Descriptions of places – things – events


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act of God This term refers to an natural event or accident, for which no person is responsible (such as an earthquake, lightning and similar acts of nature).
The insurance company refused to pay for the damage because it was caused by an act of God.
been through the wars If something has been in or through the wars, it show signs of rough treatment or damage.
He arrived in a car that looked as though it had been through the wars.
beyond recall Something which is beyond recall is impossible to retrieve, cancel or reverse.
I’m afraid we can’t recover the pictures – your camera is beyond recall.
beyond redemption If something is beyond redemption, it is in such a poor state that there is no hope of improvement or recovery.
With the latest scandal, his reputation is now beyond redemption.
bodice-ripper A novel, usually on a historical theme, with a plot that involves romantic passion between a vulnerable heroine and a rich, powerful male character, is called a bodice-ripper.
The novel is a bodice-ripper set in the French revolution.
broad strokes If something is described or defined with/in broad strokes, it is outlined in a very general way, without any details.
In a few broad strokes he summed up the situation.
clean as a whistle Something as clean as a whistle is extremely clean.
This can also mean that a person’s criminal record is clean.
Bob spent the afternoon washing and shining his car until it was as clean as a whistle.
collecting dust If something is collecting dust, it hasn’t been touched or used for a long period of time.
My dad doesn’t play golf any more.  His clubs are collecting dust now.
come in handy To say that something may come in handy means that it may be useful some time or other.
Don’t throw away those old shelves; they may come in handy one day.
copper-bottomed To describe something such as a plan, a contract or a financial arrangement as copper-bottomed means that it is completely safe or reliable.
He signed a coper-bottomed agreement with a distributor.
creature comforts This expression refers to modern conveniences (such as hot water or central heating) that make life comfortable and pleasant.
I need my creature comforts. I don’t know how I’d survive without air-conditioning in this climate!
(a) cut above Something which is a cut above everything else is better or of higher quality.
The articles in this magazine are a cut above the others.
cut and dried If you refer to a situation, problem or solution as cut and dried, you mean that it is clear and straightforward with no likely complications.
When the new manager arrived, he didn’t find the situation as cut and dried as he had expected.
dead as a dodo To say that something is (as) dead as a dodo means that it is unquestionably dead or obsolete, or has gone out of fashion.
(A dodo is a bird that is now extinct.)
The floppy disk is an invention that is now (as) dead as a dodo.
dead as a doornail This expression is used to stress that something is very definitely dead or no longer exists.
They’ve started fighting again, so the peace agreement is now as dead as
a doornail.
dog and pony show dog and pony show is a marketing event or presentation which has plenty of style but not much content.


dog’s breakfast To describe something as a dog’s breakfast means that it is a complete mess.
The new secretary made a dog’s breakfast out of the filing system.
doggie bag A bag provided by a restaurant so that you can take the leftover food home with you is called a doggie (or doggybag.
The portions were so big that I decided to ask for a doggie bag
fait accompli This French expression refers to something that has been done and cannot be changed.
He used his savings to buy a motorbike and then presented his parents with a fait accompli.
falls between two stools If something falls between two stools, it is neither totally one thing nor another, and is therefore unsatisfactory.
The book didn’t sell because it fell between two stools.  It appealed neither to historians nor to the general public.
few and far between Items, places or events which are few and far between are rarely found or do not happen very often.
Restaurants in this part of the country are few and far between.


(of the) first water Something that is of the first water is of the finest or most exceptional quality (like being compared to a diamond).
The violinist gave a performance that was of the first water.
fit the bill If someone or something fits the bill, they are exactly right for a particular situation.
They wanted a quiet place to stay and the country inn fitted the bill.
fit for purpose Something that is suitable for a particular function and is fully operational is said to be fit for purpose.
The mayor promised that the new leisure centre would be ready on time and fit for purpose.
flag of convenience If a ship, boat or yacht sails under a flag of convenience, it is registered in a foreign country in order to avoid regulations and taxes, and reduce operating costs.


fly-by-night A fly-by-night person, business or venture is considered untrustworthy because they operate briefly and disappear overnight
I bought it in one of those fly-by-night stores and now I can’t exchange it.  The place has closed down.
for the birds If you describe something as for the birds, you consider it to be uninteresting, useless or not to be taken seriously.
As far as I’m concerned, his theory is for the birds.
free-for-all This term refers to an uncontrolled situation such as a discussion, argument or fight where everyone present can do or say whatever they like.
It started as a serious debate but turned into a free-for-all.
freudian slip A Freudian slip is a mistake made by a speaker which is considered to reveal their true thoughts or feelings.
So you got the job – I’m so sad …  Sorry, I mean ‘glad’!
gizmo The term ‘gizmo’ refers to a gadget or any small technological item which is unusual or novel, and for which the proper term is unknown or forgotten.


going downhill When something goes downhill, it deteriorates or gets worse little by little.
His health has been going downhill since the last operation.
going to hell in a handcart If something is going to hell in a handcart, it is in a bad state and continues to deteriorate.
This used to be a nice place to live but now the area is going to hell in a haandcart.
going to rack and ruin If something is going to rack and ruin, it is falling into very bad condition because of lack of care.
When the factory closed down, the building went to rack and ruin.
gutter press This term refers to newspapers that print a lot of sensational stories about people’s private lives.
Of course the gutter press was quick to print a sensational version of the incident!
hard and fast Something which is hard and fast is inflexible or cannot be altered.
Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules related to English spelling.
hard to come by Something that is hard to come by is rare or difficult to find.
Experienced carpenters are hard to come by these days.
hard to swallow When something is difficult to accept or believe, it is hard to swallow.
She invented an excuse that the teacher found hard to swallow.
here today, gone tomorrow This is said of something which appears and disappears very quickly, or does not last long,
The shops in this area change very often – here today, gone tomorrow.
hive of activity A place where there are lots of things happening, and everyone is very busy, is called a hive of activity.
When I went to offer help, the kitchen was already a hive of activity.
hollow victory A victory obtained in unsatisfactory conditions, which as a result seems worthless or without significance for the winner, is called ahollow victory.
Won in the absence of the major ski champions, his gold medal was a hollow victory.
household name When the name of something becomes very familiar because it is so often used, it is called a household name or word.
The product was so successful that its name became a household word
in no time.
hustle and bustle This term refers to busy energetic activity in an atmosphere of general excitement.
I prefer to live in the country. I hate the hustle and bustle of city life.
icing on the cake If something is referred to as icing on the cake, it is an extra benefit that makes a good situation even better.
Good news!  I get the job … and the icing on the cake is that I get a company car too!
idiot box Some people consider television to lack educational value and refer to it as the idiot box.
He spends all his free time in front of the idiot box.
in keeping with If something is in keeping with, for example, a style or tradition, it is suitable or appropriate in a particular situation.
We exchange presents at Christmas in keeping with tradition.
in mint condition Something that is in mint condition is in such perfect condition that it looks new or as good as new.
The car is 10 years old but according to Tom it’s in mint condition.
in tatters Something that is badly torn, in very poor condition or damaged beyond repair is in tatters.
His reputation is in tatters after the latest scandal.
in inverted commas When describing something, if you use a word which you say is
‘in inverted commas’, you indicate that the word is not quite true or appropriate.
We were served a ‘meal’, in inverted commas, but we were too hungry to complain.
industrial strength This is a humorous way of referring to something which is very strong, powerful or concentrated.
I’ve got an industrial-strength headache this morning!
just the ticket If something is just the ticket, it is exactly right, or just what you need.
I’m not hungry enough for a meal.  A bowl of soup would be just the ticket.
last word Something described as the last word is the most recent or most fashionable in its category.
Steve’s new computer is the last word in technology.
less is more This expression, used particularly in architecture and design, conveys the idea that things that are simple in style and smaller in size are better.
Simplicity is fashionable today.  Less is more.
light years ahead If something is light years ahead, it is far more advanced in tems of development or progress.
We’ve got to invest more in research – our competitors’ new product is  light years ahead!
lives up to reputation If something lives up to its reputation,  it is as good, or as bad, as people say.
The guesthouse lived up to its reputation; the owners were as friendly and hospitable as we had been told.
middle of nowhere If a place is in the middle of nowhere, it is in a remote area, far from towns, villages or houses.
The campside was in the middle of nowhere so I couldn’t send you a postcard.
middle of the road (MOR) This term refers to anything moderate, unadventurous or inoffensive that avoids extremes and appeals to the majority of people.
It’s a middle-of-the-road restaurant that’s ideal for families.
mixed blessing Something pleasant which also has disadvantages is called a mixed blessing.
He inherited as 18th century mansion but the maintenance costs make it a mixed blessing.
name written on it If something has somenoe’s name (written) on it, it is intended for that person or it is ideally suited to them.
That dress would be perfect for you – it’s got your name on it!
next best thing If you can’t have exactly what you want, the next best thing is the best alternative possible.
The camera I wanted was far too expensive so I opted for a cheaper one that was the next best thing.
not a patch on If something or someone is not a patch on an other, they are not nearly as good.
His second conference wasn’t a patch on the first one.
not in the same league If something is not in the same league, it is of much lower standard than something else.
He had a good voice but he wasn’t in the same league as Pavarotti.
not up to par If something is not up to par, it does not meet the required standard.
He didn’t get the job because his English wasn’t up to par.
not up to scratch Something which is not up to scratch fails to reach the expected standard.
The quality of the material is not up to scratch.  We’ll have to change our suppliers.
a notch above Something that is a notch above something else is a little better in every way.
His rendering of the song was a notch above the others.
odds and ends Odds and ends are small articles, or bits and pieces of all sorts, usually of little value.
I keep my odds and ends in this drawer.
over the top (OTT) Something which is over the top is totally excessive or not suitable for the occasion.
Her dramatic speech was way over the top.
pie in the sky If an idea or project is pie in the sky, it is completely unrealistic or unlikely to be achieved.
The promise of low-cost housing for everyone turned out to be pie in the sky.
the pits If something is referred to as the pits, it is considered to be absolutely the worst.
That magazine is the pits!
recipe for disaster If you refer to a plan or idea as a recipe for disaster, you think it is likely to produce bad results.
Our two families together for Christmas? Sounds like a recipe for disaster!
red light district An area of a town or city where there is a concentration of sex shops, prostitution, strip clubs, etc. is known as the red light district.
A photograph of the politician taken in a red-light district caused a scandal.
right up your alley If something is right up your alley, it is the sort of thing you like or have knowledge about.
You like cooking do you?  This book will be right up your alley.
a rip-off To say that something is a rip-off means that it costs much more than it should.
$10 for an orange juice?  That’s a rip-off!
second to none Something that is second to none is excellent or much better than any other.
The service was perfect and the food was second to none.
seen better days If something has seen better days, it has aged visibly in comparison with when it was new.
My much-travelled suitcase has seen better days!
set in stone When something is set in stone, it is permanent and cannot be changed in any way.
The agenda isn’t set in stone;  we can add an item if need be.
(comes in) all shapes and sizes Something that can be found in many different forms, types or varieties, comes in all shapes and sizes.
Computers come in all shapes and sizes nowadays.
small potatoes Something that is small potatoes is considered unimportant or insignificant.
Her first publication was considered small potatoes but her new book has lead to a change of opinion.
snail mail This term refers to the standard system of mail delivery, or postal service, considered very slow compared to electronic mail.
More and more people are using e-mail rather than the traditional postal service, snail mail.
stand the test of time If something stands the test of time, people continue to find it valuable or useful after many years.
The teaching method has stood the test of time.  It is still used in schools today.
stick out a mile If something sticks out a mile, it is very obvious or very easy to see.
You can see she’s had a facelift – it sticks out a mile!
stink to high heaven If something has a very strong unpleasant smell, it stinks to high heaven.
Take off those socks – they stink to high heaven!
streets ahead To say that something is streets ahead of something else means that it is much better or more advanced.
In measures to preserve the planet, the Scandinavians are streets ahead of us.
sublime to ridiculous If something goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, it deteriorates in quality from serious or admirable to absurd or unimportant.
An opera followed by a Mr.Muscle contest is going from the sublime to the ridiculous!
ticks all the right boxes If something ticks all the right boxes, it is perfect for you because it meets all your criteria.
We’re in luck!  We visited an apartment today that ticks all the right boxes!
top notch To say that something is top notch means that it is of the highest possible quality or standard.
The hotel was wonderful and the service was top notch.
tough as old boots If something, specially meat, is (as) tough as old boots, it is hard to cut and difficult to chew.  (This can also refer to a person who is strong either physically or in character.)
I was served a steak as tough as old boots.
up/down one’s alley If something is (right) up or down your alley, it is exactly the sort of thing that will suit your tastes or abilities.
Alex loves reading, so a job in a bookshop is right up his alley.
up-to-the-minute Something that is up-to-the-minute is the very latest or most recent version available.
The internet is the best place to find up-to-the-minute news.
the works Something that has the works contains everything that is possible, or the full range of options.
The first thing he did was order a new computer with the works.
worth its weight in gold Someone or something that is worth their weight in gold is considered to be of great value.
We couldn’t run the farm without him.  He’s worth his weight in gold.

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