17 American Phrases That Don’t Make Sense to the rest of the world

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By Jonathan Trent

There are many things the U.S. is known for, including a variety of phrases that would have other countries raising their eyebrows. These unique idioms are embedded in American culture, so here are 17 of the most common phrases that don’t make sense to the rest of the world!

“Fall” Instead of “Autumn”

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Another phrase, or, rather, a word that doesn’t make sense to non-Americans, is ‘fall. ‘ This phrase describes the season when leaves change color, the one the rest of the world would usually call “autumn.” According to Dictionary.com, autumn was used first, but Americans later adopted it. We just like to be different!

“You can put lipstick on a pig”

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This confusing phrase is a shortened version of “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” The definition of the phrase is that no matter how much you try to make something nicer, it’s still what it is. It’s a lot like, “You can’t polish a turd”!

“Working the graveyard shift”’

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“Working the graveyard shift” doesn’t have anything to do with actually working in a graveyard, though it might be a happy coincidence if that’s your job. Instead, it really means you’re working very late at night, usually from midnight until the early hours, during a time that’s mostly silent as the grave.

“… Will happen momentarily”

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Instead of saying that something is about to happen, many Americans will say that something is going to happen “momentarily.” This can cause a lot of confusion with the British, who usually say “momentarily” to mean something will occur only for a short duration. We’re in the wrong here, to be honest.

“Chai tea”

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Ordering a “chai tea” in America may be normal, but it may make you a laughing stock in other countries, seeing as the exact translation would be “tea tea.” The correct way to order this hot beverage would be to just ask for a chai; otherwise, you’re just repeating yourself!

“Putting on your pants”

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Who knew that a simple item of clothing could cause so much confusion? That’s exactly what happens if an American says they’re putting on pants to anyone outside of the country, especially the English. Some English people refer to “pants” as underwear, while Americans mean trousers, so all sorts of misunderstandings can arise!

“That’s for the birds”

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Another American phrase that doesn’t make sense elsewhere is “that’s for the birds.” This phrase means something is so trivial that it doesn’t matter—yet others might take it quite literally for our feathered friends. Grammarist explains that the phrase was originally coined by the military during the Second World War when feeding birds!

“Order an entrée”

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In other areas of the world, “entrée” (the French word for “entrance”) is used to describe food served before a main course, yet Americans muddy the waters a little by referring to their main meal as an entrée and an appetizer as the starting course. Why are we making things so confusing!? 

“I could care less”

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The American phrase “I could care less” makes very little sense to the rest of the world, which uses “I couldn’t care less” instead. The idea is you couldn’t care less than you already do; therefore, saying you could care less implies that you still have a way to go before rock bottom!

“Can I get your John Hancock?”

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Those who grew up outside of the United States might not be altogether familiar with John Hancock, one of the founding fathers. This phrase actually references the fact that Hancock had a very large and unmistakable signature, so saying, “Can I get your John Hancock?” means asking someone to sign something.

“Let’s take a rain check”

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Another phrase that would confuse certain parts of the world is “Let’s take a rain check,” which doesn’t have anything to do with standing at the window and watching the weather. Instead, it has more to do with canceling plans, usually with the intention of making them again another time.

“’Til the cows come home”

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An American might say that they’re going to do something “’til the cows come home,” which might befuddle those outside of the U.S. This phrase references cows grazing in the field all day before coming home at night, meaning you’re going to take all day (or all year) to do something.

“Shoot the breeze”

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“Shoot the breeze” doesn’t have anything to do with taking offense at the wind and getting out your rifle! It actually means engaging in casual conversation, or even a rambling conversation, as Merriam-Webster defines, originating from the Old West.

“Jump the shark”

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The term “jump the shark” might alarm many non-Americans, but this one has nothing to do with sharks—at least, not since its original conception when Fonzie from Happy Days quite literally jumps over a shark. Instead, it simply indicates when something popular has lost its appeal.

“The whole nine yards”

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Another popular American phrase, “the whole nine yards,” doesn’t mean to travel nine yards literally–that would be a short journey! In reality, it means giving your all to everything and putting your whole effort into it. If you go the whole nine yards for someone, you’re doing your best.

“Piece of cake”

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Hungry bellies might believe Americans are offering a dessert, but if something is a “piece of cake” or a “cakewalk,” it means it’s very easy to do. This phrase actually has roots in American slavery, where black people had to walk gracefully to earn cake as a prize, as Columbia Journalism Review remembers. Yikes.

“Once in a blue moon”

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Our final American phrase that might have you scratching your head is “once in a blue moon,” which has nothing to do with an amazing celestial event but more to do with how regularly something occurs. If something happens once in a blue moon, it happens very rarely!

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