A True Master of English Should Complete These Common Phrases! Can you?


By: Olivia Seitz

6 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Do you love the versatility and nuances of the English language? If so, this is the quiz for you. Let's find out if you know enough about these common phrases to ace this How Stuff Works quiz.

Even if you don't know the meaning of each one of these idioms, you probably can recognize enough of them to be able to complete them. But let's chat for a minute about what these unique phrases mean. When you hear the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs," you probably know that it isn't really raining cats and dogs - at least we hope you realize that cats and dogs are not literally falling from the sky. But you probably do understand that this colorful phrase means that it's raining pretty hard. 

The reality is that few people actually know, for sure, what the origin of the phrase really means. Some sources indicate that cats especially used to take cover in the thatched roofs of houses centuries ago. When the rain came down in torrents, the cats would abandon the thatch for cover elsewhere, jumping from the roofs of the houses, making it look like they were falling from the sky.

So, what's your take? Can you complete each of these common phrases?

Someone's weakness is known as a(n) ______.

The phrase "Achilles' heel" comes from a Greek legend in which a hero named Achilles was invulnerable except in his heel. The story goes that he was dipped into the River Styx by his immortal mother, but because she held him by the heel, the heel didn't receive magical protection from the water.


If that plan doesn't work, we'll just go back to the ______.

The phrase "go back to the drawing board" means to re-think a plan and come up with something better. The term "drawing board" has been in use since the 1700s to describe a flat surface used to write letters or draw maps.


Don't believe everything he says; he's just ______ your leg.

To "pull one's leg" is an idiom that refers to friendly deception. It's often used to describe one person playing a joke on another.


The phrase "it takes two to ______" is used when something requires more than one person.

The phrase "it takes two to tango" comes from the fact that in partnered dances you need more than one person to perform. It's commonly used to talk about dating, sparring or performing some task that requires input from multiple people.


Someone who has passed away is said to be ______.

The phrase "pushing up daisies" is a lighthearted way to refer to someone who is deceased. The term served as the basis for the comedy show "Pushing Daisies," about a man with the power to bring someone back from the dead with a touch.


Well, now you know what it's like to have a taste of ________.

This phrase means the same thing as getting some good ol' karmic retribution. People who are cruel to another person, and then experience the same kind of treatment, are said to get a taste of their own medicine.


After running the marathon, John was ______.

"Wiped out," "dog tired" and "pooped" are all expressions for a state of exhaustion. The phrase "dog tired" seems to have arisen from the condition of dogs after a long hunt.


After a drawn-out battle, the gangster ______ the dust.

"Bit the dust" is a phrase that describes someone who either failed in a pursuit or died. Someone who lost a battle would quite literally fall face first into the dirt, making it look like they were eating or biting the dust in their faces.


Well, doesn't that just take ______?

The expression could be either positive or negative, depending on the situation. For example, it could be used to mean something is really awesome, like getting a promotion; alternatively, it can be used as sarcasm, as in, "that guy really takes the cake for leaving me without a way home." Its use probably came from 1900s contests for which cake was the prize.


After seeing his inability to perform the task she assigned, Marcie told us that he's not playing with __________.

"Not playing with a full deck" is an insult that insinuates the person named is of low intelligence. The deck refers to playing cards, as used in poker and other games. "Not playing with a full deck" is similar to the phrase, "shoot low, they're riding Shetlands," which is a way of saying that someone's joke is above the intelligence of others in the room.


Her ideas are too radical. We're afraid she'll upset ______.

"Upsetting [or overturning] the apple cart" is a phrase that describes ruining a plan, disturbing the usual way of things, etc. It invokes the chaotic image of an overturned apple cart that sends apples spilling into the street.


I swear I wasn't acting alone, that man ______.

"Put [someone] up to [something]" is a phrase that describes one person convincing or daring another person to take some action. For example, after taking a dare to eat a dozen donuts in one sitting, you might say defensively, "He put me up to it!"


It's just a little matter, you don't need to ______ over it.

Someone who "has a cow" is visibly upset about something that may or may not be a large problem. Its exact origin is unknown, though it seems to be an evolution of the British phrase, "have kittens."


If you'll deal with a problem in the moment, you're planning to ______ when you come to it.

If someone says, "We'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it," they're saying that they'll deal with the problem as it arises. In travel, worrying about crossing a bridge won't help you get across the water, so you have to wait until you reach the bridge; likewise, some problems can't be solved easily until the moment is at hand.


Why can't I just have the best of ______?

The phrase "best of both worlds" refers to wanting the benefits of two situations without any of the downsides. For example, if you want to earn money, you have to work; if you want to relax and not work, you don't earn money. Rarely can one have the "best of both worlds," which in this case would be not having to work and still having money.


By falsely insinuating that Charlotte was to blame, he led us on a ______.

Going on a "wild goose chase" is getting sidetracked or following up on incorrect information, thereby wasting time and failing to procure the desired result. The phrase probably came from a horse race in which the racers lined up in a V formation, like a flock of geese.


A good friend will stick around through ______.

Staying "through thick and thin" means remaining in both good times and in bad. This phrase actually turned up in Chaucer's writing, referring to traveling through thick woods versus thin woods - the first is difficult and the latter easy.


It's as easy as shooting ______.

This idiom describes a task that should be extremely simple or easy to perform. Fish in a barrel have nowhere to swim, so it would be hard to miss them; likewise, the task described ought to be a piece of cake.


Today, issues like healthcare reform are a ______; no one wants to be stuck with fixing the problem.

A "hot potato" is an issue or task that gets passed from one person to another because no one wants to do it. It's a reference to the fact that you wouldn't want to hold on to a freshly baked hot potato, as it would burn your skin.


If you agree heartily with what I say, you might respond, "You can ______."

The phrase "you can say that again" is used when someone is very much in agreement with a sentiment or statement. It's only meant for emphasis; no one really expects the person to say what they just said.


If you feel like you're just ______, you aren't getting anywhere with your current approach to a problem.

It's easy to relate to the concept of "spinning your wheels" if you've ever had your car stuck in the mud or snow: when you press the gas, the wheels turn but you don't move forward!


After working out every morning this summer, he returned to school ______________.

"Fit as a fiddle" describes someone who is athletic in appearance and accomplishments. However, it was initially used to describe anyone who was well prepared or well dressed for the occasion. It's an old British expression that may have come about due to the elegant construction of violins or the careful positioning of a violin when played.


I'll just ______ to bad luck.

The phrase "chalk it up" means to attribute something to another thing; for example, you could chalk up a bad day to poor luck. The phrase probably arose from the chalk boards that were used to keep score during sports and other competitions.


You must have really made her angry if she's still giving you the ______.

To give someone the "cold shoulder" is to be curt and refuse to speak to them more than absolutely necessary. It's the opposite of a warm and friendly conversation.


We can't announce our pregnancy during her wedding celebration; I don't want to steal her ______.

"Stealing [someone's] thunder" is, to use another idiom, "taking the wind out of their sails." It's appropriately used when you divert attention from someone else to yourself out of turn, or when you take someone's idea to present as your own.


The committee has no real intention of following the rules; don't let yourself be condemned by a ______.

A "kangaroo court" is a court or other organization that passes a decision that is unjust and biased. Its origin is unclear, but the phrase first arose in the 1800s.


I'm sorry, but I have to cancel our plans - I'm a bit ______ today.

If someone says that they are feeling "under the weather," they mean they aren't feeling well. It may have arisen simply because people can feel aches and pains that are weather-related, or it may have come from being "under the weather bow," which was the side of a ship exposed to the wind.


Don't get all ______ over a small incident like that.

The phrase "bent out of shape" describes someone who's upset and bothered in response to something. One possible origin for the word is that angry drunks often had poor posture, but the meaning eventually broadened to refer to anyone angry about something.


She got a poor grade because she cut ______ on the assignment.

"Cutting corners" is an expression for skipping steps or performing shoddy work in order to finish something quickly and/or cheaply. It appears to refer to moving to close or too quickly around the corner, especially as pertained to hunting on horseback with dogs.


Speak of the ______, I was just talking about you.

If you're talking about someone right as they approach (or, in today's age, call), you might greet them with the phrase, "speak of the devil!" It's meant harmlessly, but originated from a belief that if you spoke about the devil, he might appear and cause you much grief.


He's willing to go the whole ______ to get his lover back.

Being willing to go the "whole nine yards" is being willing to fully commit to something in order to see it to the end. The phrase used to be the whole "six" yards and doesn't seem to refer to any specific process or thing.


Maybe being forced to switch industries was a ______.

A "blessing in disguise" is something that seems like misfortune at first, but turns out for the best. Scholars aren't certain exactly when the phrase began to be in use, nor are they certain of what prompted it. It may have come from stories in religious texts and mythology which tell of gods and angels disguising themselves to test humans.


When he told me I was getting a pay cut, that was the ______.

When someone talks about a "last straw," it's the thing that finally made them angry enough to change the situation. It's from the proverbial single straw that broke the camel's back.


Only the best can cut the ______.

If the phrase "cut the mustard" sounds pretty silly, that's because it is. Some think it evolved from someone's ability to "pass muster," but it's unclear exactly what inspired this phrase. It can be used as a positive or negative way, referring to someone's ability to perform a task.


If it's your turn to act, then the ball is ______.

If the ball is "in your court," then it's time for you to act or make a decision on something. It probably got its start from the modern game of tennis.


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