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Idioms Dictionary


HarperCollins Publishers

Westerhill Road Bishopbriggs Glasgow G642QT Great Britain

Second Edition 2002 Latest Reprint 200 7 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995,2002

ISBN-13 978-0-0071-3401-4 isbn-io 0-0071-3401-0

Collins®, COBUILD® and Bank of English® are registered trademarks of HarperCollins ^^ Publishers Limited


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1^ A catalogue record for this book is available .|^S| from the British Library

Typeset by Mark Taylor and Carol McCann Printed in the USA by Thomson West


We would like to thank those authors and publishers who kindly gave permission for copyright material to be used in the Collins Word Web. We would also like to thank Times Newspapers Ltd for providing valuable data.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

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ix-xiv 1-410

1-17 18-87


Using the Dictionary

Guide to the Dictionary Entries

Dictionary of Idioms

Thematic Index

Full Index


Second Edition

Publishing Director

Lorna Sinclair Knight

Managing Editor

Maree Airlie

Computing Staff

Mark Taylor

Founding Editor-in-chief

John Sinclair


Elizabeth Potter Bob Grossmith Duncan Marshall Jane Bradbury Laura Wedgeworth


Maggie Seaton Alison Macaulay

Editorial Director

Michela Clari

Project Manager

Carol McCann

Editorial Staff

Sue Ogden

From the First Edition

Founding Editor-in-Chief

John Sinclair

Editorial Director

Gwyneth Fox

Computer Staff

Tim Lane Zoe James

Secretarial Staff

Sue Crawley Michelle Devereux

Publishing Manager

Debbie Seymour


Elizabeth Potter jenny Watson Michael Lax Miranda Timewell John Todd

Editorial Manager

Rosamund Moon

The Bank of English

jeremy Clear Sue Smith

Design and Production

Ted Garden Jill McNair Lynsey Roxburgh

Managing Director, Collins Dictionaries

Richard Thomas


We would like to thank jane Bradbury for her invaluable assistance in reading through the text of the dictionary and commenting at length on it

Clare Marson, HeloTse McGuinness, Luisa Plaja and Mike Stocks worked on this dictionary in its early stages, and we would like to thank them for their contributions. We would also like to thank Deborah Yuill and Keith Harvey for their contributions, and to acknowledge their research at COBUILD into idioms, in particular in setting up the COBUILD Idioms Testing Initiative: an investigation into learners' perceptions of idioms and the way in which learners use idioms dictionaries.

Dr Julia Penelope and Robin Rosenberg read the dictionary text as our informants on American English, and, together with Lucille Classman and Debbie Posner, helped us on many points. Professor Malcolm Goodale commented on the text and suggested improvements. We gratefully acknowledge all their contributions and advice.

Finally we would like to thank other members of the COBUILD team for their support, comments and suggestions throughout the project.

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The Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms, like all other COBUILD dictionaries, is based on an extensive study of a large corpus of modern English texts, and so it is in a unique position to describe idioms in current English. Idioms are one of the most interesting and difficult parts of the English vocabulary. They are interesting because they are colourful and lively, and because they are linguistic curiosities. At the same time, they are difficult because they have unpredictable meanings or collocations and grammar, and often have special connotations. Idioms are frequently neglected in general dictionaries and in classroom teaching, because they are considered marginal items which are quaint but not significant. Yet research into idioms shows that they have important roles in spoken language and in writing, in particular in conveying evaluations and developing or maintaining interactions. The Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms sets out to give detailed coverage of these points.

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a special kind of phrase. It is a group of words which have a different meaning when used together from the one it would have if the meaning of each word were taken individually. If you do not know that the words have a special meaning together, you may well misinterpret what someone is saying.

Idioms are typically metaphorical: they are effectively metaphors which have become 'fixed' or 'fossilized'. In some cases, it is fairly easy to see how the idiomatic meaning related to the literal meaning. For example, kill two birds with one stone means 'achieve two things at the same time', and the image in the metaphor supports this meaning. In other cases, the literal meanings may make no sense at all. For example, move heaven and earth literally describes an action which is physically impossible. In a few further cases, the metaphors in the idioms are peculiar, so it is very difficult to see how or why the idioms have come to have their current meaningsffil

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The scope of the dictionary | w (9 V

The Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms covci^ a large^^ the idioms which people are likely to find in everyday English. It includes traditional English idioms such as spill the beans and a red herring. It also includes a number of expressions which can be considered 'semi-idioms': some very common multi-word metaphors such as the acid test and brownie points; metaphorical proverbs sucl^^^^^^^ a silver lining and in for a penny, in fora pound; common similes such as white as a sheet and old as the hills;

and some other expressions which have a strong pragmatic meaning, such as famous last words and that's the way the cookie crumbles. We have also included expressions which are combinations of phrasal verbs (verbs and fixed particles), and fixed or semi-fixed noun phrases such as give up the ghost, put someone off their stroke, and throw the baby out with the bath water. We have, however, deliberately avoided including other kinds of fixed expressions and formulae such as in fact and at least, or how do you do and excuse me. Many of these are very common, but they are dealt with in detail in our general dictionaries, such as the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary for Advanced Learners.

Idioms and corpora

COBUILD has always been associated with the use of corpora in lexicography. All our dictionaries, grammars, and usage books are based on the Bank of English, a vast database of contemporary language from a wide range of sources and styles, totalling over 450 million words.


The Collins COBUILD' Dictionary of Idioms represents what we have learned about idioms in the Bank of English. One of the first points to be made is that idioms are comparatively infrequent, and it is only by having a ve^ry large corpus that we have sufficient evidence to describe idioms accurately and with confidence. Nearly one third of the idioms in this dictionary occur less often than once per 10 million words of the corpus. More detailed information about frequency is given on page xiv.

Idioms have often been associated with conversation and informal language. However, the evidence in the Bank of English suggests that they are also very common in journalism and magazines, where writers are seeking to make their articles and stories more vivid, interesting, and appealing to their readers, and to get their opinions across effectively.

Another point is that although idioms are often described as 'fixed7, they are typically not fixed at all. Many idioms have two or more alternative forms, without any change in meaning: for example, burn your bridges and burn your boats, or up the ante and raise the ante. Sometimes, these different forms reflect differences between British and American English: for example, burn your bridges is used in both varieties, whereas the form burn your boats is used only in British English. In many cases, there are several different verbs which can be used in an idiom: for example, 'sit' is the verb most commonly found in the idiom sit on the fence, and so we have given this as the main form, but verbs such as 'stay' and 'be' can be used instead of 'sit'. Thereare slight changes in meaning, but these changes are predictable from the usual meanings of the verbs which have been substituted. Similarly, prepositions or syntax can vary: for example, have your back to the wall and have your back against the wall, or feel something in your bones and have a feeling in your bones. The Collins COBUILD Dictionary^^^^^^^^^^ these kinds of variation, and the range of possibilities.^^^^^^^^^^^^^ ^^^^

The examples in the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms are all authentic, and are drawn from the Bank of English. Where necessary, we have edited them slightly to make them easier to read; however, most are cited in their original forms. Idioms are often used in fairly complex ways in context, and so the examples chosen are often much longer than in other COBUILD dictionaries, in order to demonstrate this fully. For instance:

The two sides went into these talks with positions that were not very far apart in terms of their political demands. Dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's may take some time, however .,,,,,.,.,^^^^^^^

The idiom appears in th^ sentence of the example. On its own, this sentence would only give a partial insight into the meaning of the idiom: that the process is time-consuming. The first sentence adds context which reinforces the fact that 'dotting the i's and crossing the t's' involves dealing with details rather than the main part of a piece of work.

Idioms, pragmatics, and context

Pragmatics is the study of the way in which people use language to achieve different goals - for example in making suggestions or offers, in thanking, in expressing emotions and opinions, or in making commitments. Idioms have important pragmatic functions in language. Because they have fairly general meanings, they are less often used purely to convey factual information and more often to convey attitude. They typically convey evaluations: they are used as ways of expressing approval and admiration, or disapproval and criticism. In addition to conveying evaluations, idioms have other functions in texts and interactions. For example, idioms are used to give emphasis or to organize discourse, or in conveying thanks or refusals. The Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms gives explicit guidance on this area, in order to help learners of English (and their teachers) understand idioms more fully and be able to use them more confidently.


People often use idioms in order to create a sense of 'camaraderie' with the people they are speaking to or writing for: idioms make language seem more lively and interesting, more friendly and more informal. Because of this, idioms are generally considered informal. In fact, idioms are often used in contexts which are not really informal at all. In this dictionary, we have only labelled as [informal] those idioms which are very informal and which might cause offence if used in the wrong situations. As a general rule, learners should be careful how they use idioms in formal contexts and in formal writing. A list of the labels used in the dictionary is given on page ix.

British and American idioms

There are some distinctions between the idioms used in British English and the idioms used in American English, although the majority of idioms are common to both varieties. We have covered both British and American idioms in this dictionary, and we show where there are variations in form or usage.

The situation with Australian English is more complicated, since Australian English includes both 'British' and 'American' idioms. When we comment that an idiom is only used in British English or only used in American English, we are neither including nor excluding Australian English. We have, however, included a few Australian English idioms which our evidence suggests are use mw now. We have taken a similar approach with other varieties' otEngtisW^^^^ ^iiCISis^^^

Origins and explana^^

This new edition of the ColHn^^^^^^^^^^^^^ now contains information about the origins of many of the idioms given in the dictionary, to try to show how these expressions have developed their current idiomatic mean\ng. In some cases the idiom is clearly derived from a pfwerbiwsay\rK},^ example to^ call the tune comes from the proverb he who payi the pipeicalls th^tune. Other idioms come from a specific subject area, for example a particular sport as in the idiom outfor'the count, or relate to traditions and customs, for example o pi^wJo poke. There is often morithan one explanation for how an idiom came about, whi^ to its interest. Ifr^ to remember that there are only a few historic we can be certain about. In many cases, there is a lot of argument about their origins. In some of these cases the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms provides a brief expla^ key words in the idiom, in order to help the learner gain

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We hope that you will find this new edition of the Cottlns COBUILD Dictionary of

Idioms useful, easy to use, and above all interesting and informative. Since we published our first COBUILD dictionary, many people have written to us with comments and advice. This has proved invaluable, and we have benefited greatly from it.

You can e-mail us at or write to us at the address below. We look forward to hearing from you with your comments and suggestions.

Dr Rosamund Moon (Editor, first edition) University of Birmingham


HarperCollins Publishers Westerhill Road Bishopbriggs Glasgow G64 2QT U.K.


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Using the Dictionary

How to find an idiom

To find an idiom in the Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Idioms, you should go straight to the index at the end of the dictionary. This contains entries for every lexical word in every idiom in the dictionary, and it shows you under which headword in the dictionary you will find the idiom that you are looking for, by highlighting the word in bold. By using the index first, you will be able to see immediately if the idiom is covered in the dictionary, what form it is given in, and where to find it in the main text.

Headwords in the dictionary

The idiom entries in the main dictionary text are each attached to a headword, which is normally one of the lexical words in the idiom. Headwords are arranged alphabetically. This is to help you find idioms as easily as possible. For example, the index will tell you that sp/7/ the beans is under the headword beans. Note that if the word we choose as headword is a plural noun or a verb participle, then the headword will also be in that form, rather than in the base form of the noun or verb. This is why spill the beans is under beans rather than bean.

Generally, the word we choose as headword is a noun: for example, rock the boat is under the noun boat as headword, and sit on the fence is under fence. If there are two nouns, then the headword is the first noun: for example, it's raining cats and dogs is under the headword cats and cost an arm and a leg under arm. If the idiom contains no nouns or adjectives, then the headword will be either a verb or an adverb.

There are four main exceptions to this general rule:

1. the word chosen as headword is normally a fixed word in the idiom: that is, it never varies. In some cases, the only noun in the idiom varies, and so we have chosen to put the idiom under another word which is fixed. For example, beat your breast has a common variation beat your chest, and so you will find the idiom under the verb beat.

2. occasionally, our rule for choosing headwords would mean that two idioms which contain similar words would end up in very different parts of the dictionary. In this case, we put them under the same headword. For example, we put both a fair crack of the whip and to crack the whip under the headword whip.

3. if an idiom contains two nouns, but the first noun is a very general word such as 'end' or 'top', then the idiom will be found at the second noun. For example, the thin end of the wedge is under wedge.

4. finally, similes such as white as a sheet and old as the hills are always dealt with under their adjectives - white and old in these cases - rather than under their nouns. This is because they generally reinforce or emphasize the meaning of the adjective.

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