Achilles heel

The term Achilles heel  refers to a vulnerable area or a weak spot in a person or system that can cause harm or lack of success.
“He’s extremely intelligent, but his inability to speak in public is his Achilles heel.”

(set) alarm bells ringing / alarm bells start to ring

If something sets the alarm bells ringing, it makes you begin to worry, because it shows that there may be a problem.
Alarm bells started to ring when my old neighbour didn’t open his shutters all day and didn’t answer his phone.”

asking for trouble

Someone who is asking for trouble is behaving so stupidly that he/she is likely to have problems.
“Driving fast on these roads is really asking for trouble!”

back to the wall

If you have your back to the wall, you are in serious difficulty.
“With his back to the wall, the supplier had to accept the deal.”

ball and chain

The term ball and chain refers to a burden or problem that ties you down and prevents you from doing what you want. (It can also refer to one’s spouse.)
“Our holiday home has become a ball and chain – it’s too much work!”

bane of one’s life

To say that something is the bane of your life means that it is the cause of your problems or your unhappiness.
“The heating system is always breaking down. It’s the bane of my life!

bite off more than you can chew

If you bite off more than you can chew, you try to do something that is too difficult for you, or more than you can manage.
“As soon as I started to translate the report, I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

on the blink

If a machine is on the blink, a light flickering on and off shows that it is not working properly and needs servicing or repair.
“What a nuisance! The photocopier is on the blink again.”

break the back of the beast

If someone breaks the back of the beast, they succeed in overcoming a major difficulty.
“After hours of effort, the technicians finally broke the back of the beast and turned the electricity back on again.”

can of worms

To describe a situation as a can of worms means that it is complicated, unpleasant and difficult to deal with.
“The discovery of the transfer of funds turned out to be a real can of worms.”

carry the can

If you carry the can for another person, you accept blame or take responsibility for something that goes wrong, even if it is not your fault or only partly.
“The author didn’t turn up for the interview and his agent had to carry the can.”

catch 22

A catch 22 situation refers to a frustrating situation where you cannot do one thing without doing a second, and you cannot do the second before doing the first.
“I can’t get a job without a work permit, and I can’t get a work permit without a job.  It’s a catch 22 situation!”

chill wind

If you face or feel the chill wind of something, you are beginning to encounter the problems or trouble it causes.
“Many building companies are facing the chill wind of the recession.”

(a) cloud on the horizon

A problem or difficulty that is predictable, or seems likely to arise in the future, is called a cloud on the horizon.
“They are happily married and for the moment there appear to be no clouds on the horizon.”

come to a head

If a problem or difficult situation comes to a head, it reaches a point where action has to be taken.

“The conflict came to a head yesterday when rioting broke out in the streets.”

come hell or high water

If you say that you will do something come hell or high water, you mean that you will do it in spite of the difficulties involved.
Come hell or high water, I’ve got to be on time for the interview.”

come out in the wash

This expression is used to tell someone not to worry about a mistake or problem because it won’t have any serious effect and everything will work out all right.
“Yes, he was furious when it happened, but don’t worry – it’ll all come out in the wash.”

(a) cross to bear

A person who has across to bear have a serious problem or heavy responsibility that they must accept because they cannot change it.
“Alzheimer’s is a cross to bear for the whole family.”

cross that bridge when we come to it

This is another way of saying ‘we will deal with that problem when it occurs and not worry about it before’.
“What will happen if we can’t repay the loan?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

(the) crux of the matter

The most vital or main part of a problem is called the crux of the matter.
“The crux of the matter is that he’s too old to live alone in that big house.”

a dead man walking

A dead man walking is someone who will inevitably be in great trouble very soon, especially a person who is about to lose their job or position.
“Because of the way he handled the recent riots, the minister is a dead man walking.”

disaster written all over it 

If something, such as a plan or idea, has disaster written all over it, it is thought to be heading for complete failure, or will cause a lot of trouble.
“Mary’s idea of a holiday with her in-laws has disaster written all over it!”

dodge a bullet

If you dodge a bullet, you narrowly avoid a very serious problem or a disaster.
“I dodged a bullet when I missed the plane. It crashed just after take-off.”

an elephant in the room

A problem that no one wants to discuss, but is so obvious that it cannot be ignored, is called an elephant in the room.
“Let’s face it, his work is unsatisfactory. It’s an elephant in the room that we need to discuss.”

the fat hits the fire

When trouble breaks out, or a situation deteriorates as a result of something said or done, it is said that the fat hits the fire.
“The situation was already tense, but the fat hit the fire when Larry was accused of cheating.”

get to the bottom (of something)

If you get to the bottom of a problem or mystery, you solve it by finding out the true cause of it.
“We have a problem of goods disappearing during transport. Hopefully the investigation will get to the bottom of it.”

go haywire

If something goes haywire, it becomes disorganised or goes out of control.
“The photocopier has gone completely haywire. It’s only printing half of each page!”

go pear-shaped

If a plan or project goes pear-shaped, it either goes wrong or it produces an undesirable result.
“Jane organised a treasure hunt in the park for the kids but it all went pear-shaped and everyone was disappointed.”

go through the mill

If you go through the mill, you experience a very difficult period, or are exposed to rough treatment.
“When I was an intern, I was put through the mill. Nothing went unnoticed.”

when the going gets tough …

This expression means that when faced with a difficult or dangerous situation, strong people take action in order to solve the problem.
“Tom has a positive attitude. He often says ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going‘.”

grasp at straws

If you are in a desperate situation and you grasp at straws, you try any method, even if it has little chance of success, in an attempt to find a solution.
“In his search for a cure, he turned to a faith healer, knowing that he was grasping at straws.”

hang (someone) out to dry

If you abandon someone who is in difficulty, without giving any assistance or support, you hang them out to dry.
“You’ll get no help from Jack. He’ll hang you out to dry if your plan fails.”

leave high and dry

If you are left high and dry, you find yourself in a difficult situation without help or resources.
“When her husband walked out on her, Amanda was left high and dry with two kids to raise.”

in dire straits

If a person or organisation is in dire straits, they are in a very difficult situation.
“The loss of major contracts has put the company in dire straits.”

leave in the lurch

If something leaves you in the lurch, it leaves you in a difficult or embarrassing situation.
“When Paul missed the last bus, he was left in the lurch.”

in over your head

If you are in over your head, you are involved in something that is too difficult for you to handle.
“I accepted to organise the festival, but I quickly realized that I was in over my head.”

juggle frogs

A person who is juggling frogs is trying to deal with many different tasks at the same time and finding the situation difficult.
“I’ve got so many things to do at the moment, I feel like I’m juggling frogs!”

a last resort

To say that you would so something as a last resort means that it is the last thing you would do if you were desperate and all other courses of action had failed.
“I still haven’t found a hotel for the night; I can always sleep in the car as a last resort!”

see light at the end of the tunnel

If you see light at the end of the tunnnel, you see signs of hope for the future after a long period of difficulty.
“Sales dropped heavily last year but we’re beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

a millstone around your neck

Something described as a millstone around your neck is a problem or responsibility that becomes a burden and a source of worry.
“The money he borrowed became a millstone around his neck.”

be murder

If something is murder, it is very difficult or uncomfortable.
“The journey home through the storm was absolute murder!”

a necessary evil

If you say that something is a necessary evil, you don’t like it but you understand that it has to exist and be accepted.
“Vaccinations are a necessary evil if you want to travel.”

one’s number is up

To say that one’s number is up means that either a person is in serious difficulty and something bad is going to happen, or the time has come when they will die.
“The police have located the escaped prisoner so it looks as if his number is up!”

ostrich strategy/policy

Someone who adopts an ostrich strategy or policy chooses to ignore or evade an obvious problem in the hope that it will resolve itself or disappear.
“Adopting an ostrich strategy will only make matters worse – we’ve got to find a solution.”

out of sync

If two movements or actions are out of sync, they are not coordinated and are not taking place at the same time or at the same speed.
“The traffic lights are out of sync and causing a lot of confusion.”

out of whack

If something is out of whack, it is not working properly or is not in good order.
“The dishwasher is making a strange noise. Something must be out of whack.”

paper over the cracks

To say that someone is papering over the cracks means that they are concealing a problem rather than dealing with it effectively.
“The measures taken to reduce unemployment are just paper over the cracks.”

pass the buck

If you say that someone is passing the buck, you are accusing them of not taking responsibility for a problem and letting others deal with it instead.
“Whenever a customer comes to complain, she always finds a way of looking busy – a great way of passing the buck!”

in a pickle

If you are in a pickle, you are in a difficult situation and need help.
“My car won’t start and the trains are on strike today, so I’m in a real pickle!”

no quick fix

To say that there is no quick fix to a problem means that there is no simple solution.
“There is no quick fix for unemployment; major reforms are necessary.”

put on a brave face

When confronted with difficulties, if you put on a brave face, you try to look cheerful and pretend that the situation is not as bad as it is.
“Even in the worst of times she put on a brave face.”

ride it out / ride out the storm

If you manage to survive a dangerous or very unpleasant situation, like a ship sailing through a storm, you ride it out.
“His business was hit by the recession but he managed to ride it out.”

saved by the bell

If you are saved by the bell, something happens at the last minute to rescue you from a difficult situation.
Saved by the bell! A friend arrived just when I realized I had no money for the parking meter.”

scratch the surface

When you only scratch the surface of a problem or subject, you deal with only a small part of it.
“Some countries are only scratching the surface of their environment problems.”

where the shoe pinches

When people talk about ‘where the shoe pinches’, they are referring to an area that is often a source of problems or difficulties.
“She’s sure the public transport system works perfectly, but she’ll find out where the shoe pinches when she starts using it!”

a shoulder to cry on

If you need ‘a shoulder to cry on’, you need to talk to someone who will listen to your problems and give sympathy and support when you are upset.
“You can call me any time if you need a shoulder to cry on.”

put a spanner in the works / throw a monkey wrench

To put a spanner in the works (or throw a (monkey) wrench) means to cause problems and prevent something from happening as planned.
“A new motorway was planned but a group of ecologists managed to put a spanner in the works.”

spell trouble

If something spells trouble, it signifies possible problems in the future.
“The prolonged cold weather spells trouble for this year’s harvest.”

spiral out of control

When difficulties or costs spiral out of control, they get worse or increase continuously, creating a situation that becomes difficult to manage.
“Some items were expensive but we were careful not to let the costs spiral out of control.”

on a sticky wicket

If you find yourself on a sticky wicket, you are in a situation that is difficult to deal with.
“They’ve refused to sign the contract so we’re on a sticky wicket now!”

stir up a hornet’s nest

If you stir up a hornet’s nest, you do something which causes a commotion and provokes criticism and anger.
“His letter to the Board stirred up a real hornet’s nest.”

stop the rot

When you prevent a situation from deteriorating, especially in business or politics, you stop the rot.
“There was so much conflict in the office that a new manager was appointed to stop the rot.”

take the bull by the horns

To take the bull by the horns means that a person decides to act decisively in order to deal with a difficult situation or problem.
“When the argument turned into a fight, the bar owner took the bull by the horns and called the police.”

take the easy way out

If you take the easy way out, you choose the easiest way to deal with a difficult situation, even if it is not the best solution.
“The weather conditions were so bad that Mary took the easy way out and cancelled her appointment.”

tar baby

This term refers to a sticky situation or problem for which it is virtually impossible to find a solution.
“He was advised not to get involved in the controversy which was considered a ‘tar-baby‘ issue.”

teething problems

The difficulties encountered during the initial stage of an activity or project are called teething problems.
“We had some teething problems when we first opened the bookshop, but now everything is okay.”

a thorny issue

If you are faced with a thorny issue, you have to deal with a difficult or unpleasant problem.
“Copyright and content duplication are thorny issues these days.”

throw money at something

If you throw money at something, you try to solve a problem by spending money on it, without using any other methods.
“The refugee problem cannot be solved just by throwing money at it.”

throw it over the wall

If someone throws something over the wall, they deal with part of a problem or project, then pass the responsibility to another person or department without any communication or coordination.
“You can’t just manufacture a product then throw it over the wall to the sales department!”

tide over

If you tide someone over, you support them through a difficult period for a certain length of time.
“With this weather it’s impossible to get to the shops, but we have enough food to tide us over until next week.”

tight spot

Someone who is in a tight spot is in a very difficult situation.
“The recent strike has put the airline company in a tight spot.”

tip of the iceberg

The tip of the iceberg is the part that is known of a problem or situation which is thought to be much more serious.
“Journalists say that the report on corruption only examines the tip of the iceberg.”


This term is used for a situation which is even more difficult than a dilemma, because a choice must be made between three options that seem equally undesirable.

twist in the wind

If someone is left to twist in the wind, they are left to face a difficult situation without any assistance or support.
“He walked out of the press conference and left his agent twisting in the wind.”

unmitigated disaster

An unmitigated disaster is a complete failure or a total catastrophe.
“The organisation of the tournament was an unmitigated disaster!”

an uphill battle

A person faced with an uphill battle has to struggle against very unfavourable circumstances.
“After the terrible accident, his recovery was an uphill battle all the way.”

a vicious circle

When the solution to a problem creates another problem similar to the original, or makes it worse, so that the process starts all over again, the situation is called a vicious circle.
“I borrowed money to reimburse Paul. Now I’ve got to reimburse the bank, with interest. It’s a vicious circle.”

wave a dead chicken

When faced with a serious problem, if you do something that you know in advance will be futile, to show that you made an effort, you wave a dead chicken.
“The TV set was permanently damaged, but the technician decided to wave a dead chicken to satisfy the old lady before announcing the bad news.”

the wheels fall off

When a situation gets out of control and everything starts to go wrong, the wheels fall off.
“The wheels fell off her career when she started taking drugs and cancelling concerts.”

without a hitch

If something happens without a hitch, it takes place exactly as planned, without any difficulties.
“The ceremony went off without a hitch, to our great relief!”

work cut out for you

If you have to face a difficult task or a challenging situation, you have your work cut out for you.
“I’ve got a month to reorganise the accounts department. I have my work cut out for me!”

a yoke around your neck

An obligation, commitment or restraint that becomes an oppressive burden is called a yoke around your neck.
“When John lost his job, the repayments on the house became a yoke around his neck.”