40 Idioms with First

By Mark Nichol

Many expressions include the word first, often referring to beginnings or initial experiences. Here is a list of idiomatic phrases featuring the word, and their meanings.

1. First aid: medical care for minor injuries such as mild abrasions, cuts, bruises, and burns

2. First among equals: the sentiment that a leader is merely the premier person among his or her colleagues

3. First base: the first step or stage in a process or procedure, from baseball terminology

4. First blood: referring to the rite of passage of a hunter making a first kill

5. (At) first blush: referring to reconsideration of one’s initial thought

6. First call: the right to priority in use of something

7. First cause: the philosophical concept of the original self-created cause of which all other causes are by-products

8. First chair: the lead musician among those playing a particular instrument in an orchestra (such as first violin)

9. First class: the best category of travel accommodations, or the best in terms of performance or quality

10. First come, first served: the principle that the customer who arrives first is given priority

11. First cousin: a son or daughter of one’s aunt or uncle

12. First crack: the earliest chance or opportunity

13. First dance: the tradition of the guests of honor being the first couple on the dance floor to start a ball or other dance event

14. First dibs: see “first call”

15. First down: the first in a series of plays in American football after one team takes possession of the ball from the other team

16. First edition: the initial publication of a book

17. First estate: the clergy as the highest of the three orders of society in the Middle Ages and for some time afterward (the others were the nobility and the common people)

18. First floor: the ground floor (in American English usage) or the second floor (in British English usage)

19. First flush (of success): an initial period of achievement (the term is also used technically to refer to the initial runoff of rainwater after a storm)

20. First glance: a superficial examination or review

21. (At) first hand: with direct experience (as an adjective, firsthand)

22. First impression: the initial evaluation of information or an experience, generally before having time to consider or ponder

23. First lady: the wife of a government’s leader

24. First leg: the first part of a journey

25. First light: the earliest part of day

26. First night: the evening of a premiere performance, or the premiere performance itself

27. (In the) first place: in the beginning, or as an initial consideration

28. (Right of) first refusal: the privilege of being able to accept or reject an offer or proposal before anyone else is given consideration

29. (Love at) first sight: the sentiment of an instant romantic connection

30. (The) first step (is always the hardest): the notion that starting a task is the most difficult part

31. (Cast the) first stone: used to refer to hypocritical behavior akin to
throwing a stone at someone as punishment for a crime when the thrower may be culpable for the same crime or another one

32. First string: the group of athletes who participate from the beginning an athletic competition, as opposed to players who may substitute for first-string teammates at some point; by extension, the best among any group

33. (Don’t) know the first thing about: the model for an expression stating that someone is unacquainted with even the basics of a certain procedure or topic

34. First things first: refers to the importance of considering the relative priority of steps

35. First-timer: someone engaging or participating in some activity the person has not done before

36. First water: the highest quality, especially in gems but also said figuratively of people of high character

37. First world: the developed, industrialized nations

38. (If at) first you don’t succeed (try again): the sentiment that one should persist after initial failure

39. Ladies first: a sentiment that, according to proper etiquette, females should have priority in passing through a doorway or into another area

40. Shoot first (and ask questions later): referring to the supposed wisdom, in a confrontation, of disabling a potential adversary first and then ascertaining whether the person is in fact a foe

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16 Responses to “40 Idioms with First”

  • Bill

    Not to make anyone blush, but my non-baseball definition of first base is kissing. True, you could lump that in as a “first step or stage in a process or procedure,” but that sounds kind of cold.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I think “first aid” has more to do with when medical assistance is delivered than it does with the level of medical assistance, i.e., it’s not limited to minor injuries as the article implies. A timely tourniquet immediately following an automobile accident is first aid just as much as a Band-Aid to a barked shin.

    First down is also used in Canadian football.

    First leg is also often used figuratively, e.g., the first leg of a firm’s reörganization plan.

  • John

    “First Night” is also the celebration of New Years Eve. (Although technically it’s last night, and first morning)

  • thebluebird11

    LOL @Bill.
    To the list, I could add:
    1. The concept of FIFO, first in, first out, in terms of inventory, processing, accounting, etc. Similar I guess to FCFS (first come, first served) mentioned above.
    2. First run, expression used to describe when a movie first comes out and is playing at full price in larger theaters (theatres 😉 ).

  • Andy

    While your definition of “first blood” may be accurate, I have always understood it differently. A duel can be until first blood — ending when one combatant wounds the other to cause bleeding. And if you recall the “Rambo” series of films, the first was, if I recall correctly, titled “First Blood.” If I remember the plot correctly, Rambo would not back down because the other side had drawn first blood (injured Rambo), so it was up to that side to back down, not him, according to his understanding of the “rules.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, heck:
    There is a whole set of categories in terms of the practice and the theory of “queuing” and information processing.
    FIFO describes the operation of a “shift register” in a computer or other kinds of electronic devices. There are also other kinds of FIFO memory units.

    Besides FIFO, there are
    FILO = “first in, last out”, which is the way that a “stack” is processed.
    LIFO = “last in, first out”, which is another way of describing the operation of a “stack”.
    LILO = “last in, last out”, but this works out to be the same as FIFO.

    In electronics, there are differences beween a device, a unit, a subsystem, and a system, and you can count on general journalists using the wrong word just about 99 percent of the time.

    To confuse common people more, when information is to be processed in a stack (FILO), when you add something to the top of a stack, that is called PUSH. When you PUSH something new onto the stack, everything else moves down one step in the memory. Then when you remove something from the top of the stack, that is called POP. When you POP something off the top of the stack, everything else moves up one step in the stack.

    So, when your boss gives you a new assignment in writing, just tell him/her “I will PUSH it onto the top of my stack.” Then when you are daydreaming and your boss tells you to “get with it”, just tell him/her “I will POP the item off the top of my stack.”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Concerning:
    “First among equals: the sentiment that a leader is merely the premier person among his or her colleagues”

    No, in many communist and fascist dictatorships, one person is often advertized as being the “first among equals” when that it merely a coverup for the fact that this person is really the TOP BANANA and the BIG KAHUNA – the person who really tells everyone else what to do. The others on the “central committee”, or the “junta”, or whatever it is called are merely “hat holders” and those who “rubber stamp” whatever the TOP FIDDLE tells them what to do.

    For a specific example, there was a time in the 1960s when Nikita Khruschev was the TOP BANANA of the U.S.S.R., but there was a “bloodless coup” and he was “ousted” and sent away to live in a dachau well-outside of Moscow. He didn’t have any power anymore.

    The Communist Party announced that there was then a TROIKA of three top leaders: Leonid Brezhnev, Alexi Kosygin, and President Podgorny. They were all telling a BIG LIE: Brezhnev was really the FEARLESS LEADER. Within six months, we didn’t hear about Mr. Podgorny anymore in the Western press or on TV. (I would have to look him up on the Internet to find out anything about him. I don’t even know what decade he died in.) Mr. Kosygin lasted longer – maybe two years. Perhaps Mr. Brezhnev took that long to consolidate his power.

    I am pretty sure that by the time that President Nixon visited Moscow**, for all practical purposes nobody mentioned any Soviet leaders except Mr. Brezhnev and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Mr. Gromyko probably had made a wise decision to be the Foreign Minister (the position that he had held since the late 1940s) and be happy with it, and not get involved in any power struggles at the top.

    Mr. Gromyko was a man whom the United States could deal with. Among other positive qualities, he spoke English well, and he had served as the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. Gromyko was the one who signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 (a.k.a. the Treaty of Moscow of 1963). Of course, he had the approval of Premier Khruschev to do this. The other two signatories were Secretary of State Dean Rusk of the U.S.A. and Foreign Minister Alec Douglas-Home of the U.K. That was the most outstanding achievement in foreign policy of John F. Kennedy, and it bans the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in outer space. The only place left was underground.

    France and China have not signed this treaty, but they have been following its terms for many years now, as has Israel, which is known to have nuclear weapons but had not tested any.

  • Dale A. Wood

    First dance: the tradition of the guests of honor being the first couple on the dance floor to start a ball or other dance event.

    “Dance event”? The first dance is also danced by the bride and groom at a wedding, which is not a dance event. The dancing is completely secondary to the wedding ceremony.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “First dance” is not an idiom, but rather it is something that is literally true in plain English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “First blood” also refers to things that have nothing to do with hunting animals. “First blood” is drawn in the first battle of a war between human beings.

    It can be said that “The shot heard around the world” in Boston, Massachusetts, drew the first blood of the Revolutionary War.

    For the United States, the first blood of World War II was when a Nazi German U-boat torpedoed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the midatlantic, killing and wounding sailors on board. This happened months before December 7, 1941, and President Franklin Roosevelt had already given the Navy the authority to escort shipping from the United States all the way out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and to use “all measures short of war” to counter the U-boat offensive against merchant ships. Both the USS KEARNEY and the USS REUBEN JAMES were torpedoed while the United States was still at peace in 1941.

    The goal was that at the midatlatic, the defense of the merchant ships would be turned over to the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, and whatever (small number of) Dutch, French, and Danish ships were available.

    What the German U-boats did was actually acts of war, but the Congress of the U.S. was in a deep state of isolationism them, so Congress let it slide by. President Roosevelt was doing everything that he could, and the Army and the Navy were already making plans to enter the war on the side of the British, the Canadians, and the Australians.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “First floor” as described above is not an idiom, but rather it is something that is literally true, counting from surface of the ground up. On the othe hand, the expression “to get in on the ground floor” can be an idiom that does not have anything to do with literal buildings.
    For example, “to get in on the ground floor” with an organization can mean to be one of the original members of it. The United States of America got in on the ground floor by becoming the first country (of European roots) to declare its independence from the powers of Europe – in this case, from the United Kingdom. Other nations followed when they declared their independence from the Spanish Empire, Portugal, and France.
    This justifies my country’s calling itself the United States of America because all of the other countries of the New World came later.
    The United States of America also got in on the ground floor by establishing the “dollar” as its national unit of currency. Thus, the word “dollar” means “American dollar” or “U.S. dollar” unless stated otherwise. This is what we call the “default meaning”.

    All of these came later: Australian dollar, Bahamian dollar, Canadian dollar, Hong Kong dollar, New Zealand dollar, and West Indian dollar. So it is not a case of arrogance or anything like that, but rather is is just a case of coming first and getting in on the first floor.

    By the way, the official unit of currency in the British Virgin Islands is the American dollar and not the pound sterling, the West Indian dollar, or the euro. Also, I have never had any trouble spending American dollars in Mexico or Canada, but when I was taking a vacation in Canada for a week, I did exchange my money for Canadian dollars. Since I was a guest there, this was the courteous thing to do. Otherwise, I just used my VISA card, and the exchange was done for me automatically.

  • billy shaw

    The definition of first floor brought a smile to my face. It is surely not correct to say that in British English the first floor is the second floor but rather the first floor is the floor one above the ground floor and similarly the second floor would be the floor two above the ground floor.

  • Stefano

    Trust Mr Dale A. Wood to put the kiss of death on a blog post with a load of unnecessary and uncalled for trivia.

    Dear Mr Wood, why don’t you start your own blog so that your loyal followers (if any) can enjoy undiluted amounts of your wisdom and wit?

  • venqax

    he was “ousted” and sent away to live in a dachau well-outside of Moscow.
    Actually, Comrade Khruschev went to a dacha. Not a dachau, which is infinitely worse.

    The phrase “first among equals” is used in most parliamentary systems, democratic or not, to indicate that power rests with a committee, rather than a person. It is rarely true anymore, if it ever was, in democratic or non-democratic contexts. The British PM is more than a coequal in fact, but hardly a fascist dictator, still the the term is applied. And the term, not the accuracy of it, is the point MN was dealing with, I think. Just adding to the trivia…

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax: How kind and patient you must be, to read all of these posts with such a keen and deliberate eye! As for me, my kindness and patience have been worn thin, and my decision to read a post or not depends on the poster. Trivia can be entertaining in small doses; I’m with Stefano on this one.

  • Mohini Singh

    “First flush” is also used for the first leaves of a tea plant. A first flush is considered to be the best quality tea.

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