English idioms: town and around

LONDON “In Queer Street” means in financial trouble, in debt. 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: Town and around. 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 The world and its places.]

English idioms - town and around


  • to go to town – to spend one’s money recklessly. ‘The Howards have really gone to town on a house for their daughter. They have bought her an absolute beauty.’ ‘Go to town’ is an American colloquialism referring to the people who come into town from the countryside to spend their money. It was originally used about cowboys and ranch hands.
  • a man about town – a sociable man who attends many fashionable parties and has a wide circle of wealthy friends. ‘My brother has become quite a man about town; when he was young, he hated going to parties’.
  • a lady of the town – a woman of loose morals.
  • the talk of the town – someone whose behaviour and wild way of life give rise to gossip and scandal-mongering. ‘You had better behave yourself, Pauline. You are becoming the talk of the town.’ / it’s the talk of the town – it’s the most talked-about or fashionable place or thing.
  • a ghost town – a town that is no longer inhabited.


  • to take to the streets – to demonstrate against authority, to make a show of force. ‘The students took to the streets in support of the health workers’ claim for higher wages.’
  • to go on the streets – to work as a prostitute.
  • streets ahead of – far superior to, very much in advance of. ‘You are streets ahead of us in technology.’
  • not in the same street – far inferior to, in no way comparable. ‘All right, I’ll have a game with you, but you know very well I’m not in the same street as you.’
  • the man in the street – the ordinary, typical man and woman. ‘We are doing market research work, and we want the reaction of the man in the street to our suggestions.’
  • to go back to Civvy Street – to return to civilian life after serving in the armed forces. “What are you going to do when you go back to Civvy Street?’
  • in Queer Street – in financial trouble, in debt. ‘If we go on spending money like this, we shall soon be in queer street.’ ‘Queer Street’ may be a corruption of Carey Street where the Courts in Bankruptcy are situated.
  • grub street – an inferior writer, inferior writing. ‘…any mean production is called grubstreet’ (Dr Johnson, Dictionary). Grub Street near Moorffields in the East End of London (now Milton Street) was inhabited in the seventeenth century by a group of inferior writers and literary hacks.
  • right up my street – that’s a subject I’m very familiar with. ‘I’ll be glad to advise Brian about his advertising. Advertising and publicity are right up my street.’


  • one for the road – a final drink before one leaves a social gathering.
  • to take to the road – to become a tramp. ‘I would rather take to the road than work in an office from 9 till 5 each day. I want to be free.’
  • at the end of the road – (1) towards the end of one’s life. ‘I have come to the end of the road, my dear; the doctor has given me only another six months.’ (2) finally, last of all.
  • at the cross-roads – at a point in one’s life when important decisions have to be made. ‘Peter and Sue are at the cross-roads; they will have to decide very soon whether to make their home in England or emigrate.’


  • a dead end – leading nowhere. / a dead end job – a job with no prospects or advancement, similar in meaning to a ‘blind alloy job’.


  • to pave the way for – to create the necessary conditions for…, usually followed by some event. ‘World War II paved the way for the independence of India.’
  • to go all the way with – to be in complete agreement with. ‘I’m not sure whether I would go all the way with you, but I certainly sympathise with your aims.’
  • way out – (1) quite wrong, totally mistaken. ‘You are way out in your calculations. The holiday will cost £300, not £200.’ (2) out of the ordinary, bizarre. ‘Some of the costumes at the party were way out, especially the exotic pyjamas which would have been more suitable for the bedroom.’
  • to rub someone up the wrong way – to be tactless, to say the very thing that is certain to annoy someone. ‘You certainly rubbed Mrs Parker up the wrong way, telling her you don’t like Sussex. She has lived there all her life and adores the county.’
  • to go about something the wrong way – to use the wrong method or approach to achieve an object. ‘If you wanted Howard to back your project you went about it the wrong way contradicting him at dinner.’
  • at the parting of the ways – a time when it is best to separate. ‘I am so sorry, Tim, but I’m afraid we’ve come to a parting of the ways. We are only making each other unhappy.’ From the Bible, Ezekiel XXI, 21: ‘For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways…’
  • to go one’s own way – to follow one’s inclinations, to rely on one’s own judgement and ignore other people’s. ‘All right, Tom, go your own way, if that’s how you feel about it, but I wish you would listen to us just once.’
  • to have a way with one – to have a natural charm, which is very persuasive. ‘Jenny certainly has a way with her. I found myself agreeing with everything she said.’
  • to have come a long way – to have accomplished a great deal. ‘You’ve come a long way since we last met. You were a clerk then, and now you own your own factory.’
  • in a big way – on a large scale. ‘Ian is very ambitious, he does everything in a big way.’ / in a small way – on a small scale, only to a small extent. ‘If you could help me, even in a small way, I should be most grateful.’
  • to find out the hard way – to learn the truth from one’s own painful experience. ‘We warned you that you wouldn’t like boarding school but you wouldn’t listen. Now you’ve found out the hard way.’
  • to make way for – to surrender one’s position to someone else. ‘You’ve done a wonderful job for the Company, but we think, Sir, that at the age of seventy it is only fair you should make way for a younger man.’
  • to have it one’s own way – to insist on doing what one wants despite arguments to the contrary. ‘Have it your own way, Hugh, but if things go wrong, don’t blame us.’
  • to have it both ways – to support two incompatible arguments or courses of action at the same time. ‘If you want an absolutely safe investment, then you can’t expect a high rate of interest. You can’t have it both ways.’
  • to cut both ways – to have advantages and disadvantages at the same time. ‘This new drug will relieve your arthritis, but you must put up with the side-effects; it cuts both ways.’
  • set in one’s ways – having fixed ideas and habits. ‘Turner is too set in his ways to adopt your ideas; you had better look for a younger man.’
  • to look the other way – to pretend not to see, to overlook a breach of the rules or some irregularity. ‘Even a disciplinarian like the sergeant-major has to look the other way sometimes.’
  • on its way out – becoming unfashionable. ‘The mini-skirt was already on its way out by 1969.’
  • to pay one’s way – to support oneself without having to borrow money. ‘Many American students pay their way through college by taking a part-time job.’
  • to mend one’s ways – to change one’s behaviour or habits, for the better. ‘If you want your uncle to help you, you’ll have to mend your ways. That will mean cutting out night clubs and starting to study seriously.’
  • a way of life – a set of principles according to which one lives one’s life. ‘Alan soon got used to the Muslim way of life, but his sister found it more difficult.’
  • to see one’s way to – to feel justified in. ‘After Peter’s ingratitude to her, his cousin didn’t see her way to giving him any more help.’
  • to go out of one’s way to – to put oneself to some trouble to…, to make a special effort to… ‘When we visited London, our hosts went out of their way to make our stay enjoyable.’
  • no way (colloquial American English) – out of the question, impossible. ‘”Could you please lend me ₤50?” “No way, I haven’t got that much myself.”‘
  • by the way – incidentally, which reminds me. ‘I’m sorry your cousin is ill. By the way, have you got his new address? I have some letters for him.’
  • there are no two ways about it – there is no other possibility or explanation. ‘When you are in the army, you have to obey orders, no matter how unreasonable or stupid they may be. There are no two ways about it.’
  • to stand in someone’s way – to obstruct or hinder someone in his aims. ‘If you want to take a job abroad, don’t let me stand in your way.’
  • in a bad way – physically or mentally in a serious condition. ‘Your brother has had an accident. Will you go to the hospital at once; he’s in a bad way.’
  • not to know which way to turn – to be in desperate difficulties. ‘I was stranded in New York one winter without money or friends; I didn’t know which way to turn until the British Consulate helped me out.’
  • to put business someone’s way – to be the means of placing custom or orders with someone. ‘If you are interested, I can put some business your way.’
  • to fall by the wayside – to fail to achieve one’s aim, because of laziness, lack of strength or distractions. This phrase is generally used humorously. ‘My father put me into accountancy, but I am sorry to say I was one of those who fell by the wayside.’ The allusion is to Luke VIII, 5: ‘A Sower went out to sow his seed, and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down and the fowls of the air devoured it’.


  • to go down memory lane – to revive old memories. ‘Let’s be sentimental, Joan, and go down memory lane this afternoon.‘


  • to sell down the river – to betray, to act deceitfully towards. ‘When we went back to the bookie’s office to collect our winnings, he had already run off with the stakes; he had sold us down the river.’ The phrase was first used by the black slaves who were sold by their owners to plantation owners further down the Mississippi, where conditions were usually much harsher.


  • to cross one’s bridges before one comes to them – to worry unnecessarily about something that may never happen. ‘I don’t know why you are worrying about Father catching one of those tropical diseases in Africa. His company hasn’t decided yet whether to send him to Africa. Don’t cross your bridges before you come to them.’
  • that’s (all) water under the bridge – that is all past now, and there is nothing that can be done about it. ‘Yes, it’s a pity you didn’t accept Fred’s offer, but it’s useless to reproach yourself now. It’s all water under the bridge.’
  • to pull up the drawbridge – to keep visitors out in order to ensure privacy for oneself and one’s family. ‘We enjoy entertaining, but at Christmas we like to pull up the drawbridge and be on our own.’


  • to explore every avenue – to make the most thorough inquiry. ‘We are exploring every avenue to obtain the information you are asking for.’


  • an ivory tower – a haven from the harsh realities of life. ‘Living in your ivory tower at Oxford, you can’t imagine, can you, what it’s like to go hungry?’ The term ‘tour d’ivoire’ (ivory tower) was first used by Sainte-Beuve (1837) to describe the retreat of the French poet, Vigny.
  • a tower of strength – a person one can always turn to for sympathy and support in times of trouble. ‘When my parents’ marriage broke up, my eldest sister was a tower of strength to the children. We couldn’t have managed without her.’


  • to make an exhibition of oneself – to invite public ridicule or contempt by one’s behaviour. ‘I wish Henry wouldn’t make an exhibition of himself shouting at the waiter like that. It is so embarrassing.’


  • museum piece – something antiquated or worn-out. ‘We can’t go to Scotland in that museum piece. Surely the car-hire company can do better than that.’ The literal meaning is a specimen of an earlier civilisation exhibited in a museum.


  • to have someone over a barrel – to have a person in one’s power, so that he can be forced to do whatever is asked of him. ‘The boss has got you over a barrel. If you don’t withdraw your accusations, be will take you to court, and if you do withdraw, you will lose the respect of the staff.’
  • to scrape the bottom of the barrel – to content oneself with poor quality when all other possibilities have been exhausted. ‘Dorothy must have scraped the bottom of the barrel to have married a man like that!’


  • a captive market – a monopoly of an essential product or service which the consumer is obliged to accept without exercising his normal freedom of choice. ‘We can ask any price we like for our water supply; we have a captive market.’
  • to be a drug on the market – to find no customers, something for which there is no demand. ‘Gramophone records have become a drug on the market since cassettes were introduced.’
  • to be in the market for – to be interested in obtaining or buying something. ‘We are not in the market for diamonds at present.’
  • to play the market – to speculate in the buying and selling of stocks and shares or commodities. ‘Herbert calls it playing the market; I call it gambling.’
  • to put something on the market – to offer something for sale. ‘We have decided to leave London, so we are putting our house on the market.’ / to come on the market – to be offered for sale.
  • to corner the market – to obtain a monopoly of the supply of particular goods or services. ‘Once a government has cornered the market, as for instance in gas or electricity, there is always a huge rise in prices.’
  • a rising/falling market – a rising/falling demand for goods or services which will be reflected in their prices.
  • to price oneself out of the market – to ask so much more money for one’s services or products that customers go elsewhere. ‘The school fees you are charging are so high that you are in danger of pricing yourself out of the market.’
  • to spoil the market for – to reduce the demand for services or products by lowering their quality or putting too many on offer. ‘The dishonest advertising agencies will spoil the market for the good ones.’
  • to flood the market – to offer services or goods far in excess of the demand for them.
  • to drive a hard bargain – to come to an agreement on one’s own terms without making any worthwhile concessions. ‘You drive a hard bargain, but I suppose I’ll have to accept your offer.’
  • under the counter – of goods illegally sold in shops, secretly, without the knowledge of the authorities. ‘Johnson always sold the stolen jewellery under the counter to clients who could be trusted not to go to the police.’
  • to have no truck with – to have no dealings with, not to tolerate. ‘I’ll have no truck with their demands for a higher wage.’ ‘Truck’ originally meant to exchange goods for services, to barter, to have dishonest dealings with someone.


  • up hill and down dale – everywhere. Idiomatically, this phrase is only used with verbs like look for, search for, hunt for. ‘Wherever have you been all this time“? We have been looking for you up hill and down dale.’
  • as old as the hills – very old indeed. ‘That car of yours is as old as the hills. Don‘t you think you ought to buy a new one?’
  • to go downhill – to suffer a decline in one‘s health or fortunes. “Poor Bill, he has gone steadily downhill since he lost his job.” / to go down – to suffer a decline in its reputation, quality or appearance. This is only used of things, not people, especially of neighbourhoods and districts. ‘This was one of the most fashionable districts in London, but it has gone right down in the last ten years.’


  • to be on the right/wrong track – to make / not to make progress in one’s search for… ‘The police believe that they are at last on the fight track in their hunt for the murderers.’ ‘If you think I had anything to do with it, you’re on the wrong track.’
  • to keep track of – to keep oneself informed of someone’s movements, activities, etc. ‘I try to keep track of all my old school friends, but it isn’t easy.’ / to lose track of – not to be informed of the movements, etc., of someone. ‘Joyce has been married so many times that I’ve quite lost track.’ / to lose (all) track of time – not to be aware of the passage of time.
  • to make tracks for – to leave quickly for. ‘It’s getting late. We had better make tracks for home.’
  • a track record – a record of one’s successes/failures. ‘I think we should consider Holmes for the head-mastership. His track record for getting his pupils into the universities is very good.’
  • in one’s tracks – in the very place where one is standing at a particular moment. ‘Hugh was on the point of hitting his son when his wife entered the room; that stopped him in his tracks!’
  • to cover one’s tracks – to conceal traces of one’s movements. ‘The bank robbers have covered their tracks very cleverly. ’


  • to keep to the straight and narrow (path) – to resist temptation and lead a virtuous life. ‘As a clergyman, I am naturally expected to keep to the straight and narrow path, but it hasn’t always been easy.’ The phrase comes from the Bible (Matthew VII, 14): ‘Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it!’
  • to beat a path to a place – to visit in large numbers. ‘Now that Vivien has become famous, all sorts of people will be beating a path to her door.’ The path to a place is beaten flat by the feet of so many people.
  • to cross someone’s path – (1) to meet someone accidentally. ‘Since I left school, I haven’t crossed Smith’s path, and I can’t say I have any wish to.’ (2) to thwart someone. ‘If Jones crosses your path again, let me know and I’ll put a stop to his interference.’


  • to queer someone’s pitch – to thwart or spoil someone’s plans. ‘The War Office queered our pitch by posting me overseas twenty-four hours before our wedding day.’ ‘Queer’ is used as a verb only in this phrase. The pitch refers to the pitching of a tent in which a street vendor could carry on his business or a circus performer could entertain the public. Sometimes the police would order these tented structures to be taken down, thus ‘queering someone’s pitch’.


  • to be a slow coach – to be very slow in one’s actions, to keep one’s companions waiting impatiently. ‘What a slow coach you are! Do hurry up; everyone is waiting for you.”
  • to jump the queue – to try to seize an advantage without waiting one’s turn. ‘Everyone queues up in England. You’d make yourself very unpopular if you jumped the queue.’
  • to miss the bus – to lose an opportunity. ‘I am fifty years old but I still haven’t been promoted. Now it’s too late; I’ve missed the bus.’ cf. ‘to miss’ the boat’.
  • to tell someone where to get off – to give someone a stern rebuke. ‘When Joe started lecturing me on how to paint, I soon told him where to get off. He seemed to forget that I’ve had years of experience at it and he is only a beginner.’ The phrase refers to the bus-conductor’s right to order any passenger off a bus if he makes trouble.
  • to fall off the back of a lorry – a euphemism for ‘to be stolen’. ‘I wonder where Philip got that crate of very expensive wine. Did it fall off the back of a lorry?’
  • a backseat driver – someone who offers unwanted advice to the person in charge, while having no responsibility himself for the way a task is performed. ‘We’d manage much better without the help of backseat drivers like Williams.’ The phrase refers to the passenger in the back of a car, who is always telling the driver what to do.

[In another post, you can find the category The world and its places.]

English idioms: the world and its places

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