On the face of it (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 1)

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by Kate Woodford

It’s recently come to my attention that there’s a huge number of English phrases and idioms containing the word ‘face’. There are so many that this is the first of two posts, as ever focusing on the most frequent and useful. I hope you enjoy it! Continue reading “On the face of it (Idioms with the word ‘face’, part 1)”

Out of your depth: idioms that describe difficult situations

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by Liz Walter

Back in 2017, my colleague Kate Woodford wrote a post about words for difficult situations (https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2017/03/22/what-a-nightmare-words-for-difficult-situations/) This post builds on that by offering a selection of idioms that enable us to describe problematic times in a more colourful way.

If you find yourself between a rock and a hard place or between the devil and the deep blue sea, you are in a position where you have to make a choice between two courses of action, both of which you know will have bad consequences:

I was caught between a rock and a hard place: I didn’t want to deceive my family and I knew they wouldn’t approve of the work I was doing, but we really needed the money.

The council is between the devil and the deep blue sea on this issue: local people will be furious if they approve the application for a housing estate, but if they turn it down and the developers appeal, they could face huge legal fees.

On a related theme, if you walk a tightrope, you have to act very carefully in a difficult situation where there are conflicting needs or demands:

They are forced to walk a tightrope between providing modern medical care and respecting local traditions.

In over your head and out of your depth are swimming metaphors which describe being in a situation that is too difficult for you to deal with:

As we began researching venues and catering, we realized we were in over our heads and needed help.

He was a good politician but was out of his depth as chancellor.

If someone has you over a barrel, they have put you in a very difficult situation where you have to do what they want you to, and if you have your back to the wall you have serious problems which mean that you do not have much choice about what you can do:

The builders had us over a barrel because if we didn’t pay, the whole project could be delayed by months.

We didn’t want to take out a loan, but we had our backs to the wall.

If someone is experiencing a bad period in their life, we can say they are going through a bad/rough/sticky patch. If their situation is extremely bad or unpleasant, we might say they are going through the mill:

They went through a bit of a sticky patch during the first lockdown.

Poor Jean is really going through the mill with her cancer treatment.

Finally, if you don’t know which way to turn, you do not know what to do in a difficult situation:

I lost my job and I didn’t know which way to turn.

I hope you find these phrases useful, but that you won’t need to use them about yourselves!

At sixes and sevens: phrases with numbers

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by Liz Walter

My last two posts have covered phrases containing the numbers one and two. Today I am going to look at phrases with some higher numbers. There are a lot of them, so I am just picking out some that I think will be generally useful, but as always, please feel free to suggest others in the comments.

I’ll start with the phrase in the title of this post. If a person, place or situation is at sixes and sevens, it is in a state of confusion or disorganization. The American phrase a three-ring circus also describes a confused situation and emphasizes that a lot of things are happening at the same time:

We only moved in last week, so we’re still at sixes and sevens.

My life felt like a three-ring circus at that time.

Six seems to be a popular number for phrases! If you are talking about which of two people is to blame for something and say it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, you mean that they are equally at fault. Saying that someone is six feet under is a humorous way of saying that they are dead, and in UK (but not US) English, if something knocks you for six, it surprises and upsets you to a very great degree:

Matt said that Francis insulted him, but if you ask me, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.

By the time that tree is grown, we’ll all be six feet under.

The collapse of his company really knocked him for six.

There are two nice number phrases for being extremely happy: on cloud nine and in seventh heaven:

I was on cloud nine when I got the letter offering me the job.

After a delicious meal, we sat in the warm garden. We were in seventh heaven.

I will finish with some very high numbers. If you describe something as the sixty-four thousand dollar question or the million dollar question, you mean that it is a difficult and important question, but nobody knows the answer. If you look/feel (like) a million dollars (UK & US)/bucks (US), you look or feel very attractive. Thanks a million is a strong way of saying thank you. However, it is often used sarcastically:

How do you get your teenagers to talk to you? That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question!

She was wearing a new dress and she looked a million dollars.

You told Karen I’d cook for everyone? Well, thanks a million!

There’s no two ways about it: phrases with the number two.

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by Liz Walter

In my last post, I wrote about phrases containing the number one. Today I’m going to look at some common phrases with the number two. Continue reading “There’s no two ways about it: phrases with the number two.”

Hitting the ground running (Idioms and phrases in newspapers)


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by Kate Woodford

The idioms and phrases in today’s post come from a range of national newspapers that were published on the same day. We write a post like this every couple of months in order to provide you with a regular supply of contemporary, frequently used English idioms. Continue reading “Hitting the ground running (Idioms and phrases in newspapers)”

Stay one step ahead with phrases containing the number one!

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by Liz Walter

It is quite astonishing how many English phrases contain numbers, so this is the first in a mini-series looking at some of the most useful of them. Today, I’m starting – very logically! – with the number one. Continue reading “Stay one step ahead with phrases containing the number one!”

Breaking the ice and throwing caution to the wind (Weather idioms, Part 3)

by Kate Woodford

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This is the last in a series of posts on idioms containing words for different types of weather. Today, we’ll mainly be looking at ‘ice’ and ‘wind’ idioms, but we’ll start with a very common idiom containing the word ‘weather’ itself. If someone is under the weather, they feel rather ill: I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather all week, as if I’m getting a cold. Continue reading “Breaking the ice and throwing caution to the wind (Weather idioms, Part 3)”

‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ (Idioms with weather words, Part 2)

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by Kate Woodford

This is the second of three blog posts on idioms that contain words relating to the weather. Previously, we focused on idioms with stormy words. Today, we’re looking at idioms containing a wider range of weather – sun, rain and clouds. Continue reading “‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ (Idioms with weather words, Part 2)”

‘Cooking up a storm’ and ‘faces like thunder’ (Idioms with weather words, Part 1)

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by Kate Woodford

It may not surprise you to hear that the weather features in a lot of English idioms. In many of these, the weather words are used metaphorically, in a way that makes the meaning quite obvious. For example, a storm often features in idioms as something negative, referring to a period of trouble, and a cloud is something that spoils a situation. This post will focus on idioms related to storms, of which there are many! Continue reading “‘Cooking up a storm’ and ‘faces like thunder’ (Idioms with weather words, Part 1)”

I feel like my life’s on hold: Language for describing uncertain times.

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by Liz Walter

With many people around the world in some form of lockdown and almost everyone affected by the pandemic in some way, I thought it might be useful to offer some language suitable for talking about living in a climate of uncertainty (a general situation of not knowing what is going to happen). Continue reading “I feel like my life’s on hold: Language for describing uncertain times.”