Even if British, Australians and many other people around the world speak English as a first or second language, there are still variations in the English phrases they use. As such several English phrases that are commonly used by Americans may confuse foreigners, just like there are words and phrases that are uniquely used by different English speakers. For example, Australians say How ya going? (How are you?), fair dinkum (It’s a fact/It’s the truth), fully sick (very good quality/This is great) and true blue (genuine, honest, real).
So, if you are meeting new friends from the United States, collaborating with an American or have American colleagues at work, you may hear some phrases and idioms from them that may make you shake your head in confusion.
These expressions vary in application, from friends, things, sports and food. Some of these were developed from slang words used throughout history while others were constructed and put together from words and ideas from other English speakers from other countries.
Baffling American phrases
It’s not too late to understand the purely American phrases and idioms. As you read on, you’ll be able to understand the meaning of some of these American English phrases. As mentioned earlier, some originated several years back. However, even if the expressions are dated, they are still in use, with the meaning remaining the same. Look at some of the phrases that Americans use that may not be readily understood by foreigners:
1. Piece of cake
When an American says it’s a piece of cake, it does not mean that he or she is pertaining to a slice of cake. What the person means is that a task or a job is straightforward or easy. While the actual origin is not known, it is probable that it came from a 1935 poetry collection entitled The Primrose Path that was written by Ogden Nash, an American humorist.
2. It’s not rocket science
The common knowledge is that the phrase was created in relation to the fact that the United States was the first among the English-speaking countries to have an intensive rocket science study program. The meaning of the phrase is somewhat similar to the first one – a thing that is easy to understand. It became popular in the 1980s.
3. Shoot the breeze
In the 19th century, breeze was the slang word for rumor. When Americans say they are shooting the breeze, it means that they are indulging in idle talk for things that are not important. Otherwise, they are just wasting time with empty chatter, the new meaning of the phrase that became popular starting in 1910.
4. Break a leg
This particular phrase came from American theater. It’s a superstitious idiom exchanged by actors to wish them a great performance. It first appeared on print in a newspaper in the U.S. in 1948.
What’s interesting about this phrase it that many believe that it originated from Hals- und Beinbruch, a German saying meaning neck and leg break. Others believe that it is a corrupted version of hatzlakha u-brakha, that means success and blessing, which is a Hebrew blessing. It could have entered the American lexicon through the Yiddish language that was spoken by Jewish actors who immigrated to the U.S.
5. Ballpark figure
The English phrase is related to sports but the meaning is a financial term. Ballpark figure is used by Americans to denote a rough estimate in numbers. It originated from the favorite pastime of Americans, baseball. When a batter hits the ball outside of the baseball diamond, it is difficult to know exactly how far the ball traveled out of bounds.
6. For the birds
When you hear an American say that something is for the birds, it denotes that a thing is worthless or trivial. It was first used as a slang within the members of the U.S. army during WWII. It’s a shortened version of the phrase referring to birds that were pecking at horse droppings.
7. Behind the eight ball
For an American, the English phrase behind the eight ball means that the person is currently experiencing a difficult situation. It became popular during the 1930s and was related to a game of pool, where a player is more likely not to hit the eighth ball when positioned behind it.
8. Monday-morning quarterback
This does not mean that the person is an American football player on Monday mornings. It actually refers to a person who likes to make second guesses on decisions and actions. It was initially used in the 1930s to refer to football fans who like to go over the strategies of the football game shown in the weekend.
9. Don’t cry over spilt milk
It’s an English phrase that is usually offered to someone who becomes upset over a thing or situation that cannot be fixed. Its present form was first used in the 19th century but James Howell, a writer and historian said in 1659 that it came from no weeping for shed milk, which is much older expression.
10. Put up your dukes
When an American challenges another person by saying put up your dukes, he means to be prepared to fight by holding up your fists.
11. Table an item
This particular American English phrase will definitely have different connotations when an American and an Englishman speak to each other. In American English, table an item translates to putting something aside for consideration at another time. For a British English speaker, the phrase means discussing the issue and making a decision.
12. Jump on the bandwagon
Americans have to thank P.T. Barnum for coining this phrase. Jumping on the bandwagon means that someone is supporting a cause or joining a popular or trending activity. It was first used in the 19th century. It became a popular phrase among politicians but its use and popularity escalated when President Teddy Roosevelt referred to political bandwagons in a letter he wrote in 1899.
13. Plead the Fifth
This American phrase is often used in police procedural films and dramas. Pleading the Fifth means to invoke the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The Fifth Amendment protects a person from self-incrimination. It usually refers to the refusal of a witness to testify because it may lead to him or her incrimination in a crime.
14. Go Dutch
It is common among Americans going out to eat to go Dutch. While Dutch typically refers to a Netherlands native, the phrase is American in origin. In 1873, an ad for a saloon mentioned its policy of Dutch treat appeared in a newspaper from Baltimore. The policy meant that each saloon patron should pay for whatever he or she consumed.
15. Nosebleed section
Typically, this phrase refers to a section in any venue that is the farthest, the highest and the cheapest seating area. It’s in reference to high-altitude locations that can cause people to have nosebleeds.
16. It’s all downhill from here
This phrase does not mean that you are going to fall. It actually means that you have surpassed the most difficult part of a job (as in going uphill is quite hard), so now you will be coasting along to finish the job, meaning that things will be easier.
17. Throws you under the bus
When an American uses this expression, it is an indication that someone or a group of people has betrayed you in order to secure their own advancement at work.
18. Ride/riding shotgun
This English phrase does not mean that you need to hold a shotgun. Riding shotgun means that a person is riding in the front passenger seat of a vehicle. It first saw print in 1919 in a newspaper from Utah. The English phrase was inspired by Hollywood westerns that often showed armed guards, usually holding a shotgun (in those days), sitting right next to the driver of a stagecoach.
19. Break a bill
This phrase cannot be understood by people outside the United States. When an American asks you to break a bill, the person is requesting you to exchange his large bill with bills of smaller denomination.
20. John Hancock
This is another pure American phrase. When someone tells you to put your John Hancock on the line, it means that he wants you to add your signature on it. The name is that of an American statesman whose lavish and large signature is seen on the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence document.
English is complicated and hearing phrases that only people who speak the same exact language can understand is confusing for some foreigners. This list is not exhaustive but what’s included here are some of the most common phrases that were coined by Americans, and are now used by other nationalities speaking the language.
Proper use of idioms, expressions and terminology
A professional translator exercises discretion when translation idiomatic expressions, slang and specific terminology when translating documents. They understand that some words and phrases may not have an equivalent translation in another language. Work only with a professional translation company to ensure that your written materials convey the right meaning in any language. Even if the English language translation is from American English to British English or vice versa, it is still vital that the translator has the right experience and knowledge to ensure that the true meaning of the unique phrases and idioms are delivered.
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