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Idioms based on food and drink
  Caramel shortbread

Chong Wing Wun from Hong Kong writes:

Could you please explain the meaning of put the ice on the cake?

Roger Woodham replies:

The expression is put the icing on the cake, not the ice. Icing is made from powdered sugar and is used to cover and decorate cakes, particularly birthday cakes, Christmas cakes and wedding cakes. The icing on the cake is what makes a good thing even better, although it is not something that is essential:

  • England's third goal in the second round World Cup match against Denmark was the icing on the cake and capped an extremely efficient first-half performance.

We have a number of common expressions which are derived from food and drink items. It is said that association is a technique which helps us to remember things, so I have grouped the following idioms into those that you might associate with drinks and the main meal and those you might associate with snacks, fruit and afternoon tea. They should give you some food for thought which is another such idiom:

  • Thank you for your suggestions and constructive criticism. They have certainly given me some food for thought.

Drinks and main meal

1. small beer
2. the hard stuff
3. a different kettle of fish
4. a couch potato
5. a hot potato
6. take with a pinch of salt
7. pie in the sky
8. the upper crust
9. fair game
10. stew in your own juice
11. in a fine/pretty pickle
12. a raw deal

See if you can work out what they mean by studying these examples of use:

1. I know that my collection of paintings is small beer compared to yours, but you've been collecting for much longer than I have.

2. Oh, just a glass of dry white wine, please. No spirits thanks. I'm not used to the hard stuff.

3. He practises a lot at home, but playing in the school orchestra will be a very different kettle of fish.

4. He used to play tennis and swim every day, but he's turned into real couch potato this summer.

5. Whether or not to allow fox hunting in Britain is a real hot potato among country people at the moment.

6. When she says she has absolutely no money, you have to take that with a pinch of salt. She's always been a real miser.

7. When he says the stock market is sure to recover by the end of the year, that's clearly pie in the sky.

8. That is a kind of lifestyle that only the upper crust can afford.

9. By insisting that he had never lied about it when clearly he had, he became fair game among the reporters in Fleet Street.

10. He has totally rejected all the good advice I've given him so I'm just going to let him stew in his own juice for a while.

11. You'd be in a fine/pretty pickle if John weren't around to help you with the accounts.

12. It was a bit of a raw deal really - 50 hours a week, no holiday pay, no benefits of any kind.

Now check your understanding of the examples against these explanations:

1. small beer - of little value or importance
2. the hard stuff - a drink with high alcohol content, e.g. undiluted whisky
3. a different kettle of fish - something entirely different, more complex or demanding
4. a couch potato - someone who spends too much time watching TV with no real interests or hobbies
5. a hot potato - an issue that is controversial, dangerous or embarrassing
6. take with a pinch of salt - do not believe that what is referred to is completely true
7. pie in the sky - predictions or promises which are unlikely to be fulfilled
8. the upper crust - the highest social classes; the aristocracy
9. fair game - someone who is easy to attack because they have left themselves weak or exposed
10. stew in your own juice - suffer the consequences of your own foolish actions with no help from others
11. in a fair/pretty pickle - in a mess; in a difficult or unpleasant situation
12. a raw deal - unfair or harsh treatment usually of a financial or moral kind


      Snacks, fruit and afternoon tea

1. bread and butter
2. money for jam
3. not my cup of tea
4. a storm in a teacup
5. take the biscuit
6. a piece of cake
7. have your cake and eat it
8. in a nutshell
9. a hard nut to crack
10. a plum job
11. sour grapes
12. on the grapevine.

See if you can work out what they mean by studying these examples of use:

1. He is actually a literary translator but driving a minicab is his bread-and-butter job.
2. All you have to do is sit around the pool and make sure nobody drowns. It's money for jam.
3. Spending the whole evening in a smoky, noisy pub where you can't hear yourself speak, let alone anybody else, is certainly not my cup of tea.
4. Their marriage is quite secure. They had one massive quarrel, but it was just a storm in a teacup.
5. I thought your brother was bad enough, but your behaviour at Sheila's this evening takes the biscuit.
6. Can you do this quality control inspection this afternoon? It should be a piece of cake to someone with your experience.
7. He now needs to borrow £30,000 but insists on maintaining his previous life style. He just wants to have his cake and eat it.
8. I don't need to know everything about it, but can you just tell me how this video camera works in a nutshell?
9. I've got a degree in physics but I've never really understood quantum mechanics or chaos theory. They're certainly hard nuts to crack.
10. She's now one of the senior managers at work. ~ She's landed herself a plum job, hasn't she?
11. Ronnie says he thinks Bob's new convertible is hideous. ~ Well, that sounds like sour grapes to me.
12. I heard it on the grapevine that the shipyard is going to make 1,500 workers redundant.

Now check your understanding of the examples against these explanations:

1. bread and butter - activity or work that provides your main or regular income
2. money for jam - money earned with very little effort
3. not my cup of tea - not the kind of thing that I like
4. a storm in a teacup - a lot of fuss, discussion or excitement about something which turns out to be insignificant
5. take the biscuit - behaviour which is stupid, rude, selfish or outrageous may be described as taking the biscuit
6. a piece of cake - an easy task
7. have your cake and eat it - expect the benefits of two things when it is reasonable to expect the benefit of only one
8. in a nutshell - to say or present something in a very brief way using very few words
9. a hard nut to crack - difficult to do or understand
10. a plum job - a relatively easy, well-paid job
11. sour grapes - an attitude that describes something as undesirable because you want it yourself but cannot have it
12. on the grapevine - if you discover something on the grapevine, you hear about it through casual conversation or gossip.

If you are a teacher and are doing this activity with a fairly advanced class, you might give one example (e.g. icing on the cake) and see how many other food or drink idioms they can come up with first of all.


If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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