The trick is to understand the culture behind an idiom to truly comprehend it. We’ve put together a new series, “Idioms A-Z: Explained,” to expand your grasp of idioms. Join us as we examine the meanings and historical information of popular idioms. 

An idiom (also called idiomatic expression) is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning conventionally understood by native speakers. This meaning is different from the literal meaning of the idiom’s individual elements. In other words, idioms don’t mean exactly what the words say. They have, however, hidden meaning.

For your IELTS Speaking test, idiomatic language can be important because it is one of the elements in this component of the test the examiner looks for. You can see the marking criteria for your Speaking test here

An armchair critic

Meaning 

A person who knows about a subject only by reading or hearing about it and criticises without active experience or first-hand knowledge. 

Origin 

Armchair critic is first recorded in 1896 but the concept was around at least a decade earlier when Joseph Chamberlain sneered at opponents as ‘arm-chair politicians’ (1886). Another common variant is armchair traveller, meaning ‘someone who travels in imagination only’.

In a sentence 

Ignore the armchair critics and get professional advice from the experts before you start your business.

Throw the baby out (or away) with the bathwater

Meaning 

Discard something valuable along with other things that are inessential or undesirable. 

Origin 

Based on a German saying recorded from early 16th century by Thomas Carlyle who identifies it as German and gives it in the form, “You must empty out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.” 

In a sentence 

Parts of this strategy are brilliant, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon the entire project.

By (or through) the back door

Meaning 

Using indirect or dishonest means to achieve an objective.

Origin 

The proverb – a postern (back) door makes a thief, recorded in English since the mid-15th century. 

In a sentence 

Susan has influential friends, she secured a high-ranking position in the company by the back door. 

The ball is in someone’s court

Meaning 

It’s that particular person’s turn to act next. 

Origin 

A metaphor from tennis or a similar ball game where different players use particular areas of a marked court. 

In a sentence 

I have done my part so the ball is in your court now. 

Bark up the wrong tree

Meaning 

Pursue a mistaken or misguided line of thought or course of action. 

Origin 

The metaphor is of a dog that has mistaken the tree in which its prey has taken refuge and is barking at the foot of the wrong one. 

 In a sentence 

Sarah is angry at John for cheating but I’m sure she’s barking up the wrong tree.

Get to first base

Meaning 

Achieve the first step towards one’s objective. 

Origin 

Base in this idiom refers to each of the four points in the angles of the ‘diamond’ in baseball. 

In a sentence 

I hope to get to first base with this business deal before I update the company directors on its progress. 

With bated breath

Meaning 

In great suspense; very anxiously or excitedly. 

Origin 

Baited, which is sometimes seen, is a misspelling, since bated in this sense is a shortened form of abated, the idea being that one’s breathing is lessened under the influence of extreme suspense. 

In a sentence 

The suspense is killing me, I’m waiting with bated breath for the announcement about the winner. 

Batten down the hatches

Meaning 

Prepare for a difficulty or crisis. 

Origin 

Originally a nautical term meaning ‘make secure a ship’s hatches with gratings and tarpaulins’ in expectation of stormy weather. 

In a sentence 

A tornado is expected tomorrow evening so I better batten down the hatches. 

Beat around the bush

Meaning 

Discuss a matter without coming to the point; be ineffectual and waste time.

Origin 

A metaphor originating in the shooting or netting of birds. 

In a sentence 

I hope she would stop beating around the bush and answer my question immediately. 

Beat the bushes

Meaning 

Search thoroughly. 

Origin 

The expression originates in the practice of hunters who walk through undergrowth with long sticks to force birds or animals hiding in the bushes out into the open where they can be shot or netted. 

In a sentence 

Shelley is beating the bushes for new customers because business hit an all-time low. 

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Idiomsexternal iconThe Free Dictionaryexternal icon

Learn idiomatic expressions for IELTS

The Speaking test in IELTS is just like a conversation that you would have in everyday life. You may notice many native English speakers use idioms in everyday speech. If you want a higher score for your IELTS Speaking test, you should include some idioms (and use them correctly). In our next Idioms A-Z post, you can learn some more most common idioms in English.