny because it's true.
Jokes are often funnier when there is a grain of truth in them.
Something that was meant to be a joke might actually contain more truth than intended.
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.
Funny people sometimes hurt people's feelings.

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Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Horses have bad breath.
When someone gives you something, say thank you and then get rid of it.
When someone gives you something you don't want, give it away before you have to spend any money maintaining it.
When someone gives you something, don't question it either way, just accept it politely.
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.

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Off the top of your head
The first thing you think of
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."
The second thing you think of
The best idea out of all your ideas
An idea you have, but then discard

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Playing hardball
Being mean
Being dishonest
Being fair
Being very competitive
If you play hardball, it means you compete to win and play aggressively. There is no inherent connotation of being willing to cheat, however.

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Quelle surprise
That's surprising!
That's not surprising.
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."
Some people may find that surprising, but I don't.
People would have found that surprising back in the day, but not any more.

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Raining cats and dogs
Lots of cats and dogs are available for adopting
It is raining very heavily.
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.
The weather is unpredictable.
Tornadoes are coming.

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Safe as houses
A very safe place
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."
A very unsafe place
A place that feels so much like home that you feel safe there
A place where you feel safe, but shouldn't

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The tail is wagging the dog.
The dog is going insane.
The junior staff are on strike.
The dog is really happy.
The less important person or detail is controlling the decision, instead of the more important person or detail.
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.

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Uphill battle
Something that will get harder
Something that is impossible
Something that is very hard, but not impossible
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.
Something that is easy

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Vote with your wallet
To buy something that is bad for you
To buy paraphernalia for a political campaign
To bribe a politician
To buy something that supports a cause you believe in, while boycotting things that support causes you do not believe in
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.

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When hell freezes over
Something that is very unlikely
Judgment Day is coming
Something that will happen but way in the future
Something that will never happen
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.

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Walk all over someone
Say mean things to someone
Beat someone up
Impose your will on someone
Walking all over someone means always telling them what to do and seeing to it that they comply.
Tell someone to shut up

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When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
When things are bad, strong people step up instead of falling apart.
This phrase means that tough people respond to adversity by getting stronger and swinging into action, rather than buckling under pressure.
When things are bad, smart people run away.
When the landscape is rough, strong people go faster.
When the landscape is rough, clever people find another route.

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X marks the spot.
You are looking in the right place.
When you find it, you'll recognize it.
Don't go looking in the wrong place.
This mark indicates the location.
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.

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You can't be what you can't see.
People have no imagination.
People should visualize their goals.
People are more likely to believe they can do something if they have a role model.
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.
People who want to achieve a lot should move to places where that's possible.

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Yes man
Agreeing with someone
A sycophant who always agrees with the boss
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.
A boring person
Someone who is really good at the improvisation technique of "yes, and..."

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Zero in
Focus on
This term comes from the military, where "zeroing in" meant sighting your artillery so that you would hit your target.
Look at
Talk about
Forget

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