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~70 terms

ace in the hole

a hidden advantage or resource kept hidden until it is needed (from stud poker)

Achilles' heel

point of weakness or vulnerability

albatross around one's neck

an annoying burden; phrase refers to a poem "The Ancient Mariner" in which a sailor who shoots a friendly bird is forced to wear its carcass around his neck as punishment

apple of one's eye

favorite object of love or affection

as the crow flies

most direct route between two things

behind the eight ball

to be in an unfavorable or uncomfortable position (from the game of pool)

between a rock and a hard place

faced with two equally difficult or dangerous choices or circumstances

birthday suit

completely naked

bite the dust

to fall face down in the dirt; to suffer a defeat

black sheep

A person who is considered a disgrace to a particular group, usually a family.

blind leading the blind

expression that applies to leaders who know as little as their followers and are therefore likely to lead them astray

blow one's own horn

to brag about oneself

break the ice

remove tension at a first meeting, opening of a party, etc.

burn the candle at both ends

do more than one ought to; overextend oneself

burn the midnight oil

stay awake at night to work or study

burn your bridges behind you

to eliminate a possibility of a retreat to a former position

busman's holiday

a vacation during which a person engages in an activity that is the same as or similar to his or her usual employment

butter someone up

praise or flatter someone excessively

buy a pig in a poke

buy something sight unseen (a "poke" is a bag)

by the book

according to established rules

can't hold a candle to

an expression that refers to a person or thing that is distinctly inferior to something else

can't see the forest for the trees

expression used of someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole

carry a torch for

to be infatuated with

chill out

to not get so excited; to take it easy; also, to relax or have a good time

chip off the old block

expression used of people who closely resemble their parents in some way

chip on one's shoulder

a belligerent attitude or grievance (In the past, a young boy would place a wood chip on his shoulder and dare anyone to knock it off as a way of showing how tough he was.)


Yiddish term for courage bordering on arrogance, roughly equivalent to "nerve" (in the slang sense)

clean bill of health

to be told, usually by a doctor, that one is perfectly healthy. By extension, a person or organization free of any irregularity.

(have) cold feet

to be too fearful to undertake or complete an action

(give) the cold shoulder

ignore someone deliberately

come out of the closet

publicly announce a belief or preference one has kept hidden (especially one's sexual preference)

cool one's heels

to wait for a long time

creme de la creme

best of the best

crocodile tears

insincere show of sympathy or sadness (crocodiles were once believed to "weep" large tears before eating their victims)

cross the Rubicon

to make an irreversible decision (the name of the river Julius Caesar crossed with his army, thereby starting civil war in Rome)

(cry) uncle

admit defeat

diamond in the rough

someone or something with potential talent, but lacking in training or polish

(go) Dutch

outing or date on which each person pays his or her own way

draw the line

to set a limit, as of acceptable behavior

elbow grease

strenuous physical effort

end of one's rope

out of options

fly off the handle

to become suddenly enraged

get a dose of one's own medicine

to receive the same unpleasant treatment one has given others

get in somebody's hair

to annoy or hinder someone

get up on the wrong side of bed

To act unpleasant for no apparent reason (or because the day got off to a bad start)

take (something) with a grain of salt

view a statement with a skeptical or doubtful attitude.

(ride the) gravy train

a job or project that requires little effort but yields considerable profits.

in the hot seat

to be in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation (The phrase is an extension of "hot seat," slang for the electric chair.)

know the ropes

to be familiar with the details of an operation

make a mountain out of a molehill

to blow a small issue or event out of proportion

on pins and needles

in a state of anxiety, or tense expectation

pass the buck

to shift the blame from oneself to another person

play it by ear

improvise (Music played by ear does not follow written notes.)


a self-important person of high position and great influence (a character in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado)

pot calling the kettle black

criticizing others for the very fault one possesses

pull somebody's leg

to tease or fool someone

red tape

bureaucratic procedures that delay progress

sacred cow

anything that is beyond criticism (In India, followers of Hinduism consider cows sacred and do not eat them because they believe the animals contain the souls of dead persons)

sit on the fence

to remain neutral and not take sides; often used as an insult about someone who lacks the courage to decide

six of one, half dozen of another

the alternatives are the same; makes no difference which

skeleton in the closet

potentially embarrassing secret

(do something by the) skin of one's teeth

to just barely manage to get something accomplished

strange bedfellows

unlikely companions or allies; often used in the phrase "politics makes strange bedfellows"

talk turkey

discuss in a straightforward manner

till the cows come home

for a long time

tip of the iceberg

only a hint or suggestion of a much larger or more complex issue or problem

(fight) tooth and nail

fight like an animal, with everything one has

turn the tables

reverse a situation and gain the upper hand

vicious circle

a series of reactions that compound or make worse an initial unfortunate event or situation: "He dealt with being overweight by eating more; it's a vicious circle."

wet behind the ears

immature, inexperienced, naive

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