20 American Phrases That Don’t Make Sense Anywhere Else in the World

American English is filled with idioms, slang, and expressions that can be baffling to non-natives. These phrases, deeply rooted in American culture, history, and daily life, often carry meanings that aren’t immediately apparent from the words themselves. Here are 20 American phrases that might leave those from other parts of the world scratching their heads.

“Ballpark it”

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“Ballpark it” or “give me a ballpark figure” may sound like it has something to do with baseball, but it doesn’t. The financial term refers to a rough numerical estimate that did, however, get its basis in the sport. 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 traveled outside of the metaphorical stadium.

“Behind the eight ball”

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Dating to the 1930s, this Americanism refers to the game of pool. A player positioned behind the eight-ball cannot hit it. People use this when they are in a precarious situation or one where it would be hard to achieve their goal.

“You can put lipstick on a pig”

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The full saying is, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” No one is actually trying to put lipstick on pigs that we are aware of. The saying means that no matter how much you gloss something up or try to make it seem nicer than it is, it is still whatever it is.

“Plead the Fifth”

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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. People also use this outside the courtroom when they don’t want to answer a question, and it usually tells the questioner exactly what they want to know.

“In the nosebleeds”

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This refers to seats that are very high up in a stadium or theater, implying that a high altitude might induce a nosebleed. These can also be referred to as the “cheap seats,” but in the U.K., the highest seats at a theater are known as “the gods.”

“Throw someone under the bus”

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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 U.S. sports journalists popularized the phrase.

“Riding shotgun”

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Riding shotgun means sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. Some think this phrase originated in the Wild West, referring to the armed guard who sat next to a stagecoach driver. It was popularized by Hollywood westerns, with one of the earliest print references to “riding shotgun” being in a Utah newspaper in 1919.

“Shoot the breeze”

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Don’t worry, no breezes are actually being shot. To shoot the breeze means to engage in casual or idle conversation. This phrase pertains to late-19th-century slang when “breeze” meant “rumor.” By the 1910s, the windy word came to mean “empty chatter.” One might even shoot the breeze about the breeze or weather.

“Jump on the bandwagon”

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In the 19th century, American showman and circus owner P.T. 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 began incorporating bandwagons into their campaign strategies. Teddy Roosevelt cemented the phrase in the American lexicon in 1899 when he referenced political bandwagons in a letter he wrote.

“More bang for your buck”

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A lot of phrases have a military connection, and this idiom was popularized in the 1950s when U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to expand the armed forces but decrease military spending. It was about more firepower for less money at the time. Now, it means you get more for your money, or that something has a good value.

“Working the graveyard shift”

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This saying just means that someone is working from midnight until about 8 in the morning, when the place where they work might be as silent and dead as a graveyard. Dead in this case is not referring to people but just a place that is lifeless, empty, or boring.

“That’s for the birds”

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A shortened form of a phrase that referred to birds that would peck at horse droppings, “for the birds” was first used as U.S. Army slang during World War II. When someone says it’s for the birds now, they are saying it’s pointless or of no concern.

“Let’s take a rain check”

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In the late 19th century, a rain check was a special pass issued to baseball ticket holders in instances of inclement weather. So this is another one that came from the Great American Pastime. When people ask for a rain check now, they’re looking to reschedule for another time; it has nothing to do with whether it’s raining or not.

“Spill the beans”

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Rumor 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, the process needed to be started over. The phrase didn’t appear in the U.S. until the early 20th century.

“Monday morning quarterback”’

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Originating in the 1930s, this sports-centric phrase was first used to refer to any fan who critically rehashed weekend football game strategies. Now, it applies to anyone who gives advice on what they would do after a situation has already played out. “It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback when you are on the outside looking in.”

“Piece of cake”

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The phrase likely derives from a line in “The Primrose Path,” a 1935 poetry collection by American humorist Ogden Nash: “Her picture’s in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.” People say “it’s a piece of cake” or “it’s easy as pie” when something is simple or easy to do.

“It’s not rocket science”

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This phrase, which gained popularity in the 1980s toward 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 U.S. was the first English-speaking country to establish a comprehensive program dedicated to the study of rocket science. It was a little bit of a humble brag for Americans.

“Going Dutch”

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Going Dutch doesn’t mean going out for gouda and wearing wooden clogs. It’s a common debate whether going Dutch on dates is acceptable, which refers to each person paying for their own part of a bill in a restaurant.

“John Hancock”

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The eponymous Hancock, an American revolutionary patriot, became known for his prodigious signature on the Declaration of Independence. Today, it’s the most patriotic American way of asking someone for their signature.

“’Til the cows come home”

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This U.S. saying might not even make sense to people who don’t live in the South or on a farm. If you do something ‘til the cows come home, that means you’re going to take all day to do it. It originates on farmlands where cows graze the fields all day before coming home in the evening for feeding time.

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