I will never forget the first time I saw my husband’s face. I nearly fell over. I get the giggles every time I kiss my nephews on their chubby cheeks, and when I remember my grandmother, I remember her mischievous smile and her sparkling eyes. We spend a lot of time focused on people’s faces, and that is reflected in the language we use. English has a lot of words and expressions about faces! Today’s post focuses specifically on 11 English face idioms and their meanings. Keep reading to learn 11 face idioms in English, be they idioms about the eyes, nose, mouth, etc. At the end, test yourself with the face idioms practice quiz, which I created especially for you!
Face Idiom 1: KEEP YOUR CHIN UP
The first face idiom we will look at is keep your chin up. If you keep your chin up, you try to stay cheerful even though you are in a difficult or unpleasant situation. We often use this in the imperative (= command form), and in the imperative, we also often shorten the expression to simply “Chin up!”
John: I can’t believe I broke my ankle right before the championship.
Tanner: Chin up! I know you’re feeling down about it now, but there will be other championships.
Camilla: How have you been doing?
Sean: Things have been hard since mom died, but I’ve been trying to keep my chin up.
Face Idiom 2: RUB SOMEONE’S NOSE IN IT
A person who rubs someone’s nose in it is not a very nice person. This informal face idiom means to keep reminding someone in an unkind way of their past mistakes.
Ethel: I know I had a gambling addiction in the past, but you don’t need to rub my nose in it. I haven’t been to a casino in years.
Face Idiom 3: MY LIPS ARE SEALED.
After someone tells you secret information, you might respond by saying, “My lips are sealed.” This means that you will not repeat their secret to other people.
Zelda: Please don’t mention this to anyone, but I heard that they’re going to fire Cindy if they catch her on her cell phone one more time.
Mike: My lips are sealed.
Face Idiom 4: AN EYE FOR AN EYE (AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH)
This face idiom comes from the Bible. It was used multiple times throughout the Old Testament (= the part of the Bible that comes before the birth of Christ). In the Bible, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a system of justice whereby a person received punishment for hurting someone else by being hurt in the same way. In Exodus 21, for instance, the punishment for hitting your servant in the eye is for you to be hit in the eye, and the punishment for hitting your servant so hard that they lose a tooth is that you yourself must lose a tooth.
Today, we use this idiom to describe any punishment or revenge that is equal to the original injury or offense.
Hector: We’ll never solve our problems if we keep thinking in terms of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We’ve got to learn to forgive each other if we want to move on.
Sometimes, people use this idiom on its own after they express an intention to exact revenge on someone. When the idiom stands alone, it is meant to communicate that the speaker agrees with the notion of an eye for an eye.
Claudia: That bastard killed my son, and I won’t rest until he sits there sobbing over his own son’s corpse. An eye for an eye.
In response to this way of thinking, Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Face Idiom 5: TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
The opposite of an eye for an eye is this next face idiom: turn the other cheek. When you turn the other cheek, you make a deliberate decision to remain calm and not act in an aggressive way when someone has hurt you or made you angry.
Like an eye for an eye, this idiom also comes from the Bible. One of the most famous passages in the New Testament (= the part of the Bible that describes the life and teachings of Jesus Christ) is Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which is the longest passage of Christ speaking in the entire Bible. One of the principles that Jesus teaches during the Sermon on the Mount is forgiveness:
38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The King James Bible, Matthew 5:38–39
In other words, Jesus taught that if someone hits you on one cheek, you should turn your face to allow them to hit your other cheek, too. This idiom is extremely common today, and many people use it without ever thinking back to its religious roots. You can use this idiom and the previous idiom no matter what your religious affiliations are.
Victoria: If you work in hospitality, you’ve got to learn to turn the other cheek, no matter what a guest says or does. I had someone scream in my face yesterday because his room wasn’t ready, but instead of yelling back at him, I offered him a $20 voucher for the bar so he could sit and enjoy a drink while he waited.
Related: 9 Nautical Idioms and Their Meanings
Face Idiom 6: SNAKE EYES (+ Bonus Idiom! ROLL SNAKE EYES)
Snake eyes is an informal idiom that refers to a result in a game where you roll two dice and both show one dot. In general, snake eyes are considered unlucky. In the game of craps, it’s the lowest possible result.
Theo: Why are you shooting craps with us when you’ve got a baby on the way? One snake eyes, and you’re out $500.
Because rolling snake eyes is so unlucky, it’s become a separate idiom in its own right! If you roll snake eyes, you have bad luck.
Lionel: Why so glum?
Will: I’ve been rolling snake eyes lately. That job I was hoping to get fell through, my wife found my collection of dirty magazines, and I’ve got an outbreak of eczema on my hands. I need some good luck, and soon!
Face Idiom 7: BY THE SWEAT OF YOUR BROW
If you achieve something by the sweat of your brow, you achieve it through your own hard work. Although this can refer to any type of hard work, we often use it to talk about manual labor.
This also comes from the Bible. (Genesis 3:19, if you’re interested.)
Brow is a literary term for someone’s forehead, and this idiom also has a literary tone.
Niles: I didn’t inherit millions of dollars. I built this business by the sweat of my brow, and I’m not going to let you take it away from me.
Face Idiom 8: PAY THROUGH THE NOSE (FOR SOMETHING)
When you pay through the nose (for something), you pay too much money (for something).
Adriana: I’m livid about all the overtime they cheated me out of. Do you know any employment lawyers who could help me sue them?
Max: Actually, my brother-in-law is one of the top employment lawyers in the state, but you’ll pay through the nose. He charges $800/hour!
William: What an exquisite purse!
Mary: Thanks! I paid through the nose for it, but I couldn’t help myself. I love it!
Face Idiom 9: ARMED TO THE TEETH
Armed to the teeth means having many weapons.
This is an idiom with a great origin story! The image of being armed to the teeth comes from pirates!
The term originated in Port Royal, Jamaica in the 1600s when pirates were constantly looking for ships to loot and their guns were very primitive. As a result, pirates could only shoot once before a long reloading process. Consequently, they needed to carry a gun in each hand, and also perhaps in each pocket. For extra power, they would also hold a knife between their teeth. So “to be armed to the teeth” means to carry the maximum number of weapons possible.
The Times of India, “What is the origin of the term ‘armed to the teeth’?”
Carl: We need to be smart about how we raid the cartels. They are armed to the teeth.
Face Idiom 10: HOLD YOUR TONGUE
Can you imagine literally holding your tongue? That would make it difficult to speak, wouldn’t it? The idiom hold your tongue means to say nothing even though you would like to give your opinion.
Ursula: It was difficult to hold my tongue when your parents started talking politics, but I didn’t want to start an argument at the dinner table.
We also often use this idiom in the imperative.
Katherine: Your wife is the most self-centered person I’ve ever met!
Bob: Hold your tongue!
Face Idiom 11: CHEEK BY JOWL (WITH SOMEONE/SOMETHING)
I love this face idiom, mostly because I adore the word jowl. (And I’ve defined it for you here, if you’re curious.)
Cheek by jowl (with someone/something) means very physically close to someone/something.
Lupita: They were squished cheek by jowl into the auditorium to see the concert. It became so hot in there that a few people actually fainted.
Francesca: I was sitting cheek by jowl with Luke Evans on the subway, and I didn’t even realize it until he stood up to leave!
Quiz Yourself on English Face Idioms!
Once you study these face idioms, take this practice quiz to test your ability to use them in context.
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