English idioms: the world and its places

LONDON “The old lady of Threadneedle Street” is a nickname for the Bank of England. It’s an idiom. The English language is rich in idioms. An “idiom” is a combination of words with a special meaning that cannot be inferred from its separate parts. We have found the first edition (published in 1986) of The Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms – [you can find it in a most recent and updated version on Amazon] – and here we want to share with you some idiomatic expressions related to this category: The world and its places. We are sure curious people like you will enjoy these short and clear explanations, with meanings and examples… [In another post, you can find the category Town and around.]

English idioms - the world and its places


  • it’s a small world – to be surprised at meeting a person one knows in an unexpected place. ‘Fancy meeting you here, in the middle of a highland moor! It’s a small world.”
  • to make/get the best of both worlds – to enjoy the advantages of two different situations or ways of life. ‘As a day-pupil at a nearby boarding-school, Peter has the benefit of a good education, while enjoying the advantages of living at home with his parents. He gets the best of both worlds.’
  • to carry the world before one – to enjoy a resounding success. ‘Stephen carried the world before him with his new invention.’
  • to set the world on fire – to achieve fame. ‘I see you’ve set the world on fire with your latest symphony, Jack.”
  • to make a noise in the world – to be talked about, to become famous.
  • to come up in the world – to improve one’s professional and social standing. ‘You’ve come up in the world since we last met.’
  • to come down in the world – to lose one’s professional and social standing.
  • to make one’s way in the world / to make one’s way – to advance in one’s job. ‘My three sons are all making their way in the world without any help from me.’
  • a man of the world – a man with a good understanding of men and women, and experienced in the ways of the world. ‘If you are in trouble, Valerie, would you like to talk to my father; he is a man of the world and very under- standing.’
  • to take the world as one finds it – to adapt oneself to the ways of the world without trying to change it, to respect social convention. ‘It’s best to take the world as you find it, then you won’t be disappointed.’
  • for all the world like somebody/something – exactly like… ‘Angela stood there in her mother’s long white dress, for all the world like her mother when she was Angela’s age.’
  • for all the world as if – just like; e. g. ‘When I visited my old university, I felt for all the world as if I were back in my student days.’
  • not for all the world  in no circumstances. ‘I wouldn’t leave London for all the world.’
  • it’s not the end of the world – things could be worse. ‘It’s disappointing not getting into university but it’s not the end of the world. You have a good job waiting for you.’
  • to do someone a world of good – to make a huge improvement to some- one. ‘You don’t look well, Susan. Three weeks at the sea-side will do you the world of good.’
  • on top of the world – elated by one’s own success. ‘No one thought Tony would win the by-election; he is on top of the world.’
  • out of this world (slang) – fantastically beautiful, marvellous. ‘Just wait until you have seen the house. We must buy it; it is out of this world.’
  • with the best will in the world – no matter how much one tries. ‘With the best will in the world, we can’t help you if you won’t co-operate with us.’
  • the old world – Europe, Asia and Africa, as distinct from North and South America.
  • in a world of one’s own – in a make-believe world of one’s own, in a world of fantasy. 1 don’t think my sister recognizes me any more. She is living in a world of her own.’
  • dead to the world – in a deep sleep, very difficult to awaken. ‘Alec must have drunk an awful lot. He is lying on his bed, dead to the world.’
  • the world to come – the life after death.


  • in place – suitable, appropriate.
  • out of place – unsuitable, inappropriate. ‘The elegantly dressed woman felt out of place at the party where all the other women were wearing jeans.’
  • all over the place – in disorder, untidy. “‘Keep to your positions,” the football manager shouted angrily at the players. “You are all over the place!” ’
  • to keep someone in his place – to keep in order, to keep under control. ‘The teacher only had to look at the children to keep them in their place.’
  • to put someone in his place – to discourage familiarity. ‘When the young lad took the lady by the hand, she promptly took her hand away from his, intending to put him in his place.’
  • there’s a time and place for everything – a good thing can be spoilt by bad timing or an unsuitable setting. ‘I love the Moonlight Sonata, but I should hate to hear it at breakfast! There’s a time and place for everything.’
  • not to be one’s place to (always used in the negative) – not to be right or proper to… “‘It’s not my place to give you advice,” the clerk said to the manager.’
  • to know one’s place – to accept the limits of one’s position in society. In England up to the beginning of World War II, there was a deferential society in which everyone had a certain place or station in life, and respected their social superiors. This has now been largely replaced by an egalitarian society, with people claiming the same rights and privileges as the upper classes.
  • a place in the sun – a share of the good things in life. ‘No one can dispute with us the place in the sun which is rightly ours’ (said by Kaiser Wilhelm Il, the German emperor, in 1911 during the Agadir crisis).
  • pride of place – the best position, often the most central or conspicuous, for the honoured guest, the most valuable objet d’art, and so on. ‘He had a number of interesting ornaments on his mantelpiece, but pride of place was given to a silver snuff-box he had inherited from his father.’
  • to fall into place – to make sense, to follow a logical order. ‘The work was difficult at first but, after a few weeks, everything fell into place.’
  • in high places – having power and influence. ‘You had better be careful how you talk to me; I have friends in high places.’
  • to come to the right place – (1) to approach the best person for advice or help. (2) (vulgar) to sound a warming. ‘If you are looking for trouble, you have come to the right place.” meaning: ‘If you don’t behave yourself, you’ll be sorry.’


  • to put someone in Chancery – (1) to hold a person’s head under one arm, leaving you free to punch him. (2) to put someone into an awkward position from which it is difficult to extricate himself. The reference is to the Court of Chancery which at one time had a reputation for delaying lawsuits and ruining the parties in dispute.
  • the old lady of Threadneedle Street – a nickname for the Bank of England.
  • to talk Billingsgate – to talk like fishmongers at Billingsgate. Billingsgate was formerly the principal fish market in London, and notorious for its bad language.
  • not to set the Thames on fire – not to distinguish oneself in any way, to be quite ordinary. ‘Martin gets a lot of pleasure from his painting but I’m afraid he’ll never set the Thames on fire .’
  • to be/end up in Carey Street – to go bankrupt. ‘We shall end up in Carey Street at the rate we are spending money.’ The Courts in Bankruptcy are situated in Carey Street, off the Strand.
  • bedlam – a mad commotion. ‘The chairman was quite unable to keep order. Everyone was on his feet shouting and swearing. Absolute bedlam.” Bedlam, a corruption of ‘Bethlehem’, was the name of a mad house in the Middle Ages. (Today it would be called a mental hospital.)
  • You are not at the Ritz! – the Ritz is a hotel in Piccadilly (London) which has made a name for the excellence of its cooking and accommodation. When servicemen complained about the bad cooking in the army during World War II, they were often told that there was a war on and that they were not ‘at the Ritz’.


  • to send to Coventry – to punish someone for disloyalty to his companions or workmates by refusing to speak to him. ‘Sending to Coventry’ is a common practice in schools and trade unions. The idiom has its origin in the Civil War between King Charles I and Parliament (1642-6). In his History of the Great Rebellion, Volume 2, VI, 83, Clarendon says that Royalist prisoners captured at Birmingham were sent to Coventry, a Parliamentary stronghold, where some of them were ‘ beheaded; whence the association of ‘sending to Coventry’ with the punishment of disloyalty, which later took the form of not speaking to the offender.
  • to carry coals to Newcastle – to bring a thing to a place which is famous for its production, like trying to sell wine to the French, or kimonos to the Japanese, and so on.
  • a Norfolk dumpling – a person who is dull and stupid. The inhabitants of East Anglia have this reputation, for reasons which are not apparent.


  • off to Gretna Green – couples who were under age (in English law) would run away together to get mar- ried at Gretna Green, a small town on the English-Scottish border. The con- ditions for marrying under Scottish law being less strict than under English, this was a favourite device for couples who had not obtained the consent of their parents.


  • to be full of Blarney / to talk Blarney – to make wild promises, to flatter and deceive. The Irish have a reputation for making wild promises. From kissing the Blarney Stone in Killarney.
  • beyond the Pale – socially unacceptable; any form of serious misbehaviour. ‘I won’t invite those boys; I saw them throwing stones at Jane yesterday. They are beyond the Pale.’ The word ‘Pale’ is derived from the Latin ‘palus’, a stake, stakes having been used, in the fourteenth century, to mark out the boundary between the land settled by the British colonists in Ireland and the rest of the country. The people living beyond the Pale were regarded by the colonists as uncivilized. The same phrase was adopted by the English in their own country to indicate people of ‘inferior class’, who were not received in polite society. There was also a Pale of Settlement for the Jews in Czarist Russia from 1792.


  • to meet your Waterloo – to suffer a final, decisive defeat. The phrase has been taken from Napoleon’s defeat by Wellington and Blücher at the Battle of Waterloo. It is usually applied to an unexpected defeat after a string of successes.


  • Rome was not built in a day – nothing of value has ever been achieved without great effort.
  • to fiddle while Rome burns – to occupy oneself with trifles during a crisis. Legend has it that the Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
  • all roads lead to Rome – Rome has always possessed a special importance – as capital of the ancient world, then as capital of Christendom. As the seat of the papacy, Rome commands the allegiance of six hundred million Catholics.
  • See Naples and die – Naples is the most beautiful city in the world and, when you have seen Naples, you may die happy. There is a small town near Naples called Mori, the Italian for ‘die’, where thousands once died of typhoid and cholera, so this is a joke phrase.
  • the Venice of the North – there are three cities in the north of Europe which boast that they are comparable with Venice: Bruges, Amsterdam and Stockholm.
  • to cross the Rubicon – to do something irrevocable. In ancient Rome, generals were guilty of treason if they failed to disband their armies before crossing the Rubicon. Caesar took the decision to cross the Rubicon with his army to seize power.


  • castles in Spain – unreal wealth and splendour which only exists in the mind of the dreamer.
  • the gnomes of Zurich – Swiss bankers, so called because they were the guardians of huge treasures under the earth, i.e. in the vaults of their banks. The name was intended humorously.
  • an Olympian detachment – an impersonal, unemotional view of human conflict. From Olympus, the home of the Greek gods where Zeus reigned. The gods of ancient Greece were endowed with all the human passions and weaknesses – love, jealousy, vindictiveness and anger; so the modern meaning of the idiom has changed.
  • a Marathon – a long-drawn-out contest, an event which calls for great endurance. ‘The conference began at eight this morning and went on all day until eleven o’clock at night. It was a real Marathon.” The name has been taken from the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians, fought in 490 BC. The messenger, who announced the result of the battle, fell dead on his arrival in Athens after running nearly 23 miles.


  • Sodom and Gomorrah – synonym for a centre of vice (Genesis XVII, 19).
  • the Gadarene Swine – to stampede with the herd (or crowd) to destruction. From the Bible, when Jesus told the people how the evil spirit that had been cast out entered the Gadarene swine, causing them to hurl them- selves in a fit of madness over the edge of the cliff to their destruction (Matthew VIII, 28—34).
  • a perfect Babel / a Babel of sounds – an uproar in many different languages.
  • the walls of Jericho didn’t fall down in a day – if you want to defeat your enemy, you will have to fight very hard.
  • like the walls of Jericho – any sudden unexpected collapse. ‘To Ferdy, they [the English hostesses] fell like the walls of Jericho.” (from Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories, Volume 2, ‘The Alien Corn’). The allusion is to the collapse of the walls of Jericho when the Israelites blew their horns outside the city.
  • ‘His’ road to Damascus’, ‘Her road to Damascus’ – a dramatic change of mind on some burning issue. When Saul of Tarsus, who had for a long time been a vigorous persecutor of the Christians, was on the road to Damascus, he heard the voice of God and immediately became an ardent disciple of Christ, adopting the name of Paul.
  • Mecca – a place which has a strong appeal for the enthusiast. ‘Between the wars, Paris was the Mecca of painters and artists.’ Mecca is the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, and a holy place for Muslims.


  • an El Dorado – an imaginary country where the traveller can make a fortune without any effort.
  • to live in Eden – a place of sheer bliss and delight. The place where Adam and Eve were created.
  • to consign to Limbo – to put out of one’s mind once and for all. Limbo was a place adjoining hell which accommodated unbaptized infants.
  • in the land of Nod – asleep. Note the related phrase ‘to nod off ’, meaning to fall asleep.
  • Shangri-Ia / like Shangri-la – a state of mind lacking in drive or interest, dull placidity. Shangri-la is the paradise described in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) up in the mountains of a Buddhist country. In Hilton’s city, the people lived in perfect peace and serenity, with no quarrelling or strife, but also with an absence of emotion or ambition.
  • a fool’s paradise – a comfortable but false illusion which could have deceived only a fool. ‘I knew all along that the business would never re- cover. You have been living in a fool’s paradise all these years.’

[In another post, you can find the category Town and around.]


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