19 American Phrases That Non-Americans Struggle to Understand

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By Jonathan Trent

The U.S. has many colloquial terms and well-known phrases that can often confuse tourists when having a conversation. We’ve listed 19 of the most common American phrases that might have you scratching your head and wondering what they really mean.


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Used in the southern part of the U.S. and originating from Colonial times, the term “Cattywampus” refers to something that’s a little askew or off. This could be in reference to physical items, such as a shelf that isn’t in line, or it could be used to describe a person’s personality or outfit.

‘Flake out’

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If you flake out, you’re canceling or bailing on something at the last minute. This phrase can also describe a person who often cancels plans, making them ‘flaky.’ It’s a confusing term because the word ‘flake’ doesn’t necessarily make you think of schedule changes, but it’s a popular term nonetheless.

‘A John Hancock’

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In American history, John Hancock was a statesman who served Congress during the Declaration of Independence. According to Collins Dictionary, the “boldness and legibility” of his signature coined the phrase “a John Hancock,” meaning to sign something.

‘For the birds’

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Hearing this, you might take it very literally and wonder whether the speaker is going to give something to the birds. But this slang term actually means that whatever it is in reference to isn’t worth much. It means that it’s worth so little that it’s only good for the birds.

‘Going postal’

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No, this isn’t in reference to any of the U.S. couriers. This phrase actually means dealing with such a stressful situation that you’re getting to the point of extreme anger, particularly in a workplace setting. If your boss has annoyed you enough, they might push you to ‘go postal.’


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If you’re jonesing for something, then you’re craving or yearning for something. You could be jonesing a burger from your favorite fast-food joint or jonesing for your bed after a long day. While it might seem like a casual reference to the surname Jones, it actually has darker roots in being dangerously addicted.

‘Jumped/jumping the shark’

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To say that someone has jumped the shark means that they’ve diverted from how they usually act. This could be diverting from a usual course of action or acting out of character. The Guardian explains that the phrase was coined from the sitcom Happy Days, in which the Fonz quite literally jumps over a shark.

‘Monday morning quarterback’

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The term Monday morning quarterback can be used to describe a person who has something to say about an event that has already passed. This could be criticizing something that happened a while back. The term comes from the fact that football is played on Sundays, meaning Monday would be the day after the event.

‘Going Dutch’

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Going Dutch is a phrase that has spread outside the U.S., but it did originate there (surprisingly, not the Netherlands!). Going Dutch refers to splitting the bill 50/50 for something, most often in restaurants. Two people out for lunch might suggest going Dutch: paying half each.

‘Over the moon’

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One of the most well-known phrases might be ‘over the moon,’ which is in reference to being completely overjoyed about something. You might be over the moon if you’ve just received a promotion or over the moon for your friend’s wedding announcement. It’s a more interesting way to say you’re happy.

‘Jumping on the bandwagon’

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If you’re jumping on the bandwagon, it means you’re following a certain movement or trend and doing what everyone else is doing. Sports Illustrated explains that the phrase comes from the famous showman, P.T. Barnum, whose circus vehicle was a bandwagon. It’s similar in meaning to following in someone’s footsteps.

‘More bang for your buck’

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Buck is common slang for dollar in America, so if you’re getting more bang for your buck, it means that you’re getting more for your money. It’s a way of saying that something is a worthwhile investment, whether literally or figuratively, and that the deal has value.

‘Devil’s advocate’

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If someone says that they’re playing devil’s advocate, it means that they’re going against the most popular opinion to encourage discussion or a different viewpoint. Someone playing devil’s advocate might pretend to disagree with a popular viewpoint to get people talking.

‘Dog days of summer’

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The term ‘dog days of summer’ began with the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In astrology, the star Sirius—also known as the Dog Star—appears in the sky at the hottest time of the year, usually in July. The phrase ‘dog days of summer’ then refers to the hottest days.

‘A pain in the neck’

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If someone says that you’re a pain in the neck, it most definitely isn’t a compliment. It means that you’re annoying them or causing them a great deal of stress. According to Dictionary.com, it’s also a polite version of saying someone is a pain in the backside!

‘No pain, no gain’

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This phrase is most well-known in a fitness environment, where it’s largely accepted that to achieve the best workout results, your muscles are going to hurt. The phrase then spread to a more general term to describe anything that’s worth doing, even if it’s difficult.

‘Couch potato’

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The phrase couch potato might conjure up a funny image, but it’s pretty accurate when you consider that it’s describing someone who likes to park themselves on a couch all day long. The phrase is used to call someone out for being a lazy layabout who usually doesn’t move from one spot.

‘A piece of cake’

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A piece of cake is used to describe something that’s considerably easy. If you say something is a piece of cake, it means you’re going to have no trouble getting it done. The phrase also has variations, as some people might say something is a ‘cakewalk’ and, therefore, simple to do.

‘Shoot the breeze’

If an American says that they want to shoot the breeze for a while, it means they want to make small talk or pass the time talking about unimportant things. It comes from the slang term ‘breeze’ in reference to a rumor. It then evolved to mean a conversation that doesn’t really mean anything.

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