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Idioms - Letter W
American English Idioms - Letter W

In this lesson you will learn American English idioms beginning with the letter W. You will learn the definition and study the usage of each idiom.
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Idiom Definition Usage
wade into join in The football player decided to wade into the fight to protect his teammates.
WAIT FOR (ONE’S) SHIP TO COME IN when one gets an unexpected lucky gift, especially money

The expression probably originates from merchants who made their wealth when their goods came into port on a ship.
1. Just give me a little more time to pay back the money I owe you. I don’t have it right now, but I will when my ship comes in.

2. They keep saying that all their problems will be solved when they get rich. They’re always waiting for their ship to come in, but it never will.
wait on someone hand and foot serve someone in every possible way He likes to wait on his wife hand and foot.
wait up for not go to bed and wait for The woman decided to wait up for her daughter to come home.
waiting tables serving food He spent the summer waiting tables at the resort.
wake-up call  
walk all over control and take advantage of She is always trying to walk all over him.
walk away with steal Someone tried to walk away with the office computer.
WALK IN (SOMEONE’S) SHOES in someone else’s situation 1. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when your father finds out about the dent you put in his car.

2. It seems easy to tell others what to do or how to run their lives, but you can’t really understand them until you have walked in their shoes.
WALKING ON AIR blissfully happy

Synonyms: on cloud nine; seventh heaven

The expression is always used in the present participle form. The past tense is formed by using “was/were” and the future tense is formed by using “will be.”
1. Lucy met Frank three weeks ago and fell madly in love with him. She’s been walking on air ever since.

2. If Bruce gets accepted by Harvard Law School on a full scholarship, he will be walking on air.
walk in the park easy This class is gonna be a walk in the park.
walk of life social level People from every walk of life came to event.
walk off with steal Someone tried to walk off with the office computer.
walk out go on strike Many workers at the factory decided to walk out today.
walk out leave suddenly They decided to walk out in the middle of the meeting.
walk the floor walk back and forth across the floor She will usually walk the floor when she is nervous.
walk the plank resign The manager of the department was forced to walk the plank.
walking papers dismissal She was given her walking papers from his company last week.
waltz off with take The home team was able to waltz off with the championship again.
warm up to become friendly with She could easily warm up to the new student.
warm up practice The baseball team began to warm up before the game.
WASH (ONE’S) HANDS OF (SOMETHING/ SOMEONE) to put something out of one’s life or to stop claiming responsibility for something 1. I’m tired of trying to help my brother find a job, and I won’t have anything further to do with him. I wash my hands of the whole business.

2. They agreed to go into business with their friend, but later found that he treated them unfairly. They decided they wanted nothing more to do with him, so they washed their hands of him.
washed up no longer successful The player was all washed up and had to retire.
waste one's breath speak pointlessly Do not waste your breath trying to change her mind.
watch it be careful I think you should watch it if you travel to that city.
watch one's P's and Q's be well-behaved The teacher told him to watch his P's and Q's.
water down make weaker You need to water down the new office policies.

past and finished; over and done with

The expression makes the analogy of life as a river of water. The water that has passed under the bridge is that part of a person’s life that is past.
1. John and I were married and divorced several years ago. I don’t often think of him or wonder where he is now. That part of my life is water under the bridge.

2. Mary Ann had a bad experience when she was young, but she doesn’t let herself think too much about it. It’s water under the bridge.
WAVE OF THE FUTURE, THE a strong, growing trend 1. Wireless internet connections are the wave of the future. Soon, you won’t need any cords at all.

2. It wasn’t long ago that miniskirts were the wave of the future. Now they are a thing of the past.
way off base way off base The plan to redesign the office was way off base.
way the wind blows situation occurs The vacation plans will depend on which way the wind blows.
wear and tear damage as a result of ordinary use She put a lot of wear and tear on her car.
wear away disappear The face on the coin began to wear away.
wear down deteriorate The river proceeded to wear down the rocks over time.
wear down exhaust Try not to wear down the employees with a long speech.
wear off disappear The face on the coin began to wear off.
wear on annoy She was really beginning to wear on him.
WEAR (ONE’S) HEART ON (ONE’S) SLEEVE to display one’s feelings openly

The expression suggests that a person’s heart (and therefore feelings) is exposed for all to see as though it were worn on the sleeve. In medieval Europe, knights used to tie to their sleeves handkerchiefs or ribbons representing the women they loved. In the 1700s, young men would wear the names of their sweethearts on their sleeves for Valentine’s Day.
1. Richard has never made a secret of his love for Jane. He has always worn his heart on his sleeve.

2. If you want to attract someone, sometimes you have to pretend you don’t really care rather than wearing your heart on your sleeve.
wear out deteriorate The shoes began to wear out after only one week.
wear out exhaust Try not to wear out the employees with a long speech.
wear out one's welcome stay too long Try not to wear out your welcome at the party.
wear thin disappear The face on the coin began to wear thin.
wear thin be less believable Her excuses have begun to wear thin.
WEAR THE PANTS IN THE FAMILY to make the major decisions and have the greatest amount of power in a family

The expression suggests the stereotype of a traditional family in which the person who wears the pants (the man) is the person who controls the family.
1. Shelly and her husband disagreed on where to go on vacation, but they decided to work it out instead of fight. Neither one of them wears the pants in the family.

2. Who makes the decisions in your family? Who wears the pants in your family?
weasel out  
weed out sort and dispose of She needs to weed out the clothes she does not want anymore.
weigh on concern and worry The upcoming college entrance exam began to weigh on her.
weigh upon concern and worry The upcoming college entrance exam began to weigh upon her.
weigh one's words think about what you will say You should weigh your words before you tell her.
well-off wealthy The owner of the restaurant is certainly well-off.
well-to-do wealthy The owner of the restaurant is certainly well-to-do.
went through was okay It went through this time.
well and good good It is well and good that he wants to discuss the problem.
well-heeled wealthy The owner of the restaurant is certainly well-heeled.
WET BEHIND THE EARS young and inexperienced

Antonym: know the ropes

Similar to: born yesterday

The expression comes from that fact that newly born (young) animals are wet at birth. Because of the close creases behind their ears, this area is usually the last to dry.
1. Ben is new to this business. He’s wet behind the ears.

2. They haven’t had much experience teaching yet. They’re still wet behind the ears.
WET BLANKET a person who is seen as never wanting to take part in fun activities; a person who ruins a good time

This expression appears to come from the practice of using a wet blanket to put out campfires. If one thinks of the fire as being vibrant and exciting, then putting a wet blanket over it would extinguish or diminish that excitement.
1. Don’t invite Jerry to come along. He’s a wet blanket, and he just ruins everyone’s good time.

2. Why don’t you relax and have a little fun? Don’t be such a wet blanket.
WET (ONE’S) WHISTLE to wet one’s lips; to have a drink of something 1. After a hard day’s work in the sun, I always enjoy wetting my whistle with a cold drink.

2. The singer needed to wet his whistle before he could continue singing.
what's cooking is happening She really wants to know what's cooking.
what's doing is happening She really wants to know what's doing.
what's up is happening She really wants to know what's up.
what's up with what is happening with Hey, what's up with the manager today.
what's with what is happening with Hey, what's with the manager today.
what's the big idea what were you thinking Hey, what's the big idea using the car without asking?
what's up?  
what's what one thing from another It is hard to tell what's what at an auction.
WHAT IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE, (NOT) not as good as its reputation; not as good as it is supposed to be

The expression is used in the negative or question forms only.
1. I thought this car was the best model around, but it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Every week something else goes wrong with it.

2. You’ve traveled to the Caribbean islands. Are they everything you expected? Are they what they’re cracked up to be?

This expression indicates that something is so unlikely that it will only happen when a place as hot as hell freezes.
1. My parents don’t like me to drive alone. They’ll buy me a car when hell freezes over.

2. Jake tried to get me to run a race with him, but I already know he’s faster than I am. I’ll race him when hell freezes over.
when it rains, it pours  
WHEN THE CHIPS ARE DOWN when the situation is critical; when things are going badly

The expression probably originates from a game like poker in which the players use ‘chips’ to represent money they are betting. To be ‘down on chips’ would be to not have many, or much money, left.
1. Henry is such a good friend. You can always count on him to help you when the chips are down.

2. Laura’s a pleasant person, but she always seems to disappear when we need to get a project finished. When the chips are down, she’s never around.
where there's smoke there's fire  
WHIP/LICK (SOMEONE/SOMETHING) INTO SHAPE to mold or assemble something into its proper shape quickly

This expression comes from the very old belief that bear cubs were born misshapen and had to literally be licked into shape by their mothers and fathers. By the late 1600s, this phrase was being used with the figurative meaning it has now.
1. The football coach told the players that they had been lazy all summer but that he was going to lick them into shape before the first game of the season.

2. We don’t have much time left, and this report is due tomorrow. Do you think we have enough time to whip it into shape?
WHITE COLLAR WORKER an office worker

Antonym: blue collar worker

The expression describes the color of the collar (and therefore the business shirt) worn by office workers. A manual laborer would not wear a white shirt because it would get dirty very quickly and be hard to keep clean.
1. This company doesn’t employ any manual laborers. Everyone who works for this company is a white collar worker.

2. Dick likes to work outside in the fresh air and sunshine. He wouldn’t be very happy as a white collar worker in an office somewhere.
WHITE ELEPHANT an item that no one wants to buy or that is difficult to get rid of; a costly but useless possession

The item is usually not worthless, but for some reason other than cost, the item is difficult to sell. The origin of the expression is a traditional custom from Siam, present-day Thailand. If a rare albino (white) elephant was captured, it was the property of the emperor, and only he could ride or use the animal. Whenever the emperor wished to ruin someone who displeased him, he would give the man a white elephant. The man would then be forced to feed and care for the animal but could neither use nor destroy it.
1. The salesman has been trying to get rid of that car for more than a year. It costs too much to run and insure, so no one wants it—it’s a white elephant.

2. The department store is having a white elephant sale. They’ve reduced the prices on all the merchandise that they haven’t been able to sell.
WHITE LIE a minor, polite, or harmless lie

Similar to: stretch the truth

The expression suggests that a white lie is an innocent or inconsequential lie.
1. When Jenny’s parents asked her where she had gone, she told them she had been at the library, but she didn’t tell them that she had also gone to the movies. She told her parents a white lie.

2. When Carol asked me what I thought of her new dress, I told her she looked good in it. I didn’t really like the dress, but since I did not want to hurt Carol’s feelings I told her a little white lie.
WHITEWASH to conceal something bad; to make something look better than it really is

The expression originates from the paint-like substance called whitewash, made from lime and water, which is used to paint houses and fences cheaply.
1. The boss doesn’t want to get rid of his secretary, even though she has made some very costly mistakes. The boss simply keeps whitewashing the situation, pretending that her errors are insignificant.

2. The doctor told Susan’s parents the truth about their daughter’s condition. He felt it wouldn’t be fair to whitewash the seriousness of Susan’s illness.
WHOLE KIT AND CABOODLE, THE the entire amount; the whole lot

Synonym: lock, stock, and barrel

The expression is often used to describe items which might not normally be included or which one might expect to be excluded, such as the trash from the wastebaskets (sentence 2). Dating from the late 1800s, the whole kit and caboodle is actually the combination of words with a similar meaning. Both kit and caboodle mean a collection, and the combination into a single phrase is a way of adding emphasis.
1. Some strangers came to our yard sale yesterday and bought everything we had. They bought the whole kit and caboodle.

2. When the landlord evicted the man, he cleared out all the man’s possessions and put them out on the sidewalk, including the man’s trash from his wastebaskets! He put out the whole kit and caboodle.
WHOLE NINE YARDS, GO THE the entire amount; (to go) all out

Compare to: pull out all the stops; go to town; go whole hog

The term comes from the World War II era where a fighter pilot’s chain of ammunition was twenty-seven feet long (or nine yards). So when he fired all this on the target, he said “I gave it the whole nine yards” — meaning, he gave it all he had.
1. The girl’s father decided to spare no expense in getting the very best of everything for his daughter’s wedding. He wanted the whole nine yards.

2. We could save a little money on this dress by using less cloth in the skirt if you don’t want to go the whole nine yards.
wiggle room  

a useless or difficult search

This expression is first recorded in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, and at that time actually referred to horse racing, not birds as the as the phrase might imply. In horse racing a wild-goose chase was a type of racing where the horses run in a V-like formation, similar to the way birds fly. Later, the connection to horse racing was lost in use, and people assumed the phrase came from flying geese.
1. First my cousin told me I could buy what I needed at one store; then she sent me to three more. I never did find it. She sent me on a wild-goose chase.

2. Tom went all over town from one office to another trying to find out how he could apply to change his citizenship. At the end of the day, he was no closer to finding out, and he had been on a wild-goose chase.
WING IT to improvise; to do something without planning or preparation

Similar: by the seat of (one’s) pants, play it by ear

Dating from the late 19th century, wing it was originally a theatrical term. Impromptu (unprepared) actors would quickly look over their speaking lines before going onto stage and then someone in the wings (behind the stage curtains) would prompt the actors on their exact lines.
1. Today is the day I’m supposed to present my report to the board of directors, but I’m not at all prepared. When I stand up in front of them, I’m going to have to wing it.

2. We don’t know how we’re going to handle the situation. It’s hard to plan for something like this in advance, so we’ll just wing it and hope for the best.
wiped out tired I was really wiped out after looking at those lines.
WIPE THE SLATE CLEAN to set a situation right or erase something bad

A slate is a small chalkboard.
1. I know I’m in trouble for misbehaving in class last week, but I want to do better. I want to wipe the slate clean.

2. When Kyle was rude to his mother, she sent him to his room, but his punishment was over by dinner time. The slate had been wiped clean.
wires crossed  
WITH BATED BREATH hardly breathing at all because of fear, excitement, or other strong emotion

Bated is a shortened form of abated, which means to lessen or put on hold. The first recorded use of bated is in 1596 in Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venice: “With bated breath, and whisp’ring humblenesse.” The expression is used in situations in which someone is waiting tensely for something to happen.
1. Alan took out a small ring. Jennifer knew this was the moment, and she waited with bated breath for him to ask her to marry him.

2. The swimmer stood silently with bated breath as he waited for the starter’s gun to go off.
WITH FLYING COLORS triumphantly; victoriously

Large ships often sailed into ports with their flags (colors) raised and flying in the wind. This image of glory and victory was eventually extended to any event through which one became triumphant.
1. We weren’t sure how the boys would do on their exams, but they passed with flying colors.

2. You look so nervous, but I know you can do it. Don’t worry; you’ll sail through with flying colors.
WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING someone who presents himself as a harmless person, but who has intentions that are not honorable

The expression comes from Aesop’s fable of the wolf that, in order to get close to a flock of sheep it wants to eat, clothes itself in a sheepskin to avoid detection.
1. The police have been looking for that criminal for months. He approaches people and pretends he is selling them valuable stocks that are really worthless. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

2. John is such a good-looking young man, women are attracted to him quickly. It’s easy to see why people who don’t know him think he is probably a wolf in sheep’s clothing, when he is really a gentleman.
work out exercise She likes to work out at the gym.
work out develop They needed to work out the plans of the new product.
write off remove the expense of They were able to write off the money spent on entertainment.

The expression suggests that towns or cities are divided into a right (i.e. rich) side and a wrong (i.e. poor) side by the railroad tracks that run through them.

The expression is often used to describe where someone comes from.
1. Sharon knew her parents would never approve of her marriage to Ricky because he came from the wrong side of the tracks.

2. Mr. and Mrs. Dawson didn’t want their children to attend Smithson High School because it was on the wrong side of the tracks and it might be dangerous for the children to walk from home to school by themselves.
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