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List of 500 Idioms and Phrases (pdf/xls) | C2 Proficient (CPE)

Level: C2
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(CPE) A-D Idioms & Phrases
(CPE) E-H Idioms & Phrases
(CPE) I-L Idioms & Phrases
(CPE) M-P Idioms & Phrases
(CPE) R-Z Idioms & Phrases
CPE Useful Idioms & Phrases: Download PDF
CPE Useful Idioms & Phrases: Download XLS

Fixed expressions and idioms are a huge part of the Cambridge exams, coming into play far more frequently than in lower levels. For the CPE it is essential that your students know various fixed expressions and idioms.

A fixed expression
is a combination of words that express an idea. It has taken on more meaning than the individual words while still maintaining a lexical connection. It is frequently used in certain circumstances to express a specific idea.

An idiom
is saying or expression that contains a figurative meaning that is different from the phrase’s literal meaning. For example, if you say you’re feeling “under the weather,” you don’t literally mean that you’re standing underneath the rain

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(CPE) A-D Idioms & Phrases


a bear with a sore headirritated/bad mood
a bit of a dark horseperson with hidden abilities
a bitter pill to swallowa difficult fact to accept
a different kettle of fisha totally different sitation from the one just mentioned
a dog’s lifea difficult, hard life
a fish out of watersb who feels uncomfortable
a long shota wild guess/ a risk
a memory like a sievea poor memory
a night owlperson who enjoys staying up late
a pain in the neckannoying person/thing
a piece of cakesth very easy to do
a red rag to a bullaction, comment, etc. liable to provoke sb
a red-letter daya very important day
a sitting duckan easy target
a storm in a teacupa lot of fuss about sth that is not important
a wild-goose chasea hopeless search
above boardhonest
Achilles heelweakest point of sb’s character
against all oddsdespite the difficulties
agree to disagreestop arguing because there is no chance of agreement
all alongfrom the beginning until now
all butnearly, almost
all inexhausted
all in allwhen everything is considered
all the sameyet, however
all toldaltogether; in total
an old wives’ talefalse belief
an unknown quantityperson or thing that one has no experience of
as a last resortwhen all else has failed
as the crow fliesin a direct line/ by a direct route
at close quartersfrom a short distance
at largefree, not caught
at the cutting edgeat the forefront of


bark up the wrong treehave a false idea about sth
be ahead of one’s timehave modern ideas
be all at seabe in a state of confusion
be all fingers and thumbsbe awkward, clumsy
be all very wellappear satisfactory but in fact not be
be as busy as a beevery busy
be as thick as a brickbe stupid
be beside oneself with angerto be extremely angry
be born yesterdaybe easily deceived/ naive
be brokehave no/very little money
be caught red-handedbe caught while committing a crime
be dying for sthreally want sth
be fit forbe good enough for
be for the high jumpabout to be punished
be full of beansbe very lively
be greenbe inexperienced
be in a quandarybe confused; undecided
be in sb’s black booksout of favour
be in sb’s shoesbe in sb’s position
be in the dark about sthbe unaware of sth
be in the doghousebe out of favour, in trouble
be in the knowbe well-informed
be in the same boatbe in the same (usually bad) situation
be in two minds about sthnot be able to decide what to do
be on the cardsbe likely to happen
be on the defensiveprotect oneself because one feels insecure or threatened
be on the up and upimprove steadily
be out of practicelacking practice
be over the moonbe elated
be second to nonebe the best
be sound asleepsleep deeply
be the apple of sb’s eyebe very precious to sb; be sb’s favourite
be the perfect image of sblook exactly like sb
be the splitting image of sblook exactly like sb
be thrown off balancebe surprised
be tickled pinkbe really pleased
be up and abouthave recovered from an illness
be up in armsbe very angry
be worn outbe very tired
be/get soaked to the skinbe/get very wet
be/have a close shavebarely avoid an accident/ a bad situation
bear fruitbe successful
beat about/around the bushavoid saying what one means directly
beat sb black and bluehit sb repeatedly until bruised
before one can say Jack Robinsonextremely quickly
beg the questionmakes people want to ask a particular question
behind barsin prison
behind the scenesin secret
below the beltcruel and unfair
bide one’s timewait for a good opportunity
big cheeseperson with important job/position
big-headedconceited; boastful
bite off more than sb can chewtry to do sth which is too difficult
black and blue all overcovered with bruises
black tieformal clothing
blaze a traildiscover sth new
blessing in disguisesth which appears bad at first but then turns out favourably
blow a fusebecome very angry
blue-eyed boya favoured person
bolt from the bluesuddenly
brainwavesudden clear idea/thought
break evenshow neither loss nor profit
break the iceease the tensione when one first meets people
bring sth home to sbmake sb understand how important or serious sth is
bring to one’s kneesdestroy, humble
browned offfed up; bored
bury one’s head in the sandavoid or ignore reality/responsibility
butter sb upflatter sb
by and largegenerally speaking
by definitionhaving a quality simply because of what it is
by force of habitused to doing sth without thinking
by trial and errorlearning from one’s mistakes


call it quitsgive up/stop
call sb namesinsult sb
cast aspersionscriticise
catch sb red-handedbe caught while committing a crime
chair a meetingpreside over a meeting
chip off the old blocksb who is very like one of his parents
chop and changekeep changing (your mind)
claim to famething which makes sb unusual
clear the airremove suspicion/bad feeling
come cleanadmit the truth
come out of one’s shellgain personal confidence
come to a headreach a critical point
come to a standstillnot progress/stop
come to terms withaccept a difficult situation
come to the forebecome important or popular
come to the pointreach the main point in a discussion
cook one’s gooseend one’s plans abruptly
cost a bombvery expensive
cost an arm and a legbe very expensive
cramp one’s stylerestrict one’s behaviour in some way
crocodile tearsfalse tears
cross one’s mindthink of sth
cry over spilt milkgrieve over sth that can’t be put right
cut cornersbe less thorough
cut sb deadignore sb
cut sb to the quickdeeply hurt sb’s feelings
cut to the bonereduced to the minimum


deal a blow todamage one’s hopes
different as chalk and cheesetotally different
does it show?is it obvious?
dog eat dogruthless competition, rivalry
dog-eared(of books) with the corners bent and turned down through use
don’t give up your day jobcontinue to do sth you know rather than trying sth new
don’t hold your breathdon’t wait for sb/sth anxiously
donkey workboring, monotonous work
donkey’s yearsa long time
down in the dumpsdepressed/miserable
down the drainwasted; lost
drive a hard bargainbe a tough businessman
drive sb up the wallmake sb angry/annoy sb
drop a bricksay sth tactlessly
drop sb a linesend sb a letter
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(CPE) E-H Idioms & Phrases


ease offreduce in degree, speed or intensity
eat one’s heart outfeel jealous/ sad about sth
every nook and crannyeverywhere


face the musicbe criticised or punished for sth you have done
fair and squarewithin the rules
fall head over heelsfall in love quickly
fall into placebecome clear
feel down in the mouthfeel discouraged/depressed
feel in one’s bonesfeeling sth instinctively
feel one’s ears burninghave a feeling that sb is talking about you
few and far betweenscarce/rare
fight like cat and dogdisagree violently
fine kettle of fishconfused state of affairs
flat brokepenniless
flog a dead horsewaste time doing sth useless
fly off the handlequickly become very angry
fly on the wallsee/hear sth in a situation which does not involve you
for allin spite of
for all I careI don’t care
for all I knowas far as I know
for donkey’s yearsfor a very long time
for the time beingtemporarily
frosty welcomeunfriendly reception


gatecrashersb attending a party without an invitation
get a bit hot under the collarget angry, upset or embarassed
get a move onhurry up
get a problem off one’s chesttell sb else about your problem
get cold feetlose courage to do sth
get cold feetbe nervous or frightened because sth might fail
get nowhere fastmake no progress
get off on the wrong footargue or disagree at the beginning of a relationship
get on one’s nervesirritate/annoy sb
get out of bed on the wrong sidebe in a bad mood
get out of handbecome out of control
get rid of sthgive sth unwanted away
get the hang of itget in the habit of doing sth
get the sackbe dismissed from one’s job
get the wrong end of the stickmisunderstand completely what has been said
get wind ofreceive information about sth indirectly
get your own backtake/get revenge
give and takecompromise
give chapter and versegive every exact detail
give sb the cold shoulderignore sb
give sb the slipescape from sb
give the green light to sthgive permission to proceed with sth
give vent toexpress sth freely
give way togive in/yield
go back on one’s wordnot fulfil a promise
go by the boardbe rejected
go for a songbe sold very cheaply
go to any lengthsdo anything necessary to get sth you want
go to one’s headmake conceited
go to the dogsworsen
go without sayingbe a foregone conclusion
golden opportunitythe best chance to gain sth
grease sb’s palmbribe sb
green beltthe area on the outskirts of a town adjoining the country
green with envyvery jealous
grey matterbrains; intelligence
grow out of sthbecome too big for sth


hand in glove with sbbe in very close contact with sb
have a bee in one’s bonnethave an obsession about sth
have a frog in one’s throatinability to speak due to nervousness
have a job to do sthfind sth difficult to do
have a sharp tonguetend to say unkind or hurtful things
have a yellow streakbe a coward
have an early nightgo to bed early
have an eye forbe a good judge of sth
have an eye forbe good at judging the worth of sth
have at one’s fingertipshave easily available
have butterflies in one’s stomachbe very nervous about sth
have kittensbe nervous/anxious about sth
have many irons in the firehave lots of plans in progress at the same time
have no fixed abodebe homeless
have no option butmust; have no choice
have one’s heart in one’s mouthbe extremely anxious about sth
have sb’s hands fullbe very busy with sth
have the cheekdare to do sth
have the gift of the gabbe able to talk well
have time on one’s handshave free time
have words with sbhave an argument
hear it through the grapevinefind out information indirectly
hit the nail on the headsay exactly the right thing
hit the roofget very angry
hit the sackgo to bed
hold one’s horseswait; be patient
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(CPE) I-L Idioms & Phrases


ill at easeembarassed; uncomfortable
in a flashvery quickly
in a nutshellbriefly; in few words
in a rutbe stuck in a monotonous routine
in a tickshortly, soon
in abeyancehalted temporarily
in arrearshave not paid the money they owe
in black and whitein writing
in broad daylightin full view of the public
in cloverliving a luxurious and comfortable life
in deep waterin trouble/difficulty
in full flowtalking at length
in publicin the presence of other people
in the abstractin a general way
in the act ofwhile performing the act
in the airuncertain
in the balanceuncertain
in the blacknot owing anybody any money
in the fleshin person
in the long runafter a long period of time
in the nick of timejust in time
in the offinglikely to happen
in the redowe money to a bank
it stands to reasonit is logical
it’s all Greek to mesth new or foreign; not easily understood


jack of all tradessb who is able to do a variety of jobs


keep a straight facemanage to look serious under difficult circumstances
keep an eye on sthguard/protect sth
keep in checkcontrol
keep one’s chin upnot be discouraged
keep one’s fingers crossedhope that sth will turn out well
keep one’s wits about onebe alert and able to deal with difficulties
keep oneself to oneselflive quietly, privately
keep sth quietkeep sth secret
keep sth under one’s hatkeep sth secret
keep up with the Jonesescompete with others in status/material goods
kick the bucketdie
kill timepass time while waiting for sb/sth
kill two birds with one stoneachieve two things with one action
know the ropesknow all the details of sth


lay baremake public
lay the tableset the table for a meal
lend an earlisten to sb in a careful and sympathetic way
lend sb a handgive help to sb
let sleeping dogs lieavoid mentioning a subject which could cause trouble
let the cat out of the bagreveal a secret
like a bull in a china shopbehave ina clumsy/ awkward way
like the back of one’s handbe very familiar with sth
like water off a duck’s backhaving no effect
live out of a suitcasetravel often/not have a permanent home
look at sth though rose-coloured spectaclessee sth from an unrealistically positive point of view
look down one’s nose at sbfeel/act superior to sb
lose heartbecome discouraged
lose one’s headlose self-control
lose one’s nervelose courage
lost causehopeless situation or case
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(CPE) M-P Idioms & Phrases


make a clean breast ofconfess
make a dog’s dinnermake a mess of sth
make a flying visitmake a quick trip
make a fool of oneselfmake oneself look stupid
make a killinghave a sudden, great success
make a livingearn money
make a mountain out of a molehillcause a fuss about a trivial matter
make a name for oneselfbecome famous/respected for sth
make allowances fortake special circumstances into consideration
make amends fortry to compensate for a past action
make common cause with sbact together to achieve aim
make hay while the sun shinestake advantage of favourable circumstances
make head nor tail ofunderstand sth
make light oftreat sth as unimportant
make money hand over fistmake a lot of money quickly and easily
make one’s blood boilcause sb to become very angry
make one’s getawayescape
make quite a scenebecome angry in a dramatic way
make sb’s daymake sb very happy
make wavescause trouble
meet behind closed doorsmeet secretly
moon aroundlook miserable
more to sb than meets the eyesb is more important or interesting than is first seen
mutton dressed as a lambdress in a style younger than or inappropriate to your age


no room to swing a catno room at all
no wondernot surprising
not all it’s cracked up to benot as good as people say it is
not be one’s cup of teanot suit one’s taste
not count one’s chickens before they’re hatchednot assume sth before it happens
not have it both waysrefuse to make a decision between two pleasant things
not have the foggiest ideanot know sth at all
not hold waternot seem reasonable or in accordance with the facts
not lose any sleep over sthnot worry about sth
null and voidinvalid; not legally binding


of all peopleused to express annoyance/surprise
of its own accordautomatically
of no consequenceof no value
off colourlook/be slightly unwell
off the cuffwithout preparation
off the pointirrelevant
off the recordunofficial(ly)
on a shoe stringon a very small budget
on account ofbecause of
on edgetense/nervous/ anxious
on no accountunder/in no circumstances
on second thoughtshaving changed one’s mind
on the airbroadcasting
on the alertwatchful and prepared
on the ballalert
on the blinkstop working properly (of electrical equipment)
on the dolereceiving unemployment benefit/social security
on the dotpunctual, exact on time
on the face of itjudging by how sth appears
on the levelhonest/sincere
on the quietsecretly
on the spur of the momentwithout thinking about sth
on this/that accountfor this/that reason
once and for allfor the last time
once in a blue moonvery rarely
one’s flesh and bloodfamily member
open to debatenot decided/settled
out and aboutoutdoors; travelling from one place to another
out in the open(of secrets) revealed, known
out of boundsprohibited, forbidden (place)
out of print(of books) not available anymore
out of the bluesuddenly and unexpectedly
out of the frying pan into the firefrom a situation to a worse/similar one
out of the questionimpossible
out of turnnot in the correct order/time
out-and-outcomplete, total


paint the town redhave a great time
part and parcel ofbasic part of
part company withend association
pay sb’s waycontribute your shares of a bill
pick someone’s brainsask sb to help with a problem
pitch blackvery dark
play cat and mouse with sbkeep sb in a state of uncertain expectation treating them alternatively cruelly and kindly
play it by earact in a situation by responding to events rather than according to plan
play one’s cards rightact cleverly
play truantstay away from school without permission
plenty more fish in the seamany more opportunities in life for love
point the finger of suspicionblame sb for sth
pop the questionmake a proposal of marriage
pull a few stringsuse influential contacts in order to obtain an advantage
pull one’s legtease or trick sb
pull one’s socks upmake a greater effort
put a damper onruin sth or make it less enjoyable
put down rootssettle down
put on a brave facetry to hide one’s disappointment
put one’s foot downinsist on sth
put one’s foot in itmake a tactless comment
put one’s heart and soul into sthbe devoted to sth
put sb’s name forwardnominate sb
put the cat among the pigeonscause trouble/controversy
put two and two togetherarrive at the truth by looking at facts
put words into one’s mouthpretend that sb has said sth that they haven’t actually said

(CPE) R-Z Idioms & Phrases


rack sb’s brainsthink very hard about sth
rain cats and dogsrain heavily
red herringsth which distracts you from sth important
red tapeunnecessary bureaucracy
ring a bellremind sb of sth
rise to the challengeact and be successful even though sth is new


see eye to eye with sbagree with sb
see fitthink suitable or right
see redsuddenly become very angry
see the back ofbe glad to see sb leave
set in one’s waysfixed in one’s habits
shed light upongive new/further information
short and sweetbrief but pleasant (usually ironic)
show one’s true coloursreveal one’s real character
sleep like a dogbe sound asleep
sleep on itthink about sth
slip one’s mindforget about sth
slow on the uptakeslow to understand
smell a ratsuspect that sth is wrong
sour grapessay unpleasant comments because of jealousy
speak volumesbe strong evidence of sb’s feelings or merits
spill the beansreveal a secret/the facts
stand in sb’s wayprevent sb from doing sth
status symbolproperty/possession that shows sb’s high social rank wealth etc.
stay clear ofavoid sb/sth
stew in one’s own juicesuffer the consequences of one’s own action
sth comes in handybe very useful/practical
straight from the horse’s mouthfrom the most direct source
strike a chordmake sb feel sympathy
strike goldcome across sth useful
sweet toothenjoy eating sweet things
swim like a fishswim very well


take it easynot work too hard/relax
take one’s timenot to hurry
take sb for grantednot appreciate sb
take sth into accountconsider sth
take sth on the chinbravely accept criticism
take sth to hearttake personally/be influenced by
take sth with a pinch of saltnot believe sth completely
take the bull by the hornsdeal with sth boldly and directly
take things to piecesdismantle things
take to one’s heelsrun away
talk the hind legs off a donkeytalk for a long time, uninterrupted
the black sheep of the familya disgraced family member
the ins and outsthe details of an activity
the last strawthe last and worst episode in a chain of bad experiences
the life and soul of sththe most lively and amusing person present somewhere
the lion’s sharethe biggest part/portion
the pot calling the kettle blackaccusing sb of a fault one has oneself
the rat racethe competitive nature of modern urban life
the tip of the icebergsmall evident part of a much larger, concealed situation
the year dota long time ago
through thick and thinwhatever happens
throw a partyhave/hold a party
to no effectunsuccessful
tongue in cheeknot serious, ironic
tooth and nailfiercely
touch and gowith uncertain result
turn a blind eye to sthignore
turn over a new leafmake a new start
under the weatherdepressed/unwell


until one is blue in the faceas hard/long as one possibly can
until the cows come homefor a long time
up and cominglikely to be successful
up in the airexisting, but not talked about
ups and downsgood things with bad ones


wash sb’s hands of sbrefuse to be involved with sb
wet behind the earsinexperienced
wet blanketdull person who spoils people’s happiness
whet sb’s appetitemake sb eager to have/experience more
white elephantuseless/unwanted possession
white-collar joboffice/clerical work
with a view to doing sthwith the intention or hope of doing sth
with flying colourswith great success
without faildo sth no matter what
work a miraclemake sth almost impossible happen
work to ruleadhere strictly to the rules as a form of protest

CPE Useful Idioms & Phrases: Download PDF

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CPE Useful Idioms & Phrases: Download XLS

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