Hot under the collar: idioms to describe emotions

by Liz Walter
hot under collar
Idioms stand out from ordinary language because of their colourful imagery, and they often express concepts in a strong way. However, these characteristics also make them rather conspicuous and difficult to use naturally. In addition, many of them have a slightly old-fashioned feel. This post will therefore offer a selection of emotion-related idioms that are in common current use and which you can feel confident using in everyday speech.

Let’s start on a positive note, with happiness. Someone who is very pleased about something that has happened is over the moon. Someone who is having a lot of fun is having a whale of a time, while someone who has obtained or achieved something that makes them feel very pleased and satisfied is like the cat that got the cream (UK)/ that ate the canary (US).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, there are many more idioms for negative emotions. We use down in the dumps for relatively mild sadness (it would not be appropriate for sadness with a really serious cause). If someone is extremely upset about something such as a death, it is common in the UK – but very informal – to say that they are in bits. Using similar imagery, we sometimes say that someone has gone to pieces or fallen apart after a bad experience. Be careful with these idioms too – they can sound slightly judgmental, and imply that the person concerned is acting oddly or unable to cope with normal life.

There are many idioms to describe anger, so here are just a few. If someone acts in a very angry way, for instance by shouting, we say they hit the roof or, even more emphatically, go ballistic. Someone who is becoming visibly angry is getting hot under the collar, and something that causes you to become very angry makes your blood boil.

Frustration is closely related to anger, and for this we often say that we are tearing our hair out. Particularly if something is also causing us worry, we say that we are at our wits’ end. If we have become completely fed up with something we say that we are at the end of our tether (UK)/at the end of our rope (US).

Finally, fear. If we are nervous about something, we are a bundle of nerves or have butterflies in our stomach. If you are doing something like watching someone on a very high tightrope, you could say that your heart is in your mouth. A strange noise in the night may make your hair stand on end, while something genuinely terrifying, such as the actions of an evil person, may make your blood run cold.

This is just a small selection of emotion idioms, and readers may be able to offer other useful ones. I will finish by offering one more general phrase: if your emotions are obvious, we say they are written all over your face.

16 thoughts on “Hot under the collar: idioms to describe emotions

  1. Andrea Expósito

    Thank you very much for this! It was funny, because some of the idioms were the exact translation of some Spanish ones.

    1. Liz Walter

      That’s interesting – so often they aren’t, and it sounds really weird when people translate them literally!

      1. Aleksandra

        9 of these idioms could be translated literally into Russian without sounding weird. That’s great! Thank you Liz!

  2. Eddie

    I would add another one which describes something that is really annoying and makes you furious: “Grinds my gears”,

    “That guy really grinds my gears every time he starts talking”

    1. KSingh

      I could ‘hear’ the gnashing n grating of the gears grinding.the gearbox of my car disintegrated. that was the effect of your ‘grinds my gears’ !!

  3. Thank you very much for this post. It is indeed very interesting to see that some of these idioms are common across languages. We have some of these in Turkish, too, or very close ones. One example is to say “your heart is in your mouth”.

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  5. JOHN

    When You Say You Have Your Heart In Your Mouth.. It Does Mean That You Are Being Apprehensive About Something Which Might As Likely As Not Transpire..

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