Can You Complete These Old Phrases?



By: William J. Wright

6 Min Quiz

Image: avid_creative / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Language is alive! English is a constantly evolving entity. Idioms, aphorisms and phrases change as quickly as the culture that both shapes and is shaped by words. No doubt, our parents, grandparents and ancestors had colorful ways of saying things. They wove observation into metaphors like finely wrought tapestries of language, but the truth is we do exactly that today.

In the decades to come, our common phrases influenced by the present culture will seem just as quaint and archaic as the expressions of the past. Nevertheless, some expressions have staying power just as others quickly fade into history. Imparting wisdom or pithy observations about human nature, the old phrases you'll encounter in this quiz represent a cross-section of both history and cultures. Some of these you may still use yourself, others we expect will seem like the linguistic equivalents of the hula hoop or the coonskin cap.

Since it would cramp our style to drone on like a broken record, we'll stop beating around the bush and get down to brass tacks, which is to say this our challenge to all of you word sleuths and language historians. Can you complete these old phrases?

If you don't want to lose something of value you already have, you know that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the _____." Can you complete this phrase?

This expression is an example of how phrases with longevity almost always use vivid imagery. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" means that something already in your possession is worth more than the risk of trying to gain something else.


Here's an old one: "I don't _____ my cabbage twice." How would you fill in this phrase?

Now, this one has really unappetizing connotations if taken literally! "I don't chew my cabbage twice" is a colorful way of saying that you don't mince words and you definitely don't repeat yourself.


"You can't get _____ from a turnip" should be a familiar phrase to anyone who's tried to get a broke friend to pick up the tab. Do you know how to finish this common phrase?

Sometimes phrased as "you can't get blood from a stone," this expression means that you can't get something from someone who doesn't have it. It usually pertains to money or the collection of a debt.


If you're optimistic about resolving your troubles, you know that "it will all come out in the _____." How would you fill in this phrase?

No, this is not about those unsightly collar stains. "It will all come out in the wash" can mean a problem will work itself out the future. Conversely, it may mean that a hidden truth will eventually be known.


Country folks might say an irate person is "mad as a wet _____." Can you complete this barnyard phrase?

"Mad as a wet hen" is an American colloquial phrase used to describe someone who is agitated, irate or angry in the extreme. If you've ever seen a wet hen, you know to stay clear.


How would you fill in the following old phrase: "a _____ late and a _____ short"?

The crux of this phrase is bad planning or little preparation. Have you ever missed the train or been a little light to pay for lunch? You might describe someone with terrible timing and bad luck as "a day late and a dollar short."


If you have no time for trivial problems because there are more pressing matters to address, you have "bigger _____ to fry." Can you complete this phrase?

If you have "bigger fish to fry," you have no time for the trivial issues and the petty problems. There are more important things on which to spend your time or bigger problems to address.


If you've ever lost something important, you may have "ran around like a chicken with its _____ cut off" looking for it! Can you finish this one?

Here's another poultry-based saying. Chickens seem to turn up frequently in old expressions. To "run around like a chicken with its head cut off" is to do something in a panicked, crazy manner often out of desperation or urgency.


If the next decision belongs to you, then "the ball is in your _____." How would you finish this sporty phrase?

Many common aphorisms are built on sports imagery. In this case, the phrase gets its power from the reciprocal nature of a game like tennis. If "the ball is in your court," the next move or decision is yours. In other words, the responsibility is now in your hands.


If your friends criticize you for dressing too young for your age, they're accusing you of being "_____ dressed as lamb." Can you complete this phrase?

The is a somewhat insulting expression of British origin. With mutton being the meat of a mature sheep and lamb being the meat of sheep less than a year old, the ageist connotations of this old phrase become obvious in context. "Mutton dressed as lamb" describes a person who dresses too young for their age.


Here's another old one: something of little value or a lazy person is "not worth a _____ nickel." Can you finish this phrase?

Meaning "worthless," this common phrase originating in the 19th century refers to the old practicing of removing the valuable metal from the center of a coin for another use. Often, a plugged coin would be filled with a cheaper metal, thus diminishing its monetary value.


If you're inordinately pleased with yourself, someone may tell you to "get off your _____ horse." Do you know how to complete this phrase?

Another phrase with a British origin, "get off your high horse" means to accuse someone of haughty, arrogant or snobbish behavior. You might tell someone with a superior attitude to "get off their high horse."


To emphasize the simplicity of a task, you might cap off an explanation with " ... and Bob's your _____." Can you fill in this merry old phrase?

Rooted in a case of royal nepotism, this English phrase is a colorful way of saying something is easy or ready to go. It's often used to punctuate a list of instructions pertaining to an easy task. Turn the knob and push, and Bob's your uncle, you're through the door.


If something has served you well thus far, stick with it because it's unwise to "change horses in _____." How would you fill in this old phrase?

Attributed to an 1864 speech by Abraham Lincoln, "don't change horses in midstream" is a proverbial warning not to alter your plan or change your leadership in the middle of its execution. Lincoln claimed that the expression came from "an old Dutch farmer."


If adequate is sufficient, then "_____ is as good as a feast." Can you complete this adage?

This old phrase can be interpreted as a warning against gluttony. "Enough is as good as a feast" means sufficiency has equal or greater value than excess. Simply put, you shouldn't take more of something than you need.


They jump out of bed every morning ready to go, "_____ eyed and _____ tailed!" Can you complete this phrase?

Here's another old expression that uses an animal metaphor. Conjuring up images of happy woodland critters, the phrase "bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" describes someone alert, eager, full of energy and ready for action.


"To give the _____ his due" means to pay back a dreaded debt. Can you fill in this phrase?

To "give the devil his due" is to pay back something that is owed, especially if that repayment is difficult or causes the debtor a degree of dread. Alternatively, it can mean to recognize the good qualities of an unpleasant or unsavory person.


"Thick as _____ on a ____'s back" describes a large number of something concentrated in one area. Do you know how to finish this phrase?

Out of context, you might think this itchy phrase refers to crowds. Actually, this old expression common in the American South means abundant or numerous as in "the cops at the donut shop were as thick as fleas on a dog's back."


If you're opportunistically climbing the corporate ladder, you definitely "know on which side your _____ is buttered." Do you know how to finish this phrase?

This phrase means that one knows what is in their best interest and with whom to curry favor for personal advantage. If you regularly pay for your boss' lunch, you know on which side your bread is buttered.


When obstacles are too tough to surmount, your plans are "knocked into a _____ hat." Which word is missing from this phrase?

A cocked hat, also called a tricorne, was a popular piece of millinery from the 18th century. When something or someone has been "knocked into a cocked hat," it has been beaten (possibly physically), defeated or otherwise made ineffective. What the hat has to do with the expression is a point of contention with linguists.


When the show sold out, the venue was "packed to the _____." Can you complete this phrase?

This expression has a seafaring origin. Gunwales (pronounced "gunnels") are the upper sides of a large ship. Something that has been filled to its capacity is "packed to the gunwales."


Someone who brushes their teeth with mayonnaise may be "crazy as a _____ sandwich." How would you fill in this colorful expression?

This was a favorite and often used idiom from the late author Harlan Ellison. "Crazy as a soup sandwich" describes a person, thing or event that is illogical or irrational in the extreme.


How would you complete this expression: "the new broom sweeps _____"?

This old phrase, sometimes amended with "but the old broom knows the corners," describes how a person freshly installed in a position of power, like a boss or manager, can make comprehensive changes to an organization. The second part of the expression contrasts the first as a reminder to value experience.


One should be careful not to judge too harshly because "only the wearer knows where the _____ _____." Can you complete this old phrase?

This expression can be considered a nice bookend with "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." Referring to an inability for one to truly comprehend the depth another's suffering, this phrase makes vivid use of a painful image.


One should seize the moment for "_____ and _____ wait for no man." Which words are missing from this phrase?

This expression dating to the 13th century refers to our inability to stem the flow of time or the cycle of nature. It's often used as a warning against inaction. Opportunities will be lost to those who procrastinate.


People of the same class will find each other because "water seeks its own _____." Can you complete this phrase?

"Water seeks its own level" is analogous to like attracts like. Often relating to social integrity, class or caste, this phrase means that people with common values attract others of the same ilk.


Can you fill in the missing words from this old proverb: "speech is _____; silence is _____"?

Sadly, the first half of this old proverb is often omitted which dulls its edges somewhat. It means that although words can be useful in many situations, prudent silence is often more valuable.


Although he was within a point of passing the test, "a miss is as good as a _____." How would you finish this phrase?

"A miss is as good as a mile" means that a failure is still a failure regardless of the degree or margin. A close relative to this phrase is "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."


To "throw down the ____" is to issue a strong challenge. Can you complete this chivalric phrase?

This common expression conjures thoughts of swords, chivalry and pistols at 20 paces. Literally, a call to armed personal combat, to "throw down the gauntlet" is to issue a strong challenge of any kind.


There's no need to come right out and say it because "a ____ is as good as a ____ to a blind man." How would you fill in this old phrase?

Also phrased as "a nod is as good as wink to a blind horse," this phrase means that a mere suggestion or subtle hint is sufficient to convey meaning without further explanation. Say no more.


Can you complete the following phrase: "little _____ have big ears"?

Referring to the curved, ear-like handles on pitchers, this expression admonishes adults that they must choose their speech carefully around children who may overhear more than they realize.


Here's one from Shakespeare: "the _____ is the father to the thought." Can you complete it?

Never underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion. Appearing in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, "the wish is the father to the thought" describes one's tendency to believe something to be true simply because they wish it.


If your friend buys the tickets, it's only fair that they pick the movie because "who pays the _____ calls the tune." Can you finish this musical aphorism?

This musical idiom means that the person with the most investment in something makes the decisions regarding its use. More broadly, it may be interpreted as "who has power is in control."


When someone is a complete stranger, you "don't know them from _____." Can you complete this phrase?

In this usage, Adam refers to Genesis' first man. To "not know someone from Adam" is to be so totally unfamiliar with a person as to not be able to tell them apart from any stranger.


This one has a biblical origin: "don't hide your light under a _____." Can you complete it?

Many old sayings have their origins in the Bible and other religious texts. This phrase, originally found in the New Testament, is a reminder not to conceal or diminish your talents and accomplishments.


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