English Idioms with Action Verbs

by | Aug 28, 2023 | Idioms & Expressions

Pull and push, put and pass : these four verbs account for a healthy number of English idioms demonstrating the active nature of our everyday expressions. In this article, we shall look at some of the most popular and interesting ones used in British and American English. Let us begin or, should I say, forward march!


Some English idioms related to death are readily familiar as in to ‘pull the plug’ meaning to bring something to an end which is a euphemism for being left to die. It derives from the medical world in which pulling the plug on machines keeping people alive caused their death. It now refers to killing the supply of things that keep a project alive. Equally familiar is ‘pushing up the daisies’ meaning to be dead and buried, which is an early 20th century euphemism from being in the grave above which daisies typically would be growing. Another euphemism for the tricky subject of dying is to ‘pass away’ deriving from the 15th century belief that, when someone died, they would stay on earth until after the funeral rites and that, until then, the dead could still hear and see. Only after the funeral rites did the person then pass away.


Our feet and their covering are a veritable source of idioms with ‘pull your socks up’ meaning be ready for something difficult coming from athletes who pulled up their socks as the start of a race in order to be ready. Similarly to ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ meaning to better your situation by your own efforts relates to a ‘bootstrap’ sown into the back of boots to help put them on. As for to put a sock in it’ this means to ask someone to stop talking from the idea that putting a sock in whatever was causing the noise would quieten it down: while to ‘put the boot in’ means to treat someone brutally, especially when vulnerable, and suggests the idea of kicking someone hard who’s already on the ground.


Active English Idiom with pull

I love phrases referring to highly-specialist occupations. There’s a conjuror with to ‘pull a rabbit out of the hat’ meaning magically to cause an unlikely result with no apparent effort and referring to one of his well-known routines. Then there’s the puppeteer with ‘to pull strings’ meaning inadvertently to use one’s influence for advantage and derives from puppets whose movements are manipulated through their strings. And finally, referring to an organist: to ‘pull out all the stops’ meaning to make a great effort to achieve something refers to organ stops being pulled out to play all the sounds simultaneously and so be as loud as possible.

As for ‘pass the acid test’ it means to succeed in a test that really proves the value or quality of something. The phrase was first used during the American gold rush when prospectors needed to differentiate between gold and worthless metals. Gold is not affected by most acids though nitric acid is used for its ‘acid test’.

Other idioms are more obscure with ‘to pull one’s chestnuts out of the fire’ meaning to succeed in a tricky task for someone else’s benefit and refers to the fable of a monkey using a cat’s paw to rake out chestnuts from a fire.

To ‘push the peanut’ is a recent part of office jargon meaning to progress a delicate task while to ‘push the envelope’ is a similarly oblique reference to extending what’s feasible and came from aviation slang where an envelope describes the upper and lower limits of flight safety such as speed, engine power, wind speed and altitude. To ‘pass muster’ means to measure up to the required standards and is a military phrase coined around 1400 with pass meaning ‘to undergo successfully’ and muster meaning ‘military review’.


As for physical commitment there’s ‘pull in one’s horns’ meaning to become less ambitious or assertive and suggesting a snail drawing its tentacles when disturbed; then there’s to ‘push the boat out’ meaning to try hard to prepare something special and referring to a former special celebration before setting sail. Then, somewhat akin to ‘to put a spoke in one’s wheel’ there’s to ‘put your finger in the dyke’ meaning to stem the advance of something potentially overwhelming and referring to the story of a small Dutch boy who saved his community by placing his finger in a hole in a dyke. Very different from ‘not to pull one’s weight’ meaning not to contribute to one’s share of the workload and coming from moving the oar through the water without putting one’s weight behind the stroke.


As for pastimes, “pass the parcel”, which means not to accept responsibility for something but to pass the burden onto someone else who acts similarly, comes from a children’s party game in which a parcel is handed around a circle of players to music; whoever holds the parcel when the music stops has to remove one layer of wrapping to claim any prize found under that layer; the


music then restarts and the game continues until every layer is removed and the prize claimed.

As for card games ‘to put one’s cards on the table’ is very different from to ‘put on the back burner’ meaning to postpone something that’s neither urgent nor important and stems from parts of a cooker used for simmering rather than fast cooking. Card playing leads to wagers and to ‘put one’s shirt on something’ comes from thinking the bet is on such a certain winner that you could put your last remaining possession on it in complete safety while to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ was an American idea suggesting to “invest your money in what you believe” hence to “act on what you claim”. Similarly American is to ‘pass the buck’. It means to shift the responsibility to someone else; buck is informal for a dollar, but it is also ‘an article placed as a reminder in front of a player whose turn it is to deal at poker’ which means passing it makes much more sense.

Time for your writer now to put his feet up, if not his socks, his leg, or his bootstrap.

Adam Jacot

This article was written by Break Into English’s blog contributor Adam Jacot de Boinod. Adam worked for Stephen Fry on the first series of QI, the BBC programme. He is also the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.