17 American Phrases That Don’t Make Sense Anywhere Else

Americans use these phrases every day, but many English-speaking countries don’t use them nearly as much. American English phrases have made their mark on the world through television and Hollywood, but not everyone will understand them. Here are 17 American phrases that don’t make sense anywhere else.

“Spill the beans”

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To “spill the beans” means to reveal something prematurely or accidentally reveal a secret. According to Reader’s Digest, the phrase has several potential origins, including Ancient Greece, where citizens would anonymously vote with beans, and the phrase has been used in America since 1908.

“Go pound sand”

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This American expression means “get lost” to go do a pointless activity and is virtually unknown in other English-speaking countries. The phrase has been used in the U.S. since at least 1886 and was recently used by GOP Governor Gregg Abbott after the U.N. criticized Texas’s anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“Break the ice”

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“Breaking the ice” is doing or saying something that relieves tension or gets a conversation flowing, creating a more relaxed atmosphere. The phrase stems from the maritime world, where special ice-breaking ships would allow exploration of polar regions.

“Hit the nail on the head”

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“Hit the nail on the head” means describing, saying, or doing something precisely. The phrase dates back to the 15th century and appears in The Book of Margery Kempe, the Christian mystic’s autobiography.

“Barking up the wrong tree”

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This phrase is used when someone is mistaken or goes about achieving something the wrong way. According to Phrase Finder, its origins are American, and an “allusion is to hunting dogs barking at the bottom of trees where they mistakenly think their quarry is hiding.”

“Out of the blue”

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“Out of the blue” refers to something happening suddenly or unexpectedly, and possibly originates from the unpredictability of storms appearing in clear blue skies. Americans use the phrase to describe unforeseen occurrences and surprises in life.

“Hit the hay”

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This colloquialism, meaning to go to bed, originated in rural America, when people slept on mattresses filled with hay or straw. The phrase has been used since the turn of the 20th century and is used in George Ade’s novel People You Know.

“Let the cat out of the bag”

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This phrase means to carelessly or mistakenly reveal a secret or a previously hidden fact. The colloquialism has several suggested origins, including the “cat o’ nine tails” whip used by the British Navy to punish drunkenness, desertion, and theft.

“Shoot the breeze”

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To “shoot the breeze” means to have a casual conversation about gossip or light-hearted, unimportant topics. Grammarist note that the phrase “came about in 20th-century America, and the term breeze was used as a slang term for rumors or gossip.”

“Bite off more than you can chew”

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To “bite off more than you can chew” is to take on more responsibilities or tasks than you can manage. The expression likely originates from the idea of taking a bite of food so large that it cannot be chewed or swallowed comfortably and is used as a caution against overcommitment.

“Burn the midnight oil”

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“Burning the midnight oil,” or working late into the night, emphasizes hard work and dedication, particularly when someone is working to meet a deadline. It originated before electric lighting was invented, when people burned oil lamps late into the night to continue working.

“Cry over spilled milk”

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There’s no point “crying over spilled milk.” This phrase is used to encourage others to move forward and not dwell on mistakes or losses that cannot be recovered. It’s an old phrase, with written variations dating back to the 1650s.

“Jump on the bandwagon”

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This phrase is often used in a somewhat negative sense, implying that those doing something fashionable lack originality or critical thinking in their decision to join in. It stems from the 19th century, when politicians used bandwagons in parades to gain attention and encourage people to support them. It is still used to describe their actions today.

“Bite the bullet”

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The Cambridge Dictionary defines “bite the bullet” as “to force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult, or to be brave in a difficult situation.” The phrase may originate from the historical practice of patients biting the bullet during surgery, before the invention of anesthesia, to stop them from screaming or biting their tongues.

“Beat around the bush”

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“Beating around the bush” is avoiding getting to the point or addressing a topic directly, and it’s used to criticize indirect communication and hesitation to address an issue forthrightly. The phrase likely dates back to medieval bird hunting, where participants beat the bushes to flush birds out into the open.

“Under the weather”

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To feel “under the weather” is to feel sick or in low spirits. The phrase comes from a maritime term, “under the weather rail,” when sailors would go to the most stable part of the ship when feeling seasick.

“Throw in the towel”

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This phrase comes from boxing, where trainers would throw towels into the ring to signify that the match should be stopped because their fighter is unable to continue, and it is used to mean giving up or admitting defeat.

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