off the cuff
Meaning: If you speak off the cuff, you speak without planning what you will say beforehand.
- She wasn't expecting to win, so she hadn't prepared a speech, but she still managed to say a few words off the cuff after being given the award.
- The prime minister keeps making off-the-cuff remarks that get him into trouble.
Note: When used to modify a noun or a noun phrase, this idiom should be written with hyphens, as in "an off-the-cuff comment".
Origin: Possibly related to the fact that people sometimes write last-minute notes on the cuff of their shirt's sleeve before making a speech or saying a few words.
under lock and key
Meaning: If something is under lock and key, it is kept in a very secure place.
- Make sure these documents are under lock and key until we need them.
- Poor Josie. Her parents were very strict and they kept her under lock and key throughout her childhood, so she never learned about life's dangers.
sick as a dog
Meaning: If you're as sick as a dog, you're very sick.
- I've been as sick as a dog since I ate those sausage rolls.
- Helen hates to miss work, so she really must be sick as a dog if she isn't here.
for the time being
Meaning: If something is "for the time being", it will continue for a limited period of time only.
- You can stay here for the time being, but you'll have to move out when you find your own place.
- My car is being repaired, so for the time being I'll have to use the bus.
skate on thin ice
Meaning: If you're skating on thin ice, you're doing something risky, or you're in a situation that could quickly become dangerous.
- Don't you think you'll be skating on thin ice if you go to the U.S. without getting health insurance? Medical care is incredibly expensive there.
- Kenny's skating on thin ice. He's already on parole, and yet he's still driving around without a licence.
Origin: Probably related to the fact that skating on an ice-covered lake can be very dangerous if the ice is thin in places. It could easily break under the weight of a person, and the person could fall into the ice-cold water and drown.
every trick in the book
Meaning: If someone uses every trick in the book to achieve something, they use any method available, even if it involves some deception.
- I begged her and promised her and tried every trick in the book to get her to agree, but she wouldn't change her mind.
- Jose tried every trick in the book to get a copy of the exam paper, and eventually he got one by bribing a teacher.
pay the price
Meaning: You pay the price for doing something when you experience the unpleasant results of doing it.
- You mightn't feel the effects of smoking cigarettes while you're young, but you'll definitely pay the price when you're older.
- Martin thinks that growing up means knowing that you have to pay the price for doing certain things, and then making good choices based on that knowledge.
pay through the nose
Meaning: If you pay through the nose for something, you pay more than the usual price for it.
- I know I pay through the nose for my dental work, but the dentist I see is supposed to be the best, so I don't mind paying more than usual.
- We had to pay through the nose for our room because it was a long weekend and most of the hotels were fully booked.
a hidden agenda
Meaning: If someone has a hidden agenda, they have a secret plan or motive for doing something.
- Some people claim that the U.S. had a hidden agenda in Iraq, and that it had something to do with oil.
- Lydia says that the girl's hidden agenda is to make Don fall in love and marry her so that she can get his money.
tighten your belt
Meaning: If you tighten your belt, you try to spend less money.
- I'll have to tighten my belt for a while so I can pay off my debts.
- Pablo says his family have had to tighten their belts because everything costs much more now.
out of your depth
Meaning: If you're out of your depth, you're in a situation that you don't have the experience to handle, or the knowledge to understand.
- If it hadn't been for all the advice her friends had given her, Jodie would have felt a bit out of her depth on her first date.
- I'd only been a policeman for a couple of weeks, and here I was trying to talk a guy out of shooting his family and himself. I was totally out of my depth.
out of the blue
Meaning: If something happens out of the blue, you're not expecting it to happen and you're surprised when it does.
- A letter came today, totally out of the blue, from a lawyer who said that an uncle I hadn't heard from in years had died and left me a million dollars. But then my alarm went off ... and I woke up.
- A girl Barry had known years ago called him out of the blue and invited him to her wedding. He was very surprised, as you can imagine.
Meaning: If someone is yellow-bellied, they are not brave, or they are cowardly.
- Tony's father called him yellow-bellied when he was a five-year-old boy because he didn't want to ride a horse. Tony has never forgotten it.
- The whole country behaved like yellow-bellied cowards when they let a small group of cheats steal the national election.
Meaning: You can say "No way!" when you want to strongly reject an offer, a request, or a suggestion.
- Hassan's father said he should sell his car to pay off his debts, but Hassan looked shocked at the suggestion and just said, "No way!"
- I love this job and there's no way I'd quit just to make a bit more money.
kill the goose that lays the golden egg
Meaning: If you kill the goose that lays the golden egg, you destroy something that has made you a lot of money.
- The thing that attracted tourists to the island was the peace and quiet. But greedy developers have killed the goose that laid the golden egg by opening noisy nightclubs, and no-one goes there now.
- Parents and agents of successful child actors and singers often kill the goose that laid the golden egg by making the kids work too much, and the kids lose the magic spark that made them special in the first place.
Origin: This idiom is derived from one of the fables attributed to Aesop. In this tale, a man and his wife had the good luck to own a goose that laid a golden egg every day. They soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough and, thinking the bird must be full of gold, they killed it to get all the gold at once. But when they cut the goose open, there was no gold inside. If they hadn't been greedy and killed the goose, it would have kept laying a golden egg every day.
a pain in the neck
Meaning: You can say someone is a pain in the neck if they annoy you, or something is a pain in the neck if you don't like doing it.
- Lenny's being a pain in the neck today. He keeps interrupting me while I'm trying to work.
- It's a real pain in the neck when you're trying to get some sleep on the train and people keep shouting into their mobile phones all around you.
Meaning: If something is given zero tolerance, it won't be accepted even once.
- Because of the school's zero-tolerance policy, our boy was expelled for smoking just one cigarette.
- How can a society based on Christian morals and forgiveness of sin have a zero-tolerance approach to petty crime?
Variety: This idiom is typically used in American English but may be used in other varieties of English too.
the icing on the cake | the frosting on the cake
Meaning: If something is the icing on the cake, or the frosting on the cake, it makes a good situation or a good result even better.
- The fifty thousand dollars the government will give to every athlete who wins a gold medal in the Olympics will be the icing on the cake for them.
- I was happy just to get my book published, so winning the young writer's prize as well is the frosting on the cake.
Note: "The icing on the cake" is used more in British and Australian English and "the frosting on the cake" is used more in American English.
a one-track mind
Meaning: If someone has a one-track mind, they spend most of their time thinking about one subject.
- Brian's had a one-track mind since he started his own company. All he thinks about now is business and making money.
- Mark's upset because Jenny said he's got a one-track mind and he's always thinking about sex.
go over your head
Meaning: If someone goes over your head, they go to someone with more authority than you in order to get something that you would normally grant, possibly because they think you won't give it to them.
- He knew I wouldn't give him time off, so he went over my head and asked my boss.
- I wouldn't go over her head if I were you. It'll make her angry, and next time you ask her for something she might say no.
Note: For another idiom with similar wording, but a very different meaning, see the listing for "over your head".
(your) hands are tied
Meaning: You can say your hands are tied if you're prevented from doing something that you'd normally have the power or the authority to do.
- The president says he'd like to spend more on schools in poor districts, but says his hands are tied by what he calls "budgetary restrictions".
- I'd really like to give you the contract, Mr Gambino, but my hands are tied because of those laws on giving contracts to people with criminal records.
at sea | all at sea
Meaning: If you're at sea, or all at sea, you're confused about something and not sure what to do.
- I'm all at sea with our new spreadsheet software. I just can't understand it.
- For the first few days in her new job, Gail felt totally at sea. She didn't know what to do or who to ask for help.
Note: The idiom "all at sea" is used more in British and Australian English, though "at sea" is also sometimes used by speakers of British and Australian English, as well as by speakers of American English.
easy on the eye
Meaning: If something is easy on the eye, it is pleasant to look at.
- Do you like paintings that are challenging and say something, or paintings that are easy on the eye and work as decoration?
- We want some wallpaper that's easy on the eye but still brightens up the room.