Common Idioms – Topic : Success and failure
1. Back to the drawing board
If you have to go back to the drawing board, something you have done has not been successful and you have to try another idea.
NOTE: Drawing boards are large flat boards, on which designers or architects place their paper when drawing plans.
His government should go back to the drawing board to rethink their programme.
2. Bring the house down
If a person or their performance brings the house down, the audience claps and cheers loudly for a long time because they liked the performance so much.
NOTE: In this expression, the ‘house’ means a theatre.
We had just one rehearsal and I was very nervous but the show brought the house down.
3. Come up in the world
If someone has come up in the world, they are richer or more powerful than they used to be and have a higher social status.
A polite and pleasant young man, he was an ordinary worker who had come up in the world.
NOTE: You can also say that someone has gone up in the world or moved up in the world.
4. Fall flat on your face
If someone falls flat on their face when they try to do something, they fail or make an embarrassing mistake.
He was trying to introduce changes in the prison system but he fell flat on his face.
5. Be fighting a losing battle
If you are fighting a losing battle, you are trying to achieve something, but you are very unlikely to succeed.
The theatre has to compete with the movies and DVDs and it’s fighting a losing battle.
6. Go belly-up
If a company goes belly-up, it fails and does not have enough money to pay its debts. [INFORMAL]
NOTE: This expression may refer to dead fish floating upside down near the surface of the water.
Factories and farms went belly-up because of the debt crisis.
7. Go pear-shaped
If a situation or activity goes pear-shaped, it starts to fail or have problems. [BRITISH, INFORMAL]
He is always asked to comment when the global economy goes pear-shaped.
8. Hit the nail on the head
If you hit the nail on the head, you describe a situation or problem very precisely.
Smith hit the nail on the head when he said that the Prime Minister promised so much and yet changed so little.
9. Plain sailing
If an activity or task is plain sailing, it is easy to do or achieve. [BRITISH]
NOTE: ‘Plain sailing’ is sailing in good conditions, without any difficulties. However, the expression may have come from ‘plane sailing’, a method of working out the position of a ship and planning its route using calculations based on the earth being flat rather than round. This is a simple and easy method which is fairly accurate over short distances, especially near the equator.
Once I got used to the diet it was plain sailing and I lost six kilos over four months.
10. Save the day
If someone or something saves the day in a situation which seems likely to fail, they manage to make it successful.
After a disastrous first night for the show, it was Biggs who stepped in to save the day.
11. Touch and go
If it is touch and go whether something will happen, you cannot be certain whether it will happen or not.
I thought I was going to win the race, but it was still touch and go.
12. Win hands down
If you win a contest hands down, you win it easily.
NOTE: This expression was originally used in horse racing to describe jockeys who won their races very easily and could cross the winning line with their hands lowered and the reins (=thin leather straps attached around a horse’s neck) loose.
We have been beaten in some games which we should have won hands down.
NOTE: You can also say that you beat someone else hands down.
When he said he would beat me hands down, I didn’t know he could run that fast!
13. With flying colours
If you achieve something, such as passing an examination, with flying colours, you achieve it easily and are very successful.
NOTE: The image here is of a ship that has won a battle, sailing back into port with its colours (= a military flag) flying.
She passed the entrance exam with flying colours.
14. Work like a charm
If something works like a charm, it is very successful or effective.
Our little arrangement worked like a charm.