To learn the English language we need to learn the words first, their meaning and usage. But we also need to learn idioms separately as certain words together can have a different meaning. In this post, we will learn 100 important Idioms and phrases for competitive exams
An idiom is a word or phrase that means different from what it really looks like. Because idioms can mean different from what the words actually mean. We can understand these by their popular uses.
Idioms and Phrases for Competitive Exams:
1. In high spirits
Example – He was in high spirits when I met him in the office.
Meaning – In a cheerful mood.
2. Struck several bad patches
Example – He struck several bad patches before he made good.
Meaning – Had many professional difficulties.
3. A chip off the old block
Example – Truly he is a chip off the old block.
Meaning – Very similar to his father.
4. Bitten off more than one can chew
Example – Suresh has unknowingly bitten off more than he can chew.
Meaning – To take up a task which one may not be able to accomplish due to lack of ability.
5. The bare bones
Example – The bare bones of the conversation had been that he hated my performances in that project.
Meaning – The main point.
Idioms came in last 10 years WBCS Preliminary Examination
6. Takes no prisoners
Example – The Indian Army’s order was to take no prisoners.
Meaning – To kill the enemy rather than seize them as prisoners.
NOTE: Generally ‘takes no prisoners’ is associated with war, but we can use it in other situations too.
For example – The new manager takes no prisoners, he is very determined and ruthless. (Here the proverbs means ‘to be extremely ruthless with the opposition’)
7. Pandora’s box
Example – Unfortunately, his decisions opens a Pandora’s box of domestic violence.
Meaning – To do something that causes a lot of new problems that one did not expect.
8. Beat a dead horse
Example – Do you think its’ worth sending the reapplication to the company or I am beating a dead horse.
Meaning – To waste time doing something that has already been attempted.
9. Left to his own devices
Example – Sumit’s father left to his own devices for the new project.
Meaning – To allow you to decide for yourself what you do.
10. Shoestring budgets
Example – The restaurant is running on a shoestring budget, so they can’t afford more stuff.
Meaning – Characterized by a small amount of money.
11. In the same boat
Example – Suddenly Rohit was in the same boat as any other employees who had lost their job.
Meaning – Experiencing the same situation or condition.
12. Keep one’s word
Example – Keeping one’s word is necessary to the legal profession.
Meaning – To do what you promise to do./To uphold one’s promise.
13. Knocked over
Example – I didn’t mean to knock you over./The thief knocked over the television set from my house.
Meaning – To push or strike someone or something./To steal something.
14. To catch a tartar
Example – Our neighbor thought I would give up if my complaint had to go to the court. They will soon realize that they have caught a Tartar.
Meaning – To deal with someone or something that proves unexpectedly troublesome or powerful.
15. To lose face
Example – He denied that he made a mistake because he didn’t want to lose his face.
Meaning – To do something which makes other people stop respecting you.
16. The rank and file
Example – The party leadership seems to be losing the support of the rank and file.
Meaning – The ordinary members of an organization and not its leaders.
17. Once in a blue moon
Example – Once in a blue moon day, I get time to travel.
Meaning – Something that happens very rarely.
18. Beating around the bush
Example – The politician was beating around the bush when people demanded a reason for the scam.
Meaning – Avoiding the topic.
19. Chip on your shoulder
Example – He has a chip on his shoulder for being abandoned by his friends in school days.
Meaning – When someone is upset about something that happened a while ago.
20. A piece of cake
Example – Music is my piece of cake.
Meaning – Something that is easy to understand or do.
21. Blessing in disguise
Example – The course that I took was a blessing in disguise and I realize it now.
Meaning – Something good or useful that did not initially seem that way.
22. Come hell or high water
Example – I have decided that come hell or high water, I will finish my work.
Meaning – Possible obstacles in your path.
23. Taste of your own medicine
Example – Bad people will surely have a chance to taste their own medicine.
Meaning – When someone receives the same treatment, usually negative, that he/she gives to others.
24. Golden handshake
Example – It’s better to offer a golden handshake to the aged employees.
Meaning – A big amount of money given to a person when he/she leaves a company or retires.
25. Apple of one’s eye
Example – My mother is always an apple of my family’s eye.
Meaning – Being cherished more than others are.
26. Feeling a bit under weather
Example – I am not going to gym today as I am feeling a bit under weather.
Meaning – Feeling slightly ill.
27. Mean business
Example – The border is surrounded by forces who mean business.
Meaning – Being serious/ dedicated.
28. The best of both worlds
Example – I had the best of both world since I worked as an ordinary member but got to learn from the leaders.
Meaning – The benefit of widely different situations, enjoyed at the same time.
29. Hear it on grapevine
Example – I heard it on grapevine that he has cheated the organization.
Meaning – To hear rumors about something or someone.
30. Can’t judge a book by its cover
Example – It is wise not to judge a book by its cover.
Meaning – Can’t judge something primarily by it’s appearance./ Don’t judge someone based on how the person looks like.
31. The icing on the cake
Example – I got MS in the University that I wished to and scholarship was like the icing on the cake.
Meaning – Something that turns good into great.
32. Jump the bandwagon
Example – When I put on few kgs, I immediately jumped on the bandwagon and join the gym.
Meaning – To join a popular activity or trend.
33. Cost an arm and a leg
Example – My laziness costs me an arm and a leg every time.
Meaning – Be very expensive.
34. The ball is in your court
Example – Now the ball is in my court and I will take the revenge on him.
Meaning – When it is up to you to take the next step or decision.
35. It takes two to tango
Example – The manager realizes that it takes two to tango before taking the decision.
Meaning – Actions or communications need more than one person.
36. Last straw
Example – If I complete this last straw, I will complete this level.
Meaning – The final problem in a series of problems.
37. Break the ice
Example – Always break the ice in a group discussion.
Meaning – To initiate a social conversation or interaction.
38. A bird’s eye view
Example – The building gives you a bird’s eye view of the whole city.
Meaning – A view from a very high place that allows seeing a very large area.
39. Be on cloud nine
Example – I will be on cloud nine when I pass the exam.
Meaning – Be very happy.
40. Eat humble pie
Example – The employee will have to eat humble pie for his misbehavior to his boss.
Meaning – To apologize humbly.
41. To show the white feather
Example – Becky showed the white feather and backed down.
Meaning – To act like a coward
42. To play fast and loose
Example – The TN reporter is known for playing fast and loose with the facts.
Meaning – To act in an unreliable way./Act carelessly or irresponsibly
43. Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
Example – Sumit always wears his heart on his sleeve, so there is no doubt who he’ll be supporting.
Meaning – To make your feelings and opinions obvious to other people.
44. To make a long face
Example – Why have you got such a long face? Better luck next time.
Meaning – To look depressed.
45. In apple pie order
Example – Please put everything in apple pie order before you leave.
Meaning – Perfectly methodical arrangement./Very well organized.
46. To strain every nerve
Example – I was straining every nerve to break the code but failed every time.
Meaning – To try extremely hard to do something.
47. To have an axe to grind
Example – The best reporting is done by people who don’t have an axe to grind.
Meaning – To have a selfish interest to serve.
48. To draw the line
Example – It’s hard to keep young people under control, but you have to draw the line somewhere.
Meaning – To set limits/To separate one thing from another.
49. Beat around the bush
Example – Don’t beat around the bush, just tell me what’s happening here.
Meaning – To avoid talking about an embarrassing subject as you are worried about upsetting the person you are talking to.
50. A wild goose chase
Example – After five hours spent wandering in the city, we realized that we were on a wild goose chase.
Meaning – An absurdly hopeless enterprise./ Wasting time looking for something that you are not going to find.
51. A litmus test
Example – His performance in the Test matches served as a litmus test whether he would join the One-day team.
Meaning – An experiment that seeks to determine the state of one important factor./ A method that helps to know if something is correct.
52. To cry wolf
Example – Don’t pay attention to her. She is just crying wolf again.
Meaning – To cry or complain about something when nothing is really wrong.
53. To be hard up
Example – James was hard up for cash to pay his bills.
Meaning – To be short of money.
54. To take to one’s heels
Example – The man took to his heels to try to get the bus before it leaves the bus stop.
Meaning – To run very fast.
55. Cry over spilt milk
Example – There is no use of crying over spilt milk, instead of being careful in the future.
Meaning – Complaining about a loss or failure from the past.
56. At the drop of a hat
Example – She is always ready to go for an outing at the drop of a hat.
Meaning – Willingness to do something instantly.
57. Afraid of one’s own shadow
Example – My grandfather always had panic attacks. He was the kind of a person who was afraid of his own shadow.
Meaning – To become easily frightened.
58. A house of cards
Example – That well-reputed company turned out to be a house of cards within a year.
Meaning – A poor plan or organization that is very weak and can be easily destroyed.
59. Black and Blue
Example – The thief was beaten black and blue by the public.
Meaning – Full of bruises (Black marks caused by being hit).
60. To be in the doldrums
Example – My friend is in doldrums since a week and nothing I do seems to cheer him up.
Meaning – To feel sad and lack of energy to do something.
61. Be on cloud nine
Example – I will be on cloud nine when I pass UPSC exam this year.
Meaning – Be very happy
62. Fool’s paradise
Example – They were living in a fool’s paradise, refusing to accept that they were facing poverty.
Meaning – False sense of happiness or success.
63. Give cold shoulder
Example – The principal has given the cold shoulder to the proposal to arrange an inter-school dance competition.
Meaning – To ignore
64. Get a raw deal
Example – It is very sad that the backward class poor children get a raw deal in education.
Meaning – not to be treated as well as others.
65. Hit the nail on the head
Example – He always hit the nail on the head in troubled situations.
Meaning – to do the correct thing
66. Hand to mouth
Example – Heavy rainfall led the farmers to live hand to mouth.
Meaning – Live on only basic necessities.
67. Hit the bull’s eye
Example – Your suggestion hits the bull’s eye in the exam.
Meaning – To be exactly right about something or to achieve the best result possible.
[ Hit the bull’s eye also mean to hit the very center of a circular target. For example; The Bowman hits the bull’s eye three times in a row.]
68. Let the cat out of the bag
Example – John had planned a surprise party for his wife. But their five-year-old son let the cat out of the bag and ruined the party.
Meaning – To reveal the secret carelessly or by mistake.
69. Make a face
Example – Do you have any better suggestion? If not, then don’t make a face.
Meaning – To show dislike or disappointment through facial expression.
70. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Example – Try to invest in different ways. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Meaning – Do not put all your resources in one place.
71. To be a good Samaritan
Example – I was stuck in the middle of the highway, and then a good Samaritan offered me a ride.
Meaning – To be kind and compassionate to someone in distress.
72. To put in a nutshell
Example – One of my lecturers is expert in teaching the topic in a nutshell.
Meaning – To say in a few words./ To make something concise.
73. To pour oil on troubled waters
Example – The argument between Jack & David has turned worse, so I tried to pour oil on troubled waters but failed to do so.
Meaning – To do or say something in order to make people stop arguing and become calmer.
74. To move heaven and earth
Example – The ACP ordered the police to move heaven and earth to find the murderer.
Meaning – To do everything possible to achieve the result.
75. Bear the palm
Example – India may bear the palm in the Champions Trophy.
Meaning – to win.
NOTE: Palm leaves were formerly used as symbols of victory.
76. To egg someone on
Example – My classmates egged on me to talk with the principal.
Meaning – To urge someone to do something that is usually negative.
77. On the spur of the moment
Example – I decided to go on the spur of the moment.
Meaning – Suddenly, without any planning
78. A man of straw
Example – In today’s match, the opponent team members are like men of straw.
Meaning – A person or idea that is weak and easy to defeat.
79. Cut the mustard
Example – Mr. Bansal appointed Rajesh as the project manager, but can he cut the mustard?
Meaning – To succeed./ To come up to expectations.
80. To fish in troubled waters
Example – My uncle is fishing in troubled waters by buying shares of that software company.
Meaning – Involving oneself in a difficult situation in the hope of gaining some personal advantage.
81. The green-eyed monster
Example – She criticized Maya’s effort of presenting the demonstration. Do you think it is valid or is just a case of green-eyed monster?
Meaning – The feeling of being jealous.
82. End in smoke
Example – He is trying to figure out the programming error since two days. But unfortunately, all his efforts end in smoke at last.
Meaning – No concrete or positive result.
83. To get into hot water
Example – Rajesh gets into hot water after he had a fight with the manager.
Meaning – To get into trouble.
84. To bury the hatchet
Example – These two teammates should bury the hatchet to win the final match.
Meaning – To forget about arguments and disagreements with someone.
85. To wet one’s whistle
Example – You must be tired after all days work. Would you like to wet your whistle?
Meaning – To take a drink, especially an alcoholic drink.
86. Cloak and dagger
Example – How many days you will cloak and dagger like this? Why don’t you tell your boss about your new job?
Meaning – Involving or characterized by secrecy or mystery.
87. A bread and butter letter
Example – After I came back from the tour, I have decided to write a bread and butter letter to the tour organizer for such an amazing service.
Meaning – A thank you letter./ A letter or note to follow up on a visit.
88. Thick and thin
Example – From last ten years, we have been together through thick and thin.
Meaning – Including both good times and bad times.
89. Cool one’s heels
Example – When you were busy in the meeting, I was cooling my heels in the waiting room.
Meaning – To wait for something to happen.
90. Take fancy
Example – I think Maya has taken a fancy to you.
Meaning – Suddenly start to like something or someone.
91. Take to task
Example – I failed to impress the foreign clients so my boss took me to task in front of everyone.
Meaning – To scold someone.
92. The worse for wear
Example – The radio is really worse for the wear. Send it to the repair centre.
Meaning – In a poor condition.
93. A lion’s share
Example – The lion’s share of the company’s profit goes to the charitable trust.
Meaning – The biggest part of something.
94. To turn one’s back on
Example – I can’t turn my back on what I have done. It was my responsibility to take care of everything.
Meaning – To deny or reject or abandon.
95. To bite the dust
Example – The soldier was too young to bite the dust.
Meaning – To break/fail/die/give out.
96. Bolt from the blue
Example – I had met my uncle last week. He was so energetic and fit. Today his death news came as a bolt from the blue.
Meaning – A sudden and unexpected event.
97. To draw a blank
Example – I tried to remember the address. But I could only draw a blank.
Meaning – To fail to remember something./ To get no response.
98. To go against the tide
Example – It’s not easy to go against the tide in defence of our principles.
Meaning – To do the opposite of what other people are doing.
99. To pick a hole in my coat
Example – My boss is waiting for a chance to pick a hole in my coat.
Meaning – To find a mistake in something someone has done or said.
100. On tenterhooks
Example – People were on tenterhooks when the possibility of an earthquake was announced.
Meaning – Waiting nervously for the outcome.
There are more than three thousand idioms and phrases in the English language. It is not possible to remember all those phrases. What we can do is to remember some of them which have appeared in previous year exams and have a higher possibility of appearing in exams.
These are one hundred important idioms and phrases for competitive exams. Best of luck for your preparation.