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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

by Christine Ammer

Paperback, 506 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $15.95 |


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The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
Christine Ammer

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Book Summary

With almost ten thousand phrases, including bite the bullet, take the cake, buy the farm, and says who, this text is a unique reference on common American vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Each entry includes a definition and a contextual sentence.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd Edition


aback — See take aback.

ABC — See under easy as pie (as abc).

abide — In addition to the idioms beginning with abide, also see can't stand (abide).

abide by Accept and act in accordance with a decision or set of rules; also, remain faithful to. For example, All members must agree to abide by the club regulations, or A trustworthy man abides by his word. An older sense of the verb abide, "remain," is still familiar in the well-known 19th-century hymn "Abide with Me," which asks God to stay with the singer in time of trouble. [Early 1500s]

a bit 1. A small amount of anything; also, a short period of time. For example, Here's a bit of wrapping paper, or It'll be ready in a bit, or Just wait a bit. [c. 1600] 2. Somewhat or rather, as in It stings a bit, or Will you have a bit more to eat? [Second half of 1600s] Also see a little; bit by bit; not a bit.

about — In addition to the idioms beginning with about, also see at about; beat about the bush; bring about; cast about; come about; do an about-face; get about; go about (one's business); how about that; just about; knock about; lay about one; man about town; nose about; no two ways about it; order someone about; out and about; see about; send someone about his or her business; set about; that's about the size of it; up and about; what about.

about time Long past the right time; also, approximately the right time. Thus, It's about time you went to bed can mean either that you should have gone to bed much earlier (often stated with emphasis on the word time), or that now is the appropriate time for you to retire. [Early 1900s] For a synonym, see high time.

about to 1. Ready to, on the verge of, as in I was about to leave when it began to rain, or He hasn't finished yet but he's about to. This usage was first recorded in Miles Coverdale's 1535 translation of the Bible (Joshua 18:8). 2. not about to. Having no intention of doing something, as in The shop steward was not about to cross the picket line, or Are you staying longer?—No, I'm not about to. [Colloquial; first half of 1900s]

above — In addition to the idioms beginning with above, also see all of the above; cut above; head and shoulders above; over and above.

above all More than anything else, as in A winter hike calls for good equipment, but above all it requires careful planning. This phrase first appears in William Langland's Piers Ploughman (1377), in which the narrator exhorts readers to love the Lord God above all. Also see first and last.

above and beyond More than is required. This somewhat redundant expression—above and beyond here both denote excess—often precedes the call of duty, which means exceeding what a particular job requires. Thus Putting in overtime without pay is above and beyond the call of duty. Also see over and above.

aboveboard — See open and aboveboard.

above suspicion So trustworthy as never to be suspected of wrongdoing, as in "The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion" (Charles Merivale, A History of the Romans under the Empire, 1850). The phrase was given further currency when it was used for the title of a very popular World War II spy film starring Joan Crawford (Above Suspicion, 1943). A similar idiom using above in the sense of "beyond" is above the law, usually describing an individual or business behaving as though exempt from rules or laws that apply to others.

above the law — See under above suspicion.

absence — In addition to the idiom beginning with absence, also see conspicuous by its absence.

absence makes the heart grow fonder Separation intensifies love, as in After a year in another country she accepted his proposal, so I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder, or, used ironically, The boss leaves earlier every day; oh well, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Although versions of this saying date from Roman times, it only became popular after Thomas Haynes Bayly used it as the last line of a song in The Isle of Beauty (1850). The opposite sentiment is expressed by familiarity breeds contempt.

absent without leave Away without permission or explanation, as in Her daughter went to the mall but got in trouble for being absent without leave. The term and its acronym, AWOL, originated in the American military during World War I for soldiers absent from duty without permission (leave). It later was transferred to civilian situations, as in John didn't just cut his Tuesday classes; he went AWOL.

accidentally on purpose — See on purpose, def. 2.

accident waiting to happen, an A situation that is likely to result in a mishap. The term is used for either minor problems, such as stacking boxes too high, or major ones, as in That ice dam on the roof can cause the whole house to flood; it's an accident waiting to happen.

accord — See of one's own accord.

according to all accounts — See by all accounts.

according to Hoyle In keeping with established rules; on the highest authority, as in The tax records are in excellent order, all according to Hoyle. Edmond Hoyle (1679–1769) of England, author of books of rules for card games, was so highly regarded that numerous writers used his name on their own rule books, even for games that had not been invented by the time of Hoyle's death, so that his name became synonymous with any rules.

account — In addition to the idiom beginning with account, also see all present and accounted for; by all accounts; call to account; give a good account of oneself; no accounting for tastes; on account; on account of; on no account; on one's own account; take account of; take into account; turn to good account.

account for 1. Be the determining factor in; cause. For example, The heat wave accounts for all this food spoilage, or Icy roads account for the increase in accidents. 2. Explain or justify, as in Jane was upset because her son couldn't account for the three hours between his last class and his arrival at home. Both of these related usages are derived from the literal meaning of the phrase, that is, "make a reckoning of an account." The negative is also used (see no accounting for tastes). This phrase, an anglicization of the Latin de gustibus non est disputandum, has been used since the late 1700s.

accustomed to Used to something or someone; having the habit of doing something. For example, In Spain we gave up our usual schedule and became accustomed to eating dinner at 10 p.m. Professor Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady (1956) ruefully sang the song "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" after his protégé Eliza walked out on him. The verb form, to accustom someone to, is also used, as in One simply has to accustom oneself to a vegan diet.[Second half of 1400s]

ace — In addition to the idioms beginning with ace, also see hold all the aces; trump someone's ace; within an ace of.

ace in the hole A hidden advantage or resource kept in reserve until needed, as in The prosecutor had an ace in the hole: an eyewitness. The term comes from stud poker, where each player is dealt one card face down—the so-called hold card—and the rest face up. Should the hole card be an ace, the player has a hidden advantage. Hole here simply means "a hiding place." In the 19th-century American West, the expression was used to refer to a hidden weapon, such as a gun concealed in a shoulder holster. By the 1920s it had become a metaphor for any surprise advantage or leverage.

ace it Accomplish something with success, as in I'm sure he'll ace it when he takes that bar exam. The verb ace originated in tennis with the meaning "to hit an unreturnable serve against an opponent." The idiom ace it, however, originated as student slang for getting an "A" on an exam or in a course but soon was extended to other successful accomplishments. [Slang; mid-1900s]

ace out 1. Get the better of, defeat, as in Our team is bound to ace them out, or Those calculus problems aced me out again. [Slang; mid-1900s] 2. Take advantage of or cheat someone, as in John thought they were trying to ace him out of his promised promotion. [Slang; c. 1920]

ace up one's sleeve See card up one's sleeve.

Achilles' heel A fatal weakness, a vulnerable area, as in This division, which is rarely profitable, is the company's Achilles' heel. The term alludes to the Greek legend about the heroic warrior Achilles whose mother tried to make him immortal by holding the infant by his heel and dipping him into the River Styx. Eventually he was killed by an arrow shot into his undipped heel. [c. 1800]

acid test A decisive trial to determine worth or quality, as in Exposure to brilliant sunlight is the acid test for showing this fabric won't fade. Alluding to a 19th-century chemical test for distinguishing gold from other metals, this term was used figuratively by the early 1900s.

acquaintance — See nodding acquaintance; scrape up an acquaintance.

acquired taste Something one learns to like rather than appreciates immediately. For example, Because it is so salty, caviar for many individuals is an acquired taste, or With its lack of decorative detail, this china pattern is definitely an acquired taste. [Mid-1800s]

across — In addition to the idiom beginning with across, also see come across; cut across; get across; put across; run across.

across the board Applying to all the individuals in a group, as in They promised us an across-the-board tax cut, that is, one applying to all taxpayers, regardless of income. This expression comes from horse racing, where it refers to a bet that covers all possible ways of winning money on a race: win (first), place (second), or show (third). The board here is the notice-board on which the races and betting odds are listed. Its figurative use dates from the mid-1900s.

act — In addition to the idioms beginning with act, also see catch red-handed (in the act); clean up (one's act); do a disappearing act; get one's act together; hard act to follow; high-wire act; in the act; put on an act; riot act.

action — In addition to the idiom beginning with actions, also see all talk (and no action); piece of the action; swing into action.

actions speak louder than words What one does is more important than what one says, as in Politicians need to be reminded that actions speak louder than words. This statement, a proverb found in many languages, including ancient Greek, was first worded in precisely this way in English in Colonial Currency (1736). Also see all talk; do as i say, not as i do.

active duty Full-time service, as in Julian is 81, but he still comes to the office every day and is very much on active duty. This term comes from the military, where it stands in opposition to reserve, which refers to troops still in the military but not actively engaged. It is occasionally transferred to civilian matters as well. [First half of 1800s]

act of faith Behavior that shows or tests a person's religious or other convictions, as in Rock climbing with a new, inexperienced partner was a real act of faith. The term is a translation of the Portuguese auto da fé, which referred to the sentencing and execution of heretics (often by burning at the stake) during the Inquisition, when punishing heresy was thought to constitute an assertion of faith. In modern times it is used for more benign circumstances. [Early 1700s]

act of God An unforeseen and uncontrollable natural event, such as a hurricane, fire, or flood. For example, The publisher shall publish the work within twelve months except in case of delay caused by acts of God such as fires or floods or other circumstances beyond its control. It most often appears in legal contracts, where it is used to indemnify one party against a disaster that prevents it from carrying out the contract's terms. [Mid-1800s]

act on 1. Also, act upon. Conduct oneself in accordance with or as a result of information or another action, as in I will act on my lawyer's advice, or The manager refused to act upon the hotel guest's complaints. [c. 1800] 2. Influence or affect, as in The baby's fussing acted on the sitter's nerves. [c. 1800]

act one's age Behave more maturely. Although the phrase often is used in asking children to act in a more grown-up fashion (Only babies suck their thumbs; act your age), it also may refer to an adult who is, sometimes deliberately, acting much younger than might be considered appropriate (Grandpa, it's time you stopped climbing ladders and acted your age).

act out 1. Perform or portray something or someone, as in As she read to the class, the teacher had each child act out a different character in the story. [c. 1600] 2. Express unconscious feelings or impulses through one's behavior, without being aware of it. For example, She acted out her anger at her father by screaming at her husband. This meaning comes from 20th-century psychological theory and usually (but not always) refers to negative or hostile impulses and emotions. The term is sometimes used without an object to mean "misbehave" or "behave disruptively," as in The child is acting out in class. [First half of 1900s] In both usages, out means "openly" or "publicly."

act up 1. Misbehave. For example, With an inexperienced rider, this horse always acts up. [c. 1900] 2. Malfunction, as in I'm not sure what's wrong with my car, but the transmission is acting up. In both usages up means "abnormally."

act upon — See act on.

Adam — See not know someone from adam.

add fuel to the fire Also, add fuel to the flames. Worsen an already bad situation, as by increasing anger, hostility, or passion, as in Bill was upset, and your making fun of his mishap just added fuel to the fire. This metaphor dates from Roman times—Livy used it in his history of Rome—and it remains in common use. For similar metaphors, see add insult to injury; fan the flames.

add insult to injury Hurt a person's feelings after doing him or her harm; also, make a bad situation worse. For example, Not only did the club refuse him, but it published a list of the rejected applicants—that's adding insult to injury, or The nearest parking space was half a mile away, and then, to add insult to injury, it began to pour. The phrase is an ancient one, even older than its often cited use in the Roman writer Phaedrus's fable of the bald man and the fly. A fly bit the head of a bald man, who, trying to crush it, gave himself a heavy blow. The fly then jeered, "You want to avenge an insect's sting with death; what will you do to yourself, who have added insult to injury?" In English it was first recorded in 1748.

addition — See in addition.

add up 1. Amount to an expected or correct total, as in These figures don't add up, meaning they are not correct. [Mid-1800s] 2. Be consistent, make sense, as in I'm not sure that all this testimony will add up. [First half of 1900s] 3. Assess, form an opinion of, as in He looked across the track and added up the competition. Also see add up to.

add up to Amount to, signify, as in The smooth airline connections, luxury hotel, and fine weather added up to the best vacation we'd ever had. [Early 1900s] Also see add up.

ad hoc For the special purpose or end at hand; also, by extension, improvised or impromptu. The term, Latin for "to this," is most often used for committees established for a specific purpose, as in The committee was formed ad hoc to address health insurance problems. The term is also used as an adjective (An ad hoc committee was formed), and has given rise to the noun adhocism for the tendency to use temporary, provisional, or improvised methods to deal with a particular problem. [Early 1600s]

admiration — See mutual admiration society.

ad nauseam To ridiculous excess, to a sickening degree. For example, I wish he'd drop the subject; we have heard about budget cuts ad nauseam. The term, Latin for "to [the point of] nausea," has been used in English since the early 1600s.

a drag A tedious experience, a bore, as in After several thousand times, signing your autograph can be a drag. This seemingly modern term was army slang during the Civil War. The allusion probably is to drag as something that impedes progress. [Colloquial; mid-1800s]

advance — See in advance; make advances.

advantage — See get the advantage of; show to advantage; take advantage of; to advantage.

advocate — See devil's advocate.

a far cry — See far cry from.

a few A small number of persons or things. This phrase can differ slightly from few used alone, which means "not many." For example, The party was to end at eight, but a few stayed on indicates that a small number of guests remained, whereas The party began at eight, and few attended means that hardly any guests came. [Late 1200s] Also see quite a bit (few).

afoul of — See run afoul of.

afraid of one's own shadow Very timid and fearful, as in Richard constantly worries about security; he's afraid of his own shadow. This hyperbole has been used in English since the early 1500s, and some writers believe it originated in ancient Greece.

after — In addition to the idioms beginning with after, also see day after day; get after; go after; inquire after; keep after; live happily ever after; look after; morning after; name after; run after; see after; sought after; take after; throw good money after bad; time after time.

after a fashion Also, after a sort. Somehow or other; not very well, as in John can read music, after a fashion, or He managed to paint the house after a sort. The first phrase, in which fashion means "a manner of doing something," has been so used since the mid-1800s, when it replaced in a fashion. The variant dates from the mid-1500s. Also see in a way; or other.

From The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Second Edition by Christine Ammer. Copyright 2013 by Christine Ammer. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Miffler Harcourt.