English as a Second Language

IGCSE English as a Second Language - Cambridge Syllabus

Idioms -1 (Food & Drink)


We have a number of common expressions which are derived from food and drink items. It is said that association is a technique which helps us to remember things, so I have grouped the following idioms into those that you might associate with drinks and the main meal and those you might associate with snacks, fruit and afternoon tea. They should give you some food for thought which is another such idiom.

Example: Thank you for your suggestions and constructive criticism. They have certainly given me some food for thought.

1. small beer
2. the hard stuff
3. a different kettle of fish
4. a couch potato
5. a hot potato
6. take with a pinch of salt
7. pie in the sky
8. the upper crust
9. fair game
10. stew in your own juice
11. in a fine/pretty pickle
12. a raw deal


See if you can work out what they mean by studying these examples of use:

1. I know that my collection of paintings is small beer compared to yours, but you've been collecting for much longer than I have.

2. Oh, just a glass of dry white wine, please. No spirits thanks. I'm not used to the hard stuff.

3. He practises a lot at home, but playing in the school orchestra will be a very different kettle of fish.

4. He used to play tennis and swim every day, but he's turned into real couch potato this summer.

5. Whether or not to allow fox hunting in Britain is a real hot potato among country people at the moment.

6. When she says she has absolutely no money, you have to take that with a pinch of salt. She's always been a real miser.

7. When he says the stock market is sure to recover by the end of the year, that's clearly pie in the sky.

8. That is a kind of lifestyle that only the upper crust can afford.

9. By insisting that he had never lied about it when clearly he had, he became fair game among the reporters in Fleet Street.

10. He has totally rejected all the good advice I've given him so I'm just going to let him stew in his own juice for a while.

11. You'd be in a fine/pretty pickle if John weren't around to help you with the accounts.

12. It was a bit of a raw deal really - 50 hours a week, no holiday pay, no benefits of any kind.

Now check your understanding of the examples against these explanations:

1. small beer - of little value or importance
2. the hard stuff - a drink with high alcohol content, e.g. undiluted whisky
3. a different kettle of fish - something entirely different, more complex or demanding
4. a couch potato - someone who spends too much time watching TV with no real interests or hobbies
5. a hot potato - an issue that is controversial, dangerous or embarrassing
6. take with a pinch of salt - do not believe that what is referred to is completely true
7. pie in the sky - predictions or promises which are unlikely to be fulfilled
8. the upper crust - the highest social classes; the aristocracy
9. fair game - someone who is easy to attack because they have left themselves weak or exposed
10. stew in your own juice - suffer the consequences of your own foolish actions with no help from others
11. in a fair/pretty pickle - in a mess; in a difficult or unpleasant situation
12. a raw deal - unfair or harsh treatment usually of a financial or moral kind

Snacks, fruit and afternoon tea

1. bread and butter
2. money for jam
3. not my cup of tea
4. a storm in a teacup
5. take the biscuit
6. a piece of cake
7. have your cake and eat it
8. in a nutshell
9. a hard nut to crack
10. a plum job
11. sour grapes
12. on the grapevine.

See if you can work out what they mean by studying these examples of use:

1. He is actually a literary translator but driving a minicab is his bread-and-butter job.
2. All you have to do is sit around the pool and make sure nobody drowns. It's money for jam.
3. Spending the whole evening in a smoky, noisy pub where you can't hear yourself speak, let alone anybody else, is certainly not my cup of tea.
4. Their marriage is quite secure. They had one massive quarrel, but it was just a storm in a teacup.
5. I thought your brother was bad enough, but your behaviour at Sheila's this evening takes the biscuit.
6. Can you do this quality control inspection this afternoon? It should be a piece of cake to someone with your experience.
7. He now needs to borrow £30,000 but insists on maintaining his previous life style. He just wants to have his cake and eat it.
8. I don't need to know everything about it, but can you just tell me how this video camera works in a nutshell?
9. I've got a degree in physics but I've never really understood quantum mechanics or chaos theory. They're certainly hard nuts to crack.
10. She's now one of the senior managers at work. She's landed herself a plum job, hasn't she?
11. Ronnie says he thinks Bob's new convertible is hideous. Well, that sounds like sour grapes to me.
12. I heard it on the grapevine that the shipyard is going to make 1,500 workers redundant.

Now check your understanding of the examples against these explanations:

1. bread and butter - activity or work that provides your main or regular income
2. money for jam - money earned with very little effort
3. not my cup of tea - not the kind of thing that I like
4. a storm in a teacup - a lot of fuss, discussion or excitement about something which turns out to be insignificant
5. take the biscuit - behaviour which is stupid, rude, selfish or outrageous may be described as taking the biscuit
6. a piece of cake - an easy task
7. have your cake and eat it - expect the benefits of two things when it is reasonable to expect the benefit of only one
8. in a nutshell - to say or present something in a very brief way using very few words
9. a hard nut to crack - difficult to do or understand
10. a plum job - a relatively easy, well-paid job
11. sour grapes - an attitude that describes something as undesirable because you want it yourself but cannot have it
12. on the grapevine - if you discover something on the grapevine, you hear about it through casual conversation or gossip.

Idioms 2 - A bee in the bonnet story


Rewrite the story below by replacing the idiomatic phrases with their literal meanings


I awoke earlier than usual on this particular morning.  I think it was because I felt a bit under the weather and I knew it would be a horrible day when I opened my curtains to find it was raining cats and dogs.  My mum called me down for breakfast and said, “Come here at once young lady, I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”

“What have I done now?” I replied

“You lied about your homework this week, you did have some after all! I thought I could smell a rat when you swung the lead last night”


That was it, I’d been caught red handed and it was time to face the music.  That was when my mum completely lost her head.  “How did you find out?” I mumbled. 

“A girl from your school rang and said she needed your help. Susan somebody.” She Yelled.  I couldn’t think who she was talking about but the name rang a bell.  By this point we were at complete loggerheads with each other.  In my opinion she was just making a mountain out of a molehill, but I suppose she did have a point.  I knew I shouldn’t have lied and so I told her I’d try to turn over a new leaf.


I left the house at 8.30am.  It was still raining cats and dogs and I hung my head and ran to school.  When I arrived I knew that more trouble was near.  My two groups of friends were having a huge argument.  I tried not to get into hot water but then I realised the fight was my fault and I couldn’t just sit on the fence.

“Why did you let the cat out of the bag about me being caught shop lifting?” my so-called friend Mary aimed at me.

I stood there like a fruitcake.  I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at her, then at my other so-called friend who must have told her that I had told.  It was such a mess.

“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” Mary continued, “You’re always blowing your own trumpet, that’s your trouble! As if you never do anything wrong.”

Then everything went black.


When I came round I realised that Mary had hit me. It was time for me to make a clean breast of it.  Fortunately, Mary accepted my apology and we agreed to bury the hatchet.  Things nearly went wrong again however, when I told Mary I’d told her MUM about the shoplifting.  She almost blew her top again, until I told her I was only pulling her leg!


As I left that day and began to walk home with Mary, I felt a completely different feeling inside compared with how I’d felt that morning.  I was on top of the world, knowing my friendship with Mary had survived through thick and thin.


Idioms 3 - Home sweet home

1. Home is where the heart is

Meaning – something that you say which means that your true home is with the person or in the place that you love most.

Example – I don’t mind moving round the world with Chris. Home is where the heart is.

2. a home away from home

 Meaning – a place you feel as comfortable as you do in your own home.

Example – I visit Australia so often, it’s become a home from home for me.

 3. a home truth

 Meaning – if you tell someone a home truth, you tell them an unpleasant fact, usually something bad about themselves.

Example - It’s time someone told that boy a few home truths about his behavior.

 4. the home straight

 Meaning – the last part of a long or difficult activity

Example – We can’t give up now, we’re on the home straight.

 5. the home stretch

 Meaning – the last part of a long or difficult activity

Example – We’ve been working on the project for six months, but we’re in the home stretch now.

 6. be home and dry

 Meaning – to have completed something successfully

Example – I’ve just got one more chapter to study and I’ll be home and dry.

 7. home free

 Meaning – to be certain to succeed at something because you have finished the most difficult part of it

Example – Once you leave the highway and cross the bridge, you’re home free – we’re the third house after the bridge.

 8. nothing to write home about

 Meaning – not especially good or exciting

Example – the food was OK, but nothing to write home about.

 9. something to write home about

 Meaning – something especially good or exciting

Example – If England won the World Cup that would be something to write home about.

 10. bring ( something) home to (somebody)

 Meaning – to make someone understand something much more clearly than they did before

Example – The photos from Iraq finally brought home to us the terrible realities of war.

 11. come home to

 Meaning – If something comes home to someone, they understand it clearly.

Example – It suddenly came home to me that I had made the most awful mistake.

 12. drive (something) home

      Hammer (something) home

 Meaning – to say something very clearly and with a lot of force, often repeating it several times, so that you are sure people understand it.

Example – She used charts, figures and statistics to drive home her message that we need to economize.

 13. hit home

 Meaning – if something that someone says hits home, it has a strong effect on you because it forces you to understand something unpleasant.

Example – I could see that the criticism was beginning to hit home.

 14. keep the home fires burning

 Meaning – to keep your home pleasant and in good order while people who usually live with you are away, especially at war

Example – They relied on their wives and sweethearts to keep the home fires burning when they marched off to war.

 15. make yourself at home

 Meaning – to behave in a relaxed way in a place, as if it was your home

Example – Please sit down and make yourself at home while I make some coffee.


Source – Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms / Page – 195/196