20 English idioms about people and places to help you write better


Idioms about countries, cities, citizens and their language can be useful to help you describe things better

Karly Cox |

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It’s all Greek to me

Meaning: I don’t understand what that means.
Use: I tried to read about the US elections, but it’s all Greek to me.

Pardon my French

Meaning: used to say sorry for using strong language or swearing
Use: Pardon my French, but what the hell are you doing?

To go Dutch

Meaning: to share the cost of something, especially a meal, often on a date
Use: Tommy wanted to take me out for dinner, but he lost his wallet and only had HK$100, so we decided to go Dutch.

Double Dutch
Meaning: nonsense
Use: Can you understand what these instructions mean? It’s double Dutch to me.

A young Turk

Meaning: someone who is rebellious; often a member of a political movement eager for change
Use: Joshua Wong was seen as a young Turk during Occupy Central.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do

Meaning: when you’re in a new place, follow the examples of the people around you
Use: When I went on holiday to Sri Lanka, I started eating my curry with a spoon, but everyone else was using their fingers. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – it was really easy, actually!

All roads lead to Rome

Meaning: there are many ways to reach the same goal
Use: Whether you learn better through exams or projects is not important. Just as all roads lead to Rome, as long as you benefit from the course, it doesn’t matter which method you use.

Photo: AFP

Rome was not built in a day
Meaning: you can expect to achieve important things in a short period of time
Use: Jon wants to take his Grade 6 trumpet exam next year, but he only started playing six months ago. Rome wasn’t built in a day. He should take his time.

Meet your Waterloo

Meaning: to be defeated by someone who is too strong for you or by a problem that is too difficult for you
Use: Perry has always been the best musician at school, but he met his Waterloo when Diana arrived. She plays 12 instruments, and won a scholarship to Juilliard!

Road to Damascus

Meaning: an experience that changes your life and how you see things
Use: Suki’s trip to Vietnam was a road to Damascus. She came back and signed up as a volunteer for a homelessness charity.

Cross the Rubicon

Meaning: to do something you can’t change, and that will have an effect on the future
Use: The British people crossed the Rubicon when they voted for Brexit. They will lose a lot of freedom within Europe.

Indian summer
Meaning: warm, sunny weather in autumn, when it should be getting cooler
Use: I can’t believe it’s November and we’re swimming in the sea. But I bet this Indian summer is because of global warming.

Trojan horse

Meaning: someone who joins a group so they can pretend to support it, then attack it from the inside
Use: The film is about a woman who joins a terrorist group, but she is a Trojan horse, and actually works for the government. Her job is to tell her boss what the group is planning.

Donald Trump's understanding of the economy: holey

More holes than Swiss cheese
Meaning: incomplete, lacking important details
Use: Sandra’s story about what she did last weekend has more holes than Swiss cheese. She can’t have spent two days at Festival Walk alone!

S/he could sell ice to Eskimos

Meaning: so charming, s/he can persuade people to agree to things they don’t need
Use: The salesman persuaded my dad to buy a washing machine, even though we have a new one. But that guy could sell ice to Eskimos.

New York minute

Meaning: a very short time
Use: It only took a New York minute for Tania to decide to accept the part in the play.

Not for all the tea in China

Meaning: used to say that nothing could persuade you to do something
Use: There’s no way I’m working with Jimmy on this project. Not for all the tea in China.

Bringing coals to Newcastle

Meaning: pointless; Newcastle in Britain was famous for having many coal mines, so bringing coal there would be a waste of time
Use: Buying Lucy books is like bringing coals to Newcastle - she works in library!

Photos: May Tse/SCMP

A Spartan life
Meaning: the Spartans were ancient people from the city of Sparta. They are believed not to have cared about comfort or luxury. To live a Spartan life, or have a Spartan lifestyle means to live in a very basic place, with no luxuries.
Use: Many university students live a Spartan life becasue they don't have much money, and are focused on studying and enjoying themselves, not decorating their rooms.

Send someone to Coventry

Meaning: ignore someone
Use: I’m not sure why Annie is angry at Sally, but she sent her to Coventry last night, and won’t even look at her.

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