Idioms in Depth: Idioms from Body Parts

body partsHead shoulders knees and toes, may go the nursery rhyme, but idioms cover everything in between. From top to bottom our bodies have inspired a number of common English idioms. Here are a few of our favorite idioms from body parts:

All ears – used to describe someone who is listening carefully

  • That sounds like a wonderful idea! Please go on; I’m all ears.

Behind someone’s back – without someone’s knowledge or permission

  • Rafael is always doing things behind his mother’s back; sooner or later it will catch up with him!

Break a leg – equivalent to “good luck!”

  • Break a leg at tonight’s big performance!

Note: It may seem counter-intuitive (and, well, it is) but this idiom gained popularity in the theater where superstitious performers were afraid of saying good luck. Fearing that such a wish would cause the opposite, they decided to say the opposite to hope for the best.

(by the) skin of one’s teeth – to succeed by a narrow margin

  • Our layover was only twenty minutes long but, fortunately, we made our connection by the skin of our teeth.

Note: You can’t blame English for this one – it actually comes from the Bible (the Book of Job) and was popularized by Shakespeare.

cold feet – nervous

  • Some grooms get cold feet on their wedding day but Michael was calm, cool, and collected.

Note: It is very uncommon to use this expression without the verbs “have” or “get” as in the example above.

head and shoulders above (something) – far in advance; superior

  • With this new distribution model we’ll be head and shoulders above the competition.

head start – an advantage

  • Because they received the instructions before we did, our rivals have a big head start.


If you are interested in practicing more idioms then you will definitely want to visit our idioms homepage!


Commonly Confused Words: We’re not sure where were you planning wear that!

There is no end to confusion regarding this troublesome set and the English language has only itself to blame. Indeed, between wear, we’re, were, and where we have no less than three example of all the things that make English pronunciation so confusing. You are in luck, however – with us at your side we can help you make sense of this madness in no time!

Wear vs Where
Don’t let their distinct spellings mislead you – despite their differences both of these words rhyme with bear. That aside, however, these two have little in common. Wear, for example, is a verb related to clothing or use – “nurses wear uniforms,” for example – while where can be either an adverb used to start a question or a conjunction used to add geographic detail to a noun clause. For example, we might as “Where do you buy bread?” or say “A bakery is a place where you buy bread.” As one is related to clothing (wear) and the other to location (where) it should be pretty easy to tell them apart!

We’re vs Were
Unlike wear and where, this troublesome twosome does not sound at alike – we’re rhymes with here while were rhymes with, despite its appearance, fur – but their similar spellings do make them hard to tell apart on paper. This is especially true in the error-prone realm of texting. Just remember, though, that were is the past tense of are (“we were tried after the grammar lesson”) while we’re is not one word but two: we are (“we’re tired of studying grammar”).

Whine vs Wine
The extra h does not change the pronunciation of the five-letter whine – it is pronounced the exact same way as its four-letter soundalike – but it certainly changes the meaning! That is because while whine can be either a verb, meaning to complain, or the kind of sound produced by complainers, wine is only one thing: a delicious drink. Thus while you might whine about a lack of wine you should never confuse the two!

Be sure to visit our commonly confused words main page to find additional practice!


Business Idioms: Idioms about Making Money

making moneyCash is king in business and the measure of success for any enterprise so we have dedicated this installment of our Business Idioms series to idioms about making money.

in the black – descriptive of being profitable, successful, or otherwise making money.

  • The company is very successful; they are consistently in the black.

Note: the opposite of this expression is in the red which refers to a business operating at a loss; this is because in accounting negative numbers are generally recorded in red ink.

To make money hand over fist – to make a lot of money very quickly.

  • We have been making money hand over fist since our biggest competitor went out of business.

Note: this expression was first written in Seba Smith’s The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing in 1833 “they….. clawed the money off his table hand over fist

to turn a profit – to make a profit.

  • It usually takes at least a year for a new business to turn a profit.

Note: “Turn” is also used in turnover, a noun used to refer to all of the money that passes through a business.

to clean up – to make a lot of money, make a big profit.

  • There were so many customers at the market this weekend that we really cleaned up.

Note: This is not to be confused with the idiom to come clean which is to confess something.

to make a killing – to make a lot of money.

  • When we release our new product we are going to make a killing.

Note: Killing in a nonviolent sense also appears in the idiom to “kill time” which means to use up extra time.

For other installments of this series as well as many more useful materials please visit our homepage on business jargon and idioms.


It Pays Off to Pay Off, so Take the Payoff and Pay Off Your Loans: Phrasal Verb Confusion

pay offThis installment will focus specifically on the combination of two words: “pay” and “off.” It’s amazing how many different meanings we can get out of just two words depending on the context and how we use them! Learn these verbs well because they are all very common!

Pay … Off/– To eliminate a debt

  • After winning the lottery, she paid off all of her family’s debts.

Note: In certain contexts, this phrasal verb can be used as a synonym for the verb “bribe”, which means “to buy favorable treatment from an authority figure,” such as a politician or, in some countries, the police.

Pay … Off/ – To bribe

  • The drug cartel paid off the local police and the mayor’s office so they would be able to do business without any interference from the authorities.

Note: This is another phrasal verb whose elements can be combined to make a compound noun. In this case, “payoff.”

  • The investigators had video and documentary evidence of the governor taking the payoff from the mining company’s executives in exchange for favorable treatment.

Note: It is important to remember that the compound noun “payoff” can only be used to talk about bribes, not about loan payments, as in the example below.

  • I’m so happy because I made the payoff on my loans!

Pay off/ – To produce results/be successful

  • All of those trips to the gym are starting to pay off. Today I wore a pair of pants that I haven’t worn since before I was married!

Note: For this phrasal verb to have this particular meaning, it must not be separated. Sometimes, the “off” is omitted and “pay” alone has the same meaning of “produce results/success” as it does in the sentence above. For example:

  • It pays to be friendly. “You catch more flies with honey,” as Confucius said.

Eventually, all the time you spend studying is going to pay off. Take a look at our main phrasal verbs page and find more practice material!