How to find the meaning any English idiom without a dictionary (updated for 2020)

If you’re an independent learner of English you’re used to looking up English idioms in a dictionary. You might even have a special dictionary just for idioms. Dictionaries can help you learn the meaning of many English idioms, but dictionaries are not perfect: we’ve all experienced the frustration not being able to find the idiom we’re looking for in the dictionary.

Luckily, there is a simple trick for finding the meaning of English idioms online. It’s so fast and easy that I rarely bother with an actual dictionary anymore unless I really need to go in-depth. Here’ is all you have to do to find the meaning of any English idiom that you come across (it works for slang, too). Go to Google and type your idiom into the search box with a few extra special words to help Google know what you’re looking for. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you heard this conversation:

Michael: Would you mind if I tried your new guitar?
Lori: Sure, knock yourself out!

What does “knock yourself out” mean here? If your best guess isn’t good enough, you need to check it.

The first thing to try is to just type any of the following searches into Google:

  • What does knock yourself out mean
  • knock yourself out in English
  • idiom knock yourself out
  • knock yourself out meaning
  • knock yourself out usage

Then you just scroll through the results, which, with luck, will be a combination of online dictionary definitions, definitions on English learning websites, and discussions about the meaning of the idiom on online communities and social media. Make sure to check out any legitimate-looking online discussions that you find; they often contain interesting and useful ideas about meaning and usage and give you far more insight than you will get from a dictionary definition. Google is getting really, really smart, so chances are good that you’ll have a useful answer as the first search result.

If you don’t get useful results on your first search, try adjusting your search terms. For example, for “knock yourself out” you can try the “dictionary form” knock oneself out.
idiom “knock oneself out”
idiom knock oneself out

Google is not a perfect corpus by a long shot, but it is a fantastic tool for doing quick’n’dirty research on the meaning and usage of English idioms. The same searches also work for slang expressions, and even acronyms and abbreviations. I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes reading the Google search help file so that you can take full advantage of this wonderful tool.

I use the search trick I’ve shown you today all the time; in fact, Google is my number one reference tool for double-checking my native-speaker intuition about how idioms are used and what they mean.

Why is it important to look up the meaning of English idioms? Well, idiomatic expressions are notoriously difficult for English learners, because they rarely make sense if you translate them word-for-word into your own language. For example, the idiom “to wing it” has nothing to do with birds or flying. It means “to improvise.” That’s why it’s important to know how to find the meaning of English idioms that you don’t know. With just a little practice of the search tricks above, you can find the meaning of any English idiom that you come across.