A Guide to Colorful Idioms and Regional Colloquialisms

March 17, 2015 by Sarah Netemeyer

What is an idiom exactly? An idiom is a phrase or a fixed expression that has a figurative (or sometimes literal) meaning. An idiom’s figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Idioms aren’t just an American phenomenon, they are present in all languages. Alright, so what’s a colloquialism? It’s an informal word or phrase used in casual communication. Colloquialism is not the same thing as slang.

As a native English speaker and transplanted Midwesterner, I will fully admit that these colorful expressions can be super confusing to anyone who hasn’t grown up hearing these expressions often. (My grandmother’s use of you’uns to refer to a group of people still trips up my father who hails from Minnesota. Fun fact, the use of you’uns can be traced back to the Scotch-Irish immigrants of Appalachia.)

Being in the Midwest for over a decade now, I can honestly say the use of idioms in everyday conversation is alive and well in America. I seem to unconsciously throw out idioms left and right, which I’m sure is amusing to my coastal colleagues. To help dispel misunderstandings and clear confusion over common idioms and regional colloquialisms, I’ve created a guide to some of my personal favorites.

“There’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
This means that you shouldn’t be upset over an outcome you cannot change.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
You can present an opportunity to someone but can’t force them to act on it.

“Speak of the devil!”
This expression is used when the person you have just been talking about appears.

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
Don’t assume that things will go a specific way in advance.

“I’ll be glad to see the back of…”
To be happy when a person leaves or a situation ends.

“Wouldn’t be caught dead…”
A person would never do something they find distasteful no matter the circumstances.

“Straight from the horse’s mouth.”
To hear something from the original source.

“Steal someone’s thunder.”
To take credit for someone else’s actions or to unfairly eclipse their deeds.

“Not playing with a full deck.”
Someone who lacks intelligence or common sense.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Don’t put all your resources and hope behind one possibility.

“Caught between two stools.”
Having trouble selecting between two choices.

“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Walking away from a situation in order to avoid unnecessary complications.

“Not a spark of decency.”
Lacking politeness.

“It’s in the bag.”
It’s a certainty or a done deal.

“Dig in your heels.”
Refuse to change your mind or budge.

“To bamboozle.”
To swindle or deceive.

“Stick to your guns.”
Standing up for your beliefs and not accepting compromise.

“That dog won’t hunt.”
A plan is doomed for failure.

“That thing is all catawampus.”
Something is a mess and beyond repair.

“Bless your heart.”
The nicest sounding way to call someone an idiot.

“Rode hard and put up wet.”
Appearing extremely fatigued or ill.

“No dog in this fight.”
Neutral on the outcome of a situation.

“Bought the farm/ Kicked the bucket”
Nice ways to say “dead.”

“For the birds.”
To deem something as trivial or worthless.

“Shoot the breeze.”
Engage in a leisurely, casual conversation.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the trend of brands hopping on the bandwagon to incorporate fresh slang terms (bae, fleek, etc.) into their social media communications. Maybe they should do something ‘retro’ and revive some lesser-known nuggets from our linguistic past? Doing so would definitely raise some eyebrows and get some tongues wagging.

See what I did there.