30 American Sayings That Surprise The Rest of the World

30 American Sayings That Surprise The Rest of the World

Content american sayings

Author: Mark Blackwood, follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

There are many American sayings that make sense only to those who live in the United States. But considering how physical borders between different regions are loosening, these sayings gain an increasingly prominent role in a global culture. Tourists, immigrants, students who plan on moving to the US — all these people encounter at least some colloquial phrases in English, and then they end up confused because many of them sound like total nonsense. In fact, even if you know English well and have conversations in it on a daily basis, you might still be taken aback because it’s impossible to learn everything. Let’s see which idiomatic expressions are used most frequently.   


Common American Phrases That Say One Thing But Mean Another

No matter how many years you’ve spent on learning English, chances are, you’ll encounter something you don’t know at least from time to time. There are millions of catchphrases and idioms. Here are thirty of them that could be viewed as both common and tricky.  


1)  Spill the tea

If you hear someone use this phrase, you’ll probably think that they are complaining about being clumsy and pushing their cup of tea over accidentally. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Spill the tea” is basically sharing a succulent piece of gossip or a secret with another person. It originated in 1994 within the LGBTQ community, where the initial words were “spill the T”, with “T” standing for “truth”. “T” and “tea” sound identical, which is how this idiom was born.


2)  Go Dutch

Real origins of this American English phrase are vague, but it is believed to have appeared back in the 17th century due to frequent conflicts between English- and German-speaking countries. In short, it means that if two parties meet to do some common activity together, they’ll pay independently for it. As an example, while on a date, two people “go Dutch” if they pay for their meals separately.

Useful: Find the best Dutch translation services with us.


3)  Monday-morning quarterback

Introduced by a sportsman in 1931, this American English phrase describes a person who rebukes others for how they handled a problem and offers their own solution despite the fact that this situation is already in the past (which makes their solution useless).  


4)  Cut to the chase

This strange American expression has emerged in old studios producing silent movies. It’s related to a way information is presented: “cut to the chase” stands for getting to a point and presenting crucial facts.


5)  Periodt

This is a part of modern slang that has emerged in a Black community years ago. It’s an emphasis put at the end of a sentence with an aim to make a point clearer and draw more attention to it. For example, you could say, “I’ll punish you when you get home, periodt!” To better understand it, replace it mentally with such words as “and that’s final!” 


6)  Shoot the breeze

 Among common American expressions, this is among the oldest. It appeared in early 1900s, and it marks having a casual, pretty much meaningless conversation with someone.


7)  Long in the tooth

This American expression has a funny history. It appeared about two centuries ago after people observed horses and figured out that the older they get, the longer their teeth become. So, it implies that someone who’s long in the tooth is old.


 8)  Rocket science

This saying is believed to have emerged during or after WW2, and it is really easy to remember its meaning. As you know, rocket science is incredibly complex, and that’s exactly what the phrase itself denotes. A notable thing is that it is usually used in a negative context — for example, “How could you not understand it, it’s not rocket science!”  


9)  Behind the eight ball

There are many American English phrases related to sport, and this falls into the same category. It was mentioned in 1920 in context of a pool game, implying finding oneself in a bad situation.


10)  Take a rain check

 Another old sport-based saying was born in the 1800s. If the rain destroyed people’s chances to watch a basketball match despite them buying a ticket, they got vouchers that allowed them to visit the game again later. These vouchers were also called a rain check. So, if you can’t meet an interlocutor when they ask, you can offer to take a rain check. 

Read also: Best game localization services reviewed by experts.


11)  Up my alley

This American English phrase was first documented in 1931. If you like something, you can say that it is “up your alley.”


12)  Bonkers

 This word appeared in a collection of slang phrases in 1948. “To be bonkers” is the same as to be mad.


13)  Working the graveyard shift

From all famous American sayings, history of this phrase is full of misconceptions. Contrary to people’s belief, actual graveyards have little to do with an idea underlying it. In 1895, one of old newspapers published a story about people working with coal mines late at night. Their workplace was as empty as it usually is at a graveyard, so since those times, “working the graveyard shift” stands for working at night, usually from midnight to early morning.


14)  Green thumb

This saying is being used from 1900s, “green thumb” is related to someone’s talent and experience in growing plants.


15)  Gotta get flat

This colloquialism emerged in California, though its exact history is unclear. Its implication is simple and can be rephrased with, “Gotta lie down.” It is applicable if you’re tired or feel unwell.


16)  Ballpark figure

Like numerous common American sayings, “ballpark figure” started with sport, namely, with baseball, when a commentator determined how many people were present. It denotes an approximate number or costs of something.


17)  Jump the shark

After top TV shows and sitcoms started growing boring and their directors desperately tried to include some grand events in them to surprise the audience, people began to call this phenomenon “jumping the shark.” So, this saying denotes a drop in a fictional product’s quality.


18)  Bummer

Originating in Germany, this expression came into American usage at the end of 1960s. It is related to “bum,” describing an unpleasant or disheartening situation.  

Read also: How to pick professional German translation service?


19)  Scoot over

 Appearing in the Midlands, this expression is among classic American phrases. People use it when they want someone to move aside and free some space.


20)  John Hancock

 The man with this name was among the top leaders in American Revolution. As he signed an important document, his signature turned out to be comically large, so now “John Hancock” saying refers to one’s signature.  


21)  For the birds

Expression emerged in 1944 in the US, meaning something trivial or stupid (inspired by the fact that birds often try to peck their or other animals’ droppings).


22)  Plead the Fifth

This American expression is connected with the Fifth Amendment of American Constitution. It tends to be used by people who are interrogated by law enforcement officers or when in court. By saying that they “plead the fifth”, they imply their refusal to answer any incriminating questions.


23)  307

This number expression is among weird American sayings. It’s not really clear where or when it came from because people have different versions, but it means something fantastic. If you hear, “He pulled a 307 last evening!”, you can assume that this person has done something amazing.  


24)  All Gucci

For many people, Gucci means quality. That’s why Americans started saying “all Gucci” to show that everything is fine. “All right” is its close synonym.


25)  Drip

In our list, this word has the strangest history because on the one hand, it’s pretty new, becoming popular only in 2018, and on the other, its meaning is extremely unclear from the first glance. Saying was spread by representatives of music industry, and it stands for “outfit.” So, don’t be confused if you hear someone say, “Her drip was awesome yesterday!”


26)  Get Your Ducks in a Row

This is one of most commonly used sentences in American English that has an unclear background. It emerged either from a bowling game or from shooting sessions where artificial ducks were used as training targets. To get one’s ducks in a row means to organize everything properly, bit by bit, setting them all in order.


27)  Off the hook

As it can be derived from expression itself, its context is fishing. When the fish gets off the hook, it is no longer in danger, and the same applies to a person: they get rid of some unwanted obligation or annoying attention.  


28)  Like white on rice

The first solid documentation of this expression is dated back to 1951. It was used as a poetic tool in books and poems, ending up as a representative of American phrases that confuse foreigners. Rice is white, so whiteness and rice are basically one and the same. As such, “like white on rice” is about being in extremely close proximity to someone or being all over this person.


29)  Karen

This is a slang term that’s used by many young people in their daily life. It refers to a middle-aged white woman with a stereotypical, racist, and entitled mindset who shows hostility as well as shallowness to everyone and everything she doesn’t understand. As for origins, it seems to have originated from black Twitter community, but related versions differ.  


 30)  To be shook

It’s a form of slang and dialect that started being applied in 1800s. “To be shook” means experiencing intense emotions, usually of surprised or shocking nature. Whether you are furious with something or elated, you can describe such a state with this phrase.

Read also: Where to find the top Swedish translator?


Learn Even More American Expressions and Seek Help With Their Translation

America is a country with numerous cultures, but native speakers will manage to understand each other no matter what English idioms they use.  While you might never gain complete knowledge of every expression in existence, you could still learn their most popular forms. If you need help with understanding a message full of such phrases, you can always look for assistance on online English forums or contact professional document translation services. You could also search for meanings manually — if you enjoy English and feel passionate about learning more, you’ll undoubtedly find the process of deciphering various idioms exciting.


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