Ace English with Valerie Ng


Idiom: /'ɪdɪəm/

Definition: A phrase that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words when put together and which should be learned as a whole.

Such expressions can be grammatically correct, but do not make sense in the context within which they are spoken.

The idioms below are commonly found in casual conversation as well as at work.

Caution: Unlike the Words of Wisdom, featured on the other page, they should never be used in formal speech or when writing business or other official reports.

Listen along with the audio clips provided to get a sense of intonation and pronunciation.

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  • "Come on then, spill the beans"
    • Meaning: "Spill the beans" means to let out a secret.

      This request is usually made to someone who is “in the know”, and where there is already speculation about a subject.

  • "Someone let the cat out of the bag"

      Meaning: This is a similar expression to “spill the beans”. It means that someone has inadvertently let something be known.

      The main difference between the two is that when someone has “let the cat out of the bag” it is not normally elicited. As well, one can say to an individual “come on then, spill the beans”, but one does not say “come on, let the cat out of the bag”. That is not an expression used in the English language.

      When someone elicits something, it means that he or she is attempting to “fish” or “draw out” the information from another individual.

  • "Stop beating about the bush"
    • Meaning: “Beating about the bush” means that someone is taking time going around a subject while speaking but without actually making a point. The request is for that person to come out with the message, to be direct and just say it.

      “Making a point” means stating what the issue is.

    • "The elephant in the room"
      • Meaning: When “there’s an elephant in the room”, it means there’s an awkward subject that everyone is aware of, but which no one wants to talk about.

    • "He was cooking the books"
      • Meaning:  A business keeps financial records and, in English, these are called “the books”.

        When someone “cooks the books”, they are altering them, often to redirect monies to themselves. Or, the intent is to have the company’s finances appear a certain way.

        When money is redirected for personal gain, the legal term is embezzlement.

        Either actions are fraudulent, and the action is called a fraud.

    • "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree"
      • Meaning:  A son or daughter will likely take on the personality traits of their parents. Very often, also, their personal values will be shaped by their family’s culture.

        When someone says “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, they’re saying “I’m not surprised. Look at the father (or mother)”.

    • "What goes around, comes around"
      • This is derived from the spiritual concept of Karma whereby one’s actions result in a consequence according to whether that action was good or bad.

        So, based on this philosophy, someone who continually harms others will always have to look over his or her shoulder believing that someone else may intend harm to them.

        According to this saying, everyone is subject to karmic law. The opposite of karma is Dharma which are positive gains or blessings, resulting from heart-centered actions.

    • "I don't know him from Adam"
      • Meaning: This is a typically North American expression. In Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths, Adam is the first man mentioned in the Bible. Since no one today (that we’re aware of) has met Adam or know what he looks like, “I don’t know him from Adam” could be a response to the question “How well do you know Tony?”, if whoever is answering doesn’t know Tony.

    • "It's not really my cup of tea"
      • Meaning: Tea is the world’s favourite drink with Turkey and Ireland being the biggest consumers, and Britain coming in, surprisingly, only at third place.

        When someone says “It’s not really my cup of tea”, they mean that it’s not something that they’re interested in, or like doing. For example, working in a shop is “not everyone’s cup of tea”.

    • "They're a dime a dozen"
      • Meaning:  In a market place, a vendor may announce “Special deal, two for the price of one!” or “Four for 2 dollars only!”.

        A dime is 10 North American cents which is a small amount of money. So, when an item is “a dime a dozen”, it means that it’s cheap and easily available.

        The expression has also been used to describe groups of people in a particular job market. For example, miners used to be “a dime a dozen” in Wales, England which had a huge mining community.

    • "He's so toast"
      • Meaning:  This describes a situation when someone is in mortal danger, thankfully, only in a hyperbolic or exaggerated sense.

        Someone can consider themselves “toast” if they lost the company $5million or have lost the boss’s dog whilst looking after it.

        A similar expression to this is “done for”; “He’s toast, he’s done for”.

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