100 American Idioms: Popular US Expressions Explained

, Staff Writer
Updated May 14, 2021
funny american idiom ants in your pants
    funny american idiom ants in your pants
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    Used under Getty Images license

Are you looking for some figurative phrases to liven up your written or spoken communication? Check out this American idiom list to discover fun and interesting sayings to use. With so many different American idioms from A to Z, it'll be easy to find plenty of options to express whatever it is that you'd like to say!

There are many examples of idioms in the English language. Some of the most entertaining American English idioms refer to animals, even though they're really not about animals at all.

  • ants in your pants - can't sit still
  • barking up the wrong tree - having the wrong impression of a person or situation
  • bats in the belfry - indicates that someone is behaving in an eccentric or less than sane manner
  • beef up - to strengthen something
  • eager beaver - someone who is very eager or excited to do something
  • earworm - thinking about a song or lyrics from a song over and over
  • elephant in the room - something that everyone in the room is aware of that probably needs to be addressed
  • for the birds - something that is silly, ridiculous or ludicrous
  • get your ducks in a row - make proper plans; get things in order
  • gets my goat - something that really bothers or annoys someone
  • hair of the dog that bit you - whatever caused you to be in the situation you're in, go get more of that
  • hold your horses - slow down; stop and think about what you're doing
  • on a fishing expedition - trying to get information out of someone without being fully aware of what you're looking for
  • monkey business - silliness or goofing off; breaking the rules
  • plenty of fish in the sea - there are plenty of other dating prospects out there
  • put lipstick on a pig - if you dress up ugly, there's still ugly underneath
  • quit cold turkey - to give up something all at once rather than gradually weaning off it
  • running around like a chicken with your head cut off - being confused, disorganized, or unsure of where to get started or what to do next
  • sh** eating grin - a snarky, knowing smile
  • smell a rat - to get a sense that there is a problem with something
  • straight from the horse's mouth - got information directly from the most knowledgeable source
  • to be a fly on the wall - to wish to witness what is going on without anyone being aware that you are there
  • zebras don't change their stripes - don't expect anyone to be anything other than who they really are

American Sports Idioms

Sports are massively popular in America, so it shouldn't be surprising to find out that there are a ton of cool sports-related idioms.

  • behind the eight ball - in a difficult position
  • call the shots - to make the decisions; to decide what will be done
  • cheap shot - to take advantage of someone when they are down
  • dead ringer - a duplicate or double, something that looks just like another
  • down to the wire - completing or finishing something with no extra time remaining
  • drop the ball - to make a basic mistake
  • game plan - to put a plan in place; to decide how things should be handled
  • get the ball rolling - to begin or get started; to put things into motion
  • get ahead of the game - to have an advantage over others
  • get a kick out of it - to be amused by something
  • give it your best shot - try as hard as you possibly can; put forth your best effort
  • hit the mark - to find the perfect or ideal solution; to be in exactly the right place
  • hit below the belt - to capitalize on an opponent's vulnerabilities in an unfair way
  • in the ballpark - close to a suitable amount or suggestion
  • know the score - be aware of all relevant factors and variables
  • make the cut - to be chosen, selected or included in something
  • Monday morning quarterback - someone who tries to call the shots after the action is already over
  • move the goalposts - to set your sights or standards even higher; to make something more challenging
  • out of your league - above or beyond what one is capable of attaining
  • political football - an issue that politicians argue in circles about or seek to use for their own political gain
  • skin in the game - having a vested interest in how something turns out
  • the ball is in your court - it's your turn to act or respond
  • to go to bat - to speak out positively about someone or something with the intent of helping
  • to run interference - to try to remove obstacles that are in someone's way; clearing the way for someone else
  • to take sides - to choose a team
  • toe the line - to stay within the acceptable boundary or limits

American Idioms About Body Parts

It's a bit more surprising to learn that a lot of American idioms reference body parts than it is to find out just how many focus on sports terminology. Many of the most commonly used idioms reference anatomy in some way. Several options are listed below, and you'll find even more in this list of common idioms using body parts.

  • apply some elbow grease - put some physical effort into what you're doing
  • armed to the teeth - in possession of a lot of weapons
  • bare bones - a very basic model or version, with no extras or add-ons
  • bundle of nerves - very nervous or anxious about something
  • by the skin of your teeth - just barely
  • get it off your chest - share information about something that has been bothering you
  • give me a hand - please help or assist me with something
  • go behind one's back - to sneak and do something without telling someone who should be aware
  • go belly up - go out of business; to lose everything
  • green thumb - to be good at gardening; having good skills or luck with growing flowers or vegetables
  • I'm all ears - the person is prepared and ready to listen to what you have to say
  • it's like pulling teeth - something that requires a lot of effort
  • itchy feet - someone is getting restless; being ready to move on to the next activity
  • joined at the hip - people who seem to be together all the time
  • keep at arm's length - to deliberately not let someone get too close
  • long in the tooth - old; of advanced years
  • need elbow room - to prefer to have plenty of space between you and other people
  • no skin off my nose - something isn't going to affect you, so you don't really care
  • pick your brain - to ask questions to find out someone's thoughts or opinions on a topic
  • play it by ear - to move forward without a specific plan; to figure things out along the way
  • slap on the wrist - a minor caution against doing something rather than an actual punishment
  • stick your neck out - to take a chance on another person in a way that could impact your reputation
  • wet behind the ears - doesn't have very much experience; isn't very skilled
  • your neck of the woods - the general area where someone lives

Weird American Idioms

American idioms aren't limited to animals, sports or body parts. Check out these weird figures of speech encompassing all kinds of topics and terms.

  • a dime a dozen - refers to something that's very common, so it doesn't have much value or worth
  • bang for your buck - get the most benefit possible out of the money you spend
  • bought the farm - to die unexpectedly
  • don't let the inmates run the asylum - those who are in charge should make the decisions rather than those in subordinate rolls
  • freeze someone out - to deliberately leave someone out; to choose not to include someone who would expect to be included
  • go Dutch - to pay your own way when going somewhere with another person or a group of people
  • going forward - the next time or on a future occasion
  • graveyard shift - working through the overnight hours
  • jump on the bandwagon - to do something because everyone is doing it
  • hold the line - to stay on the telephone to wait for the party you are calling to become available
  • give something a fair shake - to try something for a while before deciding that it isn't for you
  • looney tunes - someone who may not be mentally healthy
  • party pooper - someone who puts a stop to the fun
  • pass the buck - blame someone else for something or make someone else responsible for a difficult or unpleasant task
  • put a pin in this - stop discussing or working this now, with plans to come back to it later
  • reach out to someone - ask someone for information
  • riding shotgun - riding in the front passenger seat of a car or truck
  • shoot the breeze - make small talk; have a casual conversation
  • spill the beans - to reveal information you were not supposed to share
  • stick to something like white on rice - to cling tightly with no possibility of letting go
  • that really knocked my socks off - to be really impressed by something
  • think outside the box - think of new ideas outside the norm
  • to take a rain check - to say no to an invitation when it is given, but suggest that it is likely to be accepted in the future
  • top of the line - the best possible version of something; the most luxurious or expensive options
  • touch base - to communicate with someone regarding future plans
  • up my alley - something that you really like, or something that is within your skillset
  • wet blanket - someone who is dull and keeps others from having fun
  • your John Hancock - your official signature

Beef Up Your Vocab With American Slang

Now that you've reviewed this big list of American idioms, you might want to explore slang specific to the U.S. Begin by exploring these examples of modern American slang. Then, go back in time with an overview of the history of American slang. From there, for even more options, investigate figures of speech in the English language.