25 Phrases That Are Quite Scary When Taken Literally

Posted by , Updated on January 16, 2024

There are many idioms that we take for granted. But if you stop and think about them…they can be quite scary. Take “eat your heart out” for example. Seriously? Eat your heart out? What kind of image is that supposed to give somebody? These are 25 Phrases That Are Quite Scary When Taken Literally.


Keep your eyes peeled.


Although it means to keep a lookout, the visual metaphor is somewhat terrifying. How would you peal an eye anyway? Like an orange?


Eat your heart out


No, it doesn’t mean to cannibalize yourself, although this phrase may be enough to scare any new English learner away! It basically means, “Be jealous, I’m better than you.” As in, yes, I got to go to Disney and you didn’t…eat your heart out!


Lend me an ear.


No, not literally. That’s gross and massively disturbing. It just means to listen up!


Can I pick your brain?


With a toothpick? No, thank you. But you can go ahead and ask me lots of questions, which is what you actually mean.


Break a leg!


Once again, physically maiming yourself isn’t the point. This phrase basically means “good luck.” Usually you hear this phrase being used in the theatre; it’s bad luck to tell a stage actor, “good luck.”


Cat got your tongue?


Probably not…unless you own a cat…and you were licking it. Okay, this is getting weird and terrifying. The phrase actually means, “Don’t you have anything to say?”


Her eyes are bigger than her stomach.

big eyes

Woah, that’s an unpleasant mental image. What this phrase actually means is that you put more food on your plate than you could eat!


He wears his heart on his sleeve.


No, this doesn’t mean he actually removed his beating heart and pinned it to his sleeve; it just means that he shows his emotions quite readily.


Raining cats and dogs

dog and cat

It’s kind of like Sharknado except with furry pets. So yea, although it’s less terrifying than raining great whites, it’s still quite terrifying. And no, it’s not literal. This phrase just means it’s raining really hard.


Throwing the baby out with the bath water


Ouch, the sound of babies hitting concrete definitely qualifies for the terrifying category. But rest easy, it doesn’t mean that. Basically, this phrase just says you shouldn’t get rid of good things while you’re getting rid of bad things.


I’m dying to find out.

what if i never find out who's a good boy?

Now why would you do that? Fear not; your friends won’t actually keel over from curiosity. They just really, really, really, want to know whatever secret you are holding.


Beating a dead horse

dead horse point state park

Beating anything dead evokes some terrifyingly rotten images. But all this phrase really means is to “waste energy on a lost cause.”


Knock ‘em dead!


No! Don’t kill anybody. This idiom just means to play as well as possible (usually told to athletes).


He has the heart of a lion.


Wow, that’s some Hannibal Lecter stuff right there. But don’t worry, he didn’t actually cut open a lion and steal its heart. Having the heart of a lion just means to possess great courage.


It cost an arm and a leg.

money flying out of wallet

That is the definition of painfully expensive. But no, your friend didn’t actually have their arm or leg cut off. This is just a way of expressing that something cost wayyyyyy too much.


Making eye contact

eye contact

Huh? You made contact with him? Like…you guys actually touched your eyeballs together? Fortunately, no. This phrase just implies the fact that two people are looking each other in the eyes.


Skeletons in the closet


Eww, really? Well, hopefully not. Having skeletons in your closet is just a metaphorical way of saying saying you have dark secrets. Hmm, maybe they could be actual skeletons…


Can you give me a hand?


No, put the saw down. We don’t actually need your hand. We just need your help.


Liar, liar, pants on fire

pants on fire

Imagine if your pants set on fire each time you lied…that would be a sobering existence.


I’m all ears.


Can you picture a human body made entirely of ears? The image is quite terrifying. Fortunately, this phrase just means that the speaker is ready to listen.


Sweating bullets


Ouch, sounds painful. But no, the speaker isn’t actually popping bullets out of his pores, they’re just sweating…a lot.


Fighting fire with fire


What sort of terrifying image does this conjure up? Imagine firefighters shooting fire out of their hoses…not good; now everything is on fire. And that’s kind of the point. Fighting fire with fire just means that you retaliate with the same method your enemy used on you. Which as you could guess, typically makes the situation worse.


Throwing someone under the bus


Well that’s a nasty image. But don’t worry, nobody was actually run over. This idiom just means person A caused another person B to suffer in order to save themselves. Therefore, person B got “thrown under the bus.”


A wolf in sheep’s clothing


Nope, the image you have in your head of a wolf skinning sheep is fortunately inaccurate. This phrase just refers to somebody bad masquerading as somebody good.


An eye for an eye


Although it seems like two people popped out their eyeballs and traded, this phrase only implies that a person who injured somebody is punished with the same offense.

Photos: Feature: shutterstock, 25. Gordon via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, 24. pixabay (public domain), 23. Biswarup GangulyLeft Hand – Kolkata 2011-04-20 2350, image of ear added by Sameen, CC BY 3.0, 22. Allan Ajifo, Synapse in brainCC BY 2.0, 21. Pagemaker787Purple Fibreglass Leg CastCC BY-SA 4.0, 20-16. pixabay.com (public domain), 15. Andrea Arden via flickr, CC BY 2.0, 14. wikimedia commons (public domain), 13. SimonKSK, R.I.PCC BY-SA 3.0, 12. Kevin PluckLion waiting in NamibiaCC BY 2.0, 11. shutterstock, 10. zolakoma via flickr, 9. www.freestockphotos.biz (public domain), 8. pixabay (public domain), 7. Bryon Villegas via flickrCC BY 2.0, 6. Travis Isaacs via flickr, ear duplicated CC BY 2.0, 5. Tony WebsterBullets Hydra-Shok 9mm JHP 2871988380 oCC BY-SA 3.0, 4. pexels (public domain), 3. OxymanLondon Bus route 360CC BY-SA 3.0, 2. pixabay (public domain), 1. Laitr KeiowsIris – right eye of a girlCC BY-SA 3.0