What’s she like? Idioms to describe personality

by Liz Walter​
Students of English are usually introduced to personality words such as friendly, shy, confident or lazy fairly early on in their studies. This blog offers a selection of colourful yet common idioms that can offer a more interesting response to the question ‘What’s s/he like?’.

For instance, we often say that shy people wouldn’t say boo to a goose (British)/wouldn’t say boo (US), while lazy people don’t lift a finger and tend to think that the world owes them a living. Someone who is always confident enough to give their opinion is not backward in coming forward. (This phrase usually implies that the person is a little bit more assertive than the speaker would like!)

A useful way of describing the sort of person who frequently manages to cause offence or annoyance is to say that they tend to rub people up the wrong way, while someone who boasts a lot about what they are going to do but never actually does is all mouth and no trousers (British)/all mouth (US).

Someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly doesn’t hide their impatience if someone says or does something silly. This phrase is often used to imply that the person is rather scary, but it can also sound slightly admiring. We also say that a frightening and aggressive person will eat you for breakfast, while if someone’s bark is worse than their bite, they are not really as scary as they seem.

A person who keeps himself to himself (or herself to herself) leads a very private and unsociable life, while someone who is always lively and cheerful is the life and soul of the party and someone who shows their emotions a lot wears his/her heart on his/her sleeve.

Many of the best phrases seem to be connected with negative descriptions, and even seemingly positive ones sometimes have an edge of disapproval. For instance to say that someone could charm the birds out of the trees usually implies that their charm may not always be sincere, and if we describe an extrovert and energetic person as a force of nature, we are probably mocking them at least a little.

However, there are a few unashamedly positive phrases for personality. For instance someone who’s got their head screwed on can be relied on to act in a sensible manner, while someone who is the salt of the earth is a very good and honest person. If we really want to emphasize someone’s admirable character, we can say they don’t have a nasty/mean/jealous, etc. bone in their body.

25 thoughts on “What’s she like? Idioms to describe personality

  1. Great post! Thank you for this. Posts like this one help English learners develop skills to engage in conversations at a more natural, native-like level, in my opinion.

  2. As a tour guide in New York City, I deal with people from many parts of the English-speaking world, and I am impressed by the fact that, with minor exceptions, these terms are understood around the world, from the UK to North America to South Africa to Australia.

    At the same time, a recent group of Australians taught me a wonderful term for a person who presumes s/he is superior to others: “tall puppy syndrome.” (Rupert Murdoch, owner of many newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks is the usual target.) Thanks to the Aussies for keeping the language colorful.

  3. Pingback: What’s she like? Idioms to describe personality | Clase de José Angel

  4. I am graduated in foreign languages and literatures with a specialization in English I don ‘ think to be very good at it but I am interested in languages (I speak French more or less at the same level of English and I can arrange myself in German and therefore in Germany too)

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  8. kelli

    Two idioms I learned in nursing school years ago that have stuck. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Meaning, don’t throw all your efforts, ideas and work out because something isn’t quite right. Keep and refine the good ones, lose the bad. And, if you hear hoof beats think horses, not zebras. Meaning dont jump to crazy conclusions right off the bat. Haha an idiom to describe an idiom.

  9. Eva Gerasimenko

    I’ve heard ‘all show and no go’ quite a few times with the same meaning as ‘all mouth and no trousers’. Thank you for your incredible work!

    1. Liz Walter

      Thank you for teaching me a new phrase! I must admit, I didn’t know that one, but there does seem to be plenty of evidence for it.

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