Pop Quiz: Common Phrases


By: Olivia Cantor

7 Min Quiz

Image: Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

About This Quiz

People have various reasons for using idiomatic expressions. What's yours?

Using idioms makes speaking more colorful. And with their daily usage over the centuries, these idioms have had their meanings transformed. To take them literally is a huge mistake. Their original meanings, no matter how literal, do not apply to modern usage anymore. Since these idiomatic expressions already became common phrases used in everyday language, they now serve a different purpose.

Aside from making our language or word usage very colorful, these common phrases can also disguise some of the things we intend to say to someone. To disguise here means to not say things directly, especially if it will sound confrontational or hurtful. For example, if you want to say you're losing patience, you can use the idiomatic expression "that's the last straw." This is somewhat connected to the saying "the straw that broke the camel's back" which pertains to the last contributing factor to someone's breakdown or someone getting very angry.

With so many of these common phrases being used over and over, can you tell what they really mean? Come on; this is going to be a piece of cake! 

Good luck!

When someone "gets cold feet," what happens?

To "get cold feet" means to suddenly feel doubtful or fearful of something, usually when someone is about to do something, then retreats from doing so. It's like a movement toward retreating, or the feet are symbolically frozen to inaction.


To "kiss and make up" suggests the occurrence of which action beforehand?

"To kiss and make up" is what two people can do after a fight​ if they want to reconcile and be at peace with each other. It's a way of suggesting that they should settle whatever conflict or disagreement they have.


If a person "kicked the bucket," what happened?

When someone is said to have "kicked the bucket," it means the person died. It's interesting to relate this common phrase to another death-themed one: "bucket list," which pertains to someone's "to-do list" and the goal of accomplishing everything on the list before dying.


What's the process that information undergoes if it's spread "by word of mouth"?

When a piece of information is passed on from person to person, that indicates being passed on "by word of mouth." This often has a positive connotation because to pass on information in this informal manner, is like passing on a personal recommendation, like making a testimonial.


"Amateur hour" signifies what kind of quality?

"Amateur hour" pertains to anything done by people who lack skills or talent in a certain domain, or its execution is very poor and unprofessional. This term may have originated in the broadcast industry where certain U.S. radio shows would hold an "amateur hour" to air non-professional performers.


To be the "apple of my eye," what feeling should I have for you?

When you are the "apple of my eye," it means you are much appreciated and treated as a favorite. People use this term to refer to those they are extremely fond of, and not necessarily in a romantic way.


When someone advises you to not "reinvent the wheel," what are they saying?

To "reinvent the wheel" signifies a rather futile effort, since it means trying to do something that has already been done, or trying to improve upon something that doesn't really need improving. In both circumstances, the result is a waste of effort, time, and resources.


If you "toot your own horn," what are you doing?

When you "toot your own horn," i​t means you're bragging about your achievements or honors, or whatever it is that you think merits bragging about. To be proud of an achievement is one thing, but to brag about it is another, and that's more negatively received.


He's "dressed up to the nines!" Do you know what that means?

To be very well-dressed in a rather formal way, to the point of being flamboyant at times, is what it means to be "dressed up to the nines." A related common phrase is being "dressed to kill," which also means to dress up in a stylish or elegant manner, or to be very fashionable.


A "weekend warrior" does what?

A "weekend warrior" is someone who works during the weekdays, and makes a conscious decision to do other non-work-related fun activities during the weekends. Often, a weekend warrior's choice of activities includes sports or working out, and they pay the price with injury or soreness the following week!


"It's my way or the ________!" Can you fill in the blank?

To say "my way or the highway" to someone is usually associated with negative behavior, wherein someone convinces another to just follow, or else leave. It's also the same as saying "take it or leave it," and the choices leave no middle ground for negotiation.


The common phrase attributed to a leopard has something to do with its unchanging "characteristic." Can you guess what that is?

If someone uses the phrase, "a leopard cannot change its spots," on someone else, it means the person is incapable of changing their behavior, attitude or values. Their inflexibility is associated with a leopard's inability to change its spots, also suggesting the idea of being stubborn or rigid.


Following something "to the letter" means what?

When a person is given a set of instructions or rules and is said to have followed them all "to the letter," it means the person paid much attention to executing each and every detail of those instructions or rules. It suggests that the finished task or end result was very precise and accurate.


When you're "waiting in the wings," what exactly are you doing?

Performers or athletes who are "waiting in the wings" are those who are next in line to the major players, often relegated to the sidelines first, but are ready for the spotlight when called upon. Its symbolic meaning pertains to waiting for an upcoming opportunity, chance, or big break.


Is it "a barrel of laughs" or "a pint of laughs"?

Since a barrel is definitely larger than a pint container, the proper expression is "a barrel of laughs," which refers to a major source of amusement. However, the subject of amusement can also be an ironic or sarcastic reference, so the phrase can be used in this vein as well.


How can you "drive someone nuts"?

When someone says, "You drive me nuts," it means you are making them a little bit "crazy," or they feel crazy interacting with you. This common phrase often has a negative connotation, although, it can also be positive, as when someone drives another person "crazy" in love.


"Better ______ than never!" Do you know the missing word?

"Better late than never" is a very common phrase that is often heard when someone arrives at a meeting or appointment after the designated time. It's often used with a tone of sarcasm, focusing more on the lateness than the fact the person showed up at all.​


What does "bells and whistles" signify?

"Bells and whistles" pertain to anything that is added onto something, like decorations that are pretty and attractive to look at, but do not necessarily have any value that comes along with their addition.


A person who "doesn't lift a finger" is said to be what?

When someone "doesn't lift a finger," it means the person is not doing anything or taking any action, often as a form of protest or as a way to drive home a point. In this light, the phrase is not necessarily about being lazy, though it can also connote that, depending on how it's said or used.


To go "against the grain," what do you need to do?

When someone "goes with the flow," it means they are doing what others are doing, since it's also expected of them. But when someone goes "against the grain," they are doing the exact opposite and are doing things that defy the usual expectations.


When "too many cooks spoil the broth," what just happened?

A think tank is a group of experts who usually gather to create or outline a course of action for a project. But sometimes, too many experts can produce slipshod work, and this is what "too many cooks spoil the broth" means.


If you "got carried away," what happened to you?

Someone can "get carried away" when the feeling of utmost excitement washes over them. Sometimes, this can also be used to pertain to being a bit absentminded and not minding the time that passed since one is so immersed in a particular activity.


"In a heartbeat" pertains to what kind of reaction?

To do things "in a heartbeat" means one doesn't think or take time to react, and just acts immediately, like how one heartbeat would immediately follow another in rapid succession. To do things in a heartbeat means you're also very open and willing to do something for someone.


What do you need to do in order to "get with the program"?

Another way of saying "go with the flow" is "get with the program." The difference is that the former appears rather passive while the latter appears more active, suggesting that the person should keep themselves up to speed with updates or developments they need to be informed about immediately.


"Armed to the teeth" describes someone who demonstrates what kind of characteristic?

To be "armed to the teeth" originally meant to be very well-equipped in times of battle, so one brought a lot of ammunition and gear. Outside of war scenarios, though, this phrase can be used to pertain to someone who came very much prepared for an event or activity.


Ominous signs are obvious when the writing is "seen" where?

To say that "the writing is on the wall" means something bad might be happening very soon, and the situation doesn't look so good for someone or something in particular. It's like a bad sign or omen, a portent of scary or negative things yet to come.


When you "play your cards right," what can be the result?

The phrase, "play your cards right," sounds like you're gambling, since it also pertains to doing specific things or actions that can lead you to win something or succeed. So outside of gambling, the phrase also means the same.​


If your "hands are tied," what are you incapable of doing?

When you are incapable of helping someone in need, you can say that your "hands are tied" because you won't be able to do anything within your scope of influence. But sometimes, people also use this phrase as an excuse not to do something specific for someone.


Do you know what happens "at the 11th hour"?

Things that happen "at the 11th hour" are usually last-minute decisions that took a long time to put forward or execute. This phrase can refer to many industries and domains, such as when doing business or during political scenarios.


To "pay lip service" is to do what?

People who merely "pay lip service" initially speak out in support of a worthy cause or movement, for instance, but they are not very sincere about what they said. In a way, their verbal support was hypocritical.


What can happen if you "let bygones be bygones"?

To have a more peaceful coexistence, it is suggested to "let bygones be bygones." This means the two conflicting or warring parties should forget about their differences, junk their opposition and angry feelings for each other, and just move on.


A person who "carries the torch" for someone is doing what?

"To carry the torch" for a particular person means the torch-carrier is hopelessly in love with that person, even if the feeling is obviously not mutual. The torch-bearer can either be someone who had a previous relationship with their perceived beloved, or someone who didn't.


When something was "right under your nose" the entire time, what does it indicate?

When something is "right under your nose," it means something should have been very obvious, yet you still missed it. The phrase can refer to both tangible things (like your car keys) and intangible concepts (like not being able to sniff out corruption).


If you are "in your element," are you enjoying what you're doing?

To be "in your element" means you are very much at home with whatever it is you are doing, and you are very satisfied, happy, and in charge of things. This phrase can refer to the pursuit of leisurely activities, artistic hobbies, or even the execution of a job or professional work.


A buddy who tells you to "have one for the road" is inviting you to do what?

When you have been spending some time with a buddy just talking, hanging out, and drinking a little (or a lot), and one of you has to go, the other would say,​ "Let's have one for the road." This signifies both of you having one last drink before parting ways.


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