56 Rare Idioms in English: Uncover Their Meanings and Examples Revealed

Idioms are the quirky little threads that stitch together the rich tapestry of language. They encapsulate ideas in colorful, often amusing ways that direct descriptions can’t quite match. In English, we frequently encounter well-worn idioms such as “piece of cake” for something easy, or “break the ice” when we’re trying to ease tension. However, there’s a trove of rare idioms that don’t usually make the spotlight and yet they add a certain spice to the way we express ourselves.

These unusual idioms often have fascinating histories and origins that have allowed them to stand the test of time. Each of these expressions is a testament to the culture and historical period from which it emerged.

What Are Rare Idioms?

Rare idioms are phrases or expressions that are not commonly used in everyday language or are considered outdated or archaic. They may be well-known in certain regions, among specific groups of people, or within particular fields of study, but they are not part of the common vernacular for most English speakers. These idioms often originate from historical, cultural, or literary sources and may have fallen out of use as language evolved or as cultural references became less relevant.

56 Rare Idioms in English: Uncover Their Meanings and Examples Revealed

Because they are not frequently used, rare idioms can sometimes puzzle even native speakers who might not be familiar with their meanings or origins. They can be of particular interest to linguists, language enthusiasts, and those who enjoy exploring the richness and diversity of language.

Here are a few examples of rare idioms:

  1. To flog a dead horse – To continue a particular endeavor is a waste of time as the outcome is already decided.
  2. To know chalk from cheese – To be able to discern significant differences between two things that might appear similar to an untrained eye.
  3. To set the Thames on fire – To do something amazing or spectacular (often used negatively in the sense that someone is not going to achieve anything remarkable).
  4. To take the gilt off the gingerbread – To spoil something that is otherwise enjoyable or beautiful.

These idioms are just a small sample of the many unique and colorful expressions found in the English language, and their rarity often adds to their charm and intrigue when they are encountered.

List of Rare Idioms

Idioms Meaning and Example Sentence
To go on a bender To indulge in a heavy drinking session.

Example: After he got the bad news, he went on a bender and didn’t come back for two days.

To throw the helve after the hatchet To make a situation worse by an additional action.

Example: Realizing he’d insulted the host, he threw the helve after the hatchet by leaving the party early.

To ride Shanks’ mare To travel by foot; to walk.

Example: When his bike broke down, he had no choice but to ride Shanks’ mare.

To know chalk from cheese To be able to recognize and appreciate the difference between two things.

Example: An expert in fine dining can know chalk from cheese with just one bite.

To take the gilt off the gingerbread To spoil something that is otherwise enjoyable or beautiful.

Example: Finding out the painting was a fake took the gilt off the gingerbread.

To look through a millstone To see or understand something that is not usually perceived.

Example: She’s so insightful, it’s as if she can look through a millstone.

To buy a pig in a poke To purchase something without inspecting it first.

Example: He bought the car without checking it thoroughly, essentially buying a pig in a poke.

To sell someone a pup To swindle someone by selling them something of little to no value.

Example: I can’t believe I was sold a pup with that fake designer watch.

To think one’s cap is a helmet To overestimate one’s abilities or importance.

Example: He’s not as experienced as he believes; he really thinks his cap’s a helmet.

To throw a sprat to catch a mackerel To offer something small in the hope of gaining something much larger.

Example:They offered a basic model at a low price, hoping to throw a sprat to catch a mackerel.

To be in Carey Street To be in financial trouble or bankrupt.

Example: After investing in that failed venture, he found himself in Carey Street.

To set the Thames on fire To do something amazing or spectacular (usually used negatively to mean the opposite).

Example: He’s not exactly going to set the Thames on fire with his mediocre performance.

To pay through the nose To pay an excessive amount for something.

Example: For a hotel room during the festival, you can expect to pay through the nose.

To hang fire To delay or wait before taking action.

Example: The project plans seem to hang fire until we get the boss’s approval.

To throw one’s bonnet over the windmill To act in a recklessly daring way.

Example: He threw caution to the wind and, as they say, threw his bonnet over the windmill by investing all his savings into the new business.

To steal someone’s thunder To take credit for someone else’s idea or to lessen their accomplishment by doing something similar.

Example: He announced his engagement at their wedding, completely stealing their thunder.

To wear one’s heart upon one’s sleeve To openly display one’s emotions or intentions.

Example: She always wears her heart upon her sleeve, which is why we all know about her crush on John.

To take the wind out of one’s sails To destroy someone’s advantage or to dishearten them.

Example: The competitor’s early lead quickly took the wind out of his sails.

To have the wolf by the ears To be involved in a difficult situation from which it is hard to escape.

Example: He felt like he had the wolf by the ears with the two deals about to fall through simultaneously.

To send someone to Covetryn To deliberately ostracize or ignore someone.

Example: After the argument, the rest of the team sent him to Coventry.

To have other fish to fry To have other matters to attend to.

Example: I can’t worry about that now; I have other fish to fry.

To put the cart before the horse To do things in the wrong order.

Example: Starting to write the report before the research is complete is like putting the cart before the horse.

To be armed to the teeth To be heavily armed.

Example: The guards were armed to the teeth during the transport of the gold.

To be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth To be born into a wealthy and privileged family.

Example: He never had to worry about money; he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

To cut the Gordian knot To solve a complex problem in a simple and direct manner.

Example: Instead of negotiating endlessly, she decided to cut the Gordian knot and end the contract.

To count one’s chickens before they hatch To assume success before it actually happens.

Example: They were already planning their victory party, clearly counting their chickens before they hatched.

To see which way the wind is blowing To check the general opinion or situation before taking action.

Example: Before I take a side, I’m going to see which way the wind is blowing.

To throw good money after bad To continue to invest in something futile.

Example: Investing more in the failing project was like throwing good money after bad.

To have a bee in one’s bonnet To be preoccupied or obsessed with an idea.

Example: She’s got a bee in her bonnet about starting her own business.

To kill two birds with one stone To achieve two aims with a single effort.

Example: By studying on the train, she killed two birds with one stone, using her commute as productive time.

To let sleeping dogs lie To avoid bringing up an old problem or conflict.

Example: It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie than to rehash that argument.

To speak with a forked tongue To deliberately say one thing and mean another or to be deceitful.

Example:The politician was known to speak with a forked tongue.

To be between the devil and the deep blue sea To be in a situation with two equally undesirable alternatives.

Example: When it came to choosing between the two deals, he felt between the devil and the deep blue sea.

To not hold water To not seem logical or be credible.

Example: His alibi is full of inconsistencies and does not hold water.

To blow hot and cold To change one’s opinion frequently.

Example: She’s blowing hot and cold about the move; one minute she’s all for it, the next she’s not sure.

To go the whole hog To do something completely or thoroughly.

Example: If you’re going to renovate the kitchen, you might as well go the whole hog and update the dining area too.

Rare Idioms by Topics

Legal and Business Idioms

To cook the books

  • To alter financial records with dishonest intent.
  • Example: The accountant was caught trying to cook the books.

To sell someone a bill of goods

  • To deceive someone by providing false information or selling something of little value.
  • Example: I can’t believe I was sold a bill of goods; the car is a complete lemon.

To have one’s hands tied

  • To be unable to act freely due to rules or other restrictions.
  • Example: I’d like to help with your request, but I have my hands tied by company policy.

To corner the market

  • To dominate a particular market.
  • Example: The tech giant effectively cornered the market on smartphone operating systems.

To pass the buck

  • To shift responsibility to someone else.
  • Example: Instead of addressing the issue, the manager just passed the buck to his team.

Food Idioms

Fine kettle of fish

  • A difficult, awkward, or messed up situation.
  • Example: Forgetting the passports at home was a fine kettle of fish, and it nearly ruined our vacation.

To butter someone up

  • To flatter or compliment someone, usually to gain a favor.
  • Example: If you’re hoping for a day off, you might want to butter your boss up before you ask.

To egg someone on

  • To encourage someone to do something, often something unwise or risky.
  • Example: I wasn’t going to jump into the pool from the roof until they started egging me on.

Out of the frying pan into the fire

  • To go from a bad situation to one that is worse.
  • Example: By trying to avoid the small fine, he ended up in court and went out of the frying pan into the fire.

To sell like hot cakes

  • Something that sells very quickly or in large quantities.
  • Example: The new smartphone model is selling like hot cakes; the store can hardly keep it in stock.

Historical and Literary Idioms

To rest on one’s laurels

  • To be satisfied with one’s past achievements and not to strive for further achievement.
  • Example: After the success of his first novel, he didn’t write anything for years; he just rested on his laurels.

Crocodile tears

  • Fake or insincere tears; a hypocritical display of sorrow.
  • Example: She wasn’t really upset about the broken vase; those were just crocodile tears.

Hoist with his own petard

  • To be caught in one’s own trap or to suffer the consequences of one’s own actions.
  • Example: The con artist was finally hoist with his own petard when he accidentally gave his real address to the police.

A pound of flesh

  • Something that is owed that is ruthlessly required to be paid back.
  • Example: The loan shark demanded his pound of flesh, refusing to extend the deadline even by a single day.

To tilt at windmills

  • To fight imaginary enemies or to engage in unwinnable or futile battles.
  • Example: Arguing about politics on the internet often feels like tilting at windmills.

Artistic and Creative Idioms

To add color to the argument:

  • To provide vivid or imaginative details to make a story or an argument more interesting.
  • Example: He wasn’t just content with the basic facts; he always had to add color to the argument to captivate his audience.

To have in the paint:

  • To be in a difficult situation with limited options.
  • Example: With the deadline approaching and his team members falling ill, he really had it in the paint to finish the project on time.

Music to one’s ears:

  • News or information that one is happy to hear.
  • Example: The sound of the ice cream truck was music to the kids’ ears on a hot summer day.

Not to know B from a battledore

  • To be completely ignorant or lacking knowledge in a particular subject.
  • Example: When it comes to modern technology, I’m afraid I don’t know B from a battledore.

To steal someone’s thunder:

  • To take credit for someone else’s idea, or to lessen the effect of another’s idea by suggesting the same idea first.
  • Example: She was about to announce her engagement when her sister blurted out the news, completely stealing her thunder.