Whether they’re related to food, football, or feline friends,American idioms can be colourful – and confusing to people visiting from abroad.
While phrases like “shoot the breeze” (to talk about unimportant things for a long time) and “cold turkey” (to abruptly withdraw from an addictive substance or behaviour) have origins in US slang from centuries past, others such as “put up your dukes” (to hold your hands up to prepare for a fight) and “throw under a bus” (to betray someone for your own gain) can be traced across the pond.
Here are 22 phrases Americans say that leave foreigners completely stumped.
When a task is easy or straightforward, Americans will say it’s a “piece of cake.”
When something is easy to understand, they might say “it’s not rocket science.”
This phrase, which gained popularity in the 1980s towards the end of the Cold War, refers to when something isn’t that difficult to understand.
It has to do with the fact that the US was the first English-speaking country to establish a comprehensive program dedicated to the study of rocket science.
When Americans “shoot the breeze,” they talk about unimportant things for a long time.
This phrase pertains to late-19th-century slang when “breeze” meant “rumour.” By the 1910s, the windy word came to mean “empty chatter.”
“Break a leg” is a superstitious phrase that originated in the American theatre.
People will wish actors a good performance by telling them to “break a leg” – a phrase that first appeared in print with its current meaning in a US newspaper in 1948, according to Phrase Finder.
The phrase possibly comes from the German saying “Hals- und Beinbruch,” which translates to “neck and leg break” and is a corruption of a Hebrew blessing, “hatzlakha u-brakha” (“success and blessing”). It likely entered the lexicon via Yiddish, a language spoken by Jewish immigrants in the American theatrical community.
A “Monday-morning quarterback” is a person who second-guesses things.
Originating in the 1930s, this sports-centric phrase was first used to refer to a fan who critically rehashed weekend football game strategies.
Now, it applies to anyone who second-guesses an action or decision.
“Ballpark figure” is another sports-related phrase.
No, a “ballpark figure” isn’t a synonym for “baseball player.” It’s actually a financial term referring to a rough numerical estimate.
But the expression’s etymology does come from the Great American Pastime. Like a batter hitting a ball beyond the diamond, a ballpark figure isn’t exact – but it’s not so far out of bounds that it’s travelled outside of the metaphorical stadium.
If something is trivial or worthless, Americans say it’s “for the birds.”
To “put up your dukes” means to hold up your fists in preparation for a fight.
With roots in Cockney rhyming slang, “put up your dukes” has complex origins.
The word “forks,” slang for “hand” or “fist,” became “dukes of York” in rhyming slang – which, in turn, was shortened to “dukes.”
When Americans say they’re “behind the eight ball,” it means they’re in a difficult position.
Dating to the 1930s, this Americanism refers to the game of pool. A player positioned behind the eight ball cannot hit it.
If “the cat’s out of the bag,” it means you’ve revealed a secret.
This idiom first appeared with its current meaning in a London book review from 1760. Upset about a spoiler alert, the reviewer wrote, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.”
Others have speculated that the phrase pertains to the cat o’ nine tails – the infamous whip that members of the Royal Navy used to punish sailors – or to livestock fraud (merchants, who apparently sold live piglets in sacks, would swap out the pigs with cats).
A similar phrase, “spill the beans,” means to let out or divulge something.
Folklore has it that this idiom is a reference to a voting system in ancient Greece in which white beans indicated a positive vote and black beans a negative one. Since votes had to be unanimous, if the collector spilled the beans – hence revealing them – the process needed to be started over.
But in the US, the phrase didn’t appear until the early 20th century. When it was introduced, its meaning had to do with upsetting a stable situation, political or otherwise.
“Don’t cry over spilt milk,” someone might say if you’re upset over something you can’t fix.
“Don’t cry over spilt milk” has appeared in its present form since the 19th century.
Apparently, it evolved from a much older idiom. In 1659, historian and writer James Howell used the expression “No weeping for shed milk.”
When Americans “table an item,” they set it aside for consideration later.
In British and Commonwealth English, this phrase has the opposite meaning. If you table something (i.e. a proposal) in countries such as the UK and Ireland, you’re considering a decision rather than postponing it.
In the US, however, when a topic is “tabled,” that typically means that it’s postponed, or it will sit there on the metaphorical table until it can be discussed at a later date. To make things even more confusing, the phrase “on the table” in America could mean that something is up for discussion.
When you “jump on the bandwagon,” you’re joining a popular activity or supporting a popular cause.
In the 19th century, American showman and circus owner PT Barnum coined the term “bandwagon,” which referred simply to the wagon that carried the circus band.
Noting that parades were an effective way to attract attention, politicians took a page from the circus workers’ book and began incorporating bandwagons into their campaign strategies.
But it was Teddy Roosevelt who helped cement the figurative phrase in the American lexicon, when, in 1899, he referenced political bandwagons in a letter he wrote.
When you quit something “cold turkey,” you abruptly withdraw from an addictive substance or behaviour, like smoking.
The phrase “cold turkey” actually originated in Canada, where it first appeared in a British Columbia newspaper in 1921.
Although some speculate that the idiom is named for the goosebumps that accompany withdrawal symptoms, it more likely comes from “cold,” as in straightforward, and “talk turkey,” a 19th-century-expression meaning to talk plainly.
Often heard on procedural drama series like “Law & Order,” “plead the Fifth” is a reference to the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects people from self-incrimination.
Pleading the Fifth (also known as taking the Fifth) refers to the refusal to testify on the basis that the testimony could incriminate the witness in a crime.
If two Americans are on a date, they might “go Dutch,” or split the bill.
Various phrases in the English language are prefaced by the adjective “Dutch,” such as “Dutch courage” – bravery inspired by drunkenness – and “Dutch reckoning,” a non-itemized bill that is unjustifiably excessive.
While most can be traced back to the maritime rivalry between England and the Dutch Republic (known today as the Netherlands), “going Dutch” is as American as apple pie.
The phrase evolved from an earlier expression that first appeared in the Baltimore American newspaper in 1873: “Dutch treat,” a saloon policy in which each patron was responsible for his own bar tab.
If something has “fallen through the cracks,” it has gone unnoticed or ignored.
If you’ve ever misplaced an object (like car keys) only to find it between the cushions of your sofa, you know how easy it is to neglect something that has fallen through (or between) the cracks.
Despite seeming relatively straight-forward, this expression puzzles people – especially the more literal-minded, who might argue that the space between fissures would form a flat surface rather than a bottomless abyss.
If you’re sitting in the “nosebleed section,” you’re seated in the highest (and cheapest) seats of an arena or performance space.
An American might say “it’s all downhill from here” if they have completed the hardest part of a task.
Based on the idea that the uphill climb is more difficult than the descent, this phrase stumps some people because a similar expression, “to go downhill,” has negative connotations.
If someone “throws you under the bus,” they’re betraying you for their own advancement.
While the etymology of this dark vehicular idiom is unknown, it might have evolved from a few British expressions from the 1970s, such as “fall under a bus” or “suppose so-and-so were to go under a bus.”
It entered the common American lexicon in the mid-2000s when US sports journalists popularised the phrase.
If you “ride shotgun,” you sit in the front passenger seat.
While some think this phrase originated in the Wild West (referring to the armed guard who sat next to a stagecoach driver), it was actually popularised by Hollywood westerns.
One of the earliest print references to “riding shotgun” was in a Utah newspaper in 1919.
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