18 American Phrases That Non-Americans Struggle to Understand

American expressions are a vital part of its culture, reflecting the nation’s history and values.  However, these sayings can sometimes puzzle people from other countries because they often carry context, colloquialisms, and historical references that can lose their intended meaning when crossing borders. Let’s look at 18 of such American sayings. 

To flake out

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The simplest meaning of ‘flake’ is to cancel plans at the last minute. It can be a confusing term, especially when mentioned abroad, since it doesn’t directly imply unreliability in its sense. When plans are canceled before they happen, due to various reasons such as people’s schedules, conflicting obligations, connectivity issues with technology, or a combination of these factors, it means someone is being ‘flaky’.

For the birds

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Having military roots and often associated with US Army slang, this phrase suggests that something is nonsensical, useless, or not worth much. It’s a version of a phrase involving the habit that birds have of picking at horse droppings. 

Going postal

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During a high-stress environment faced by U.S. workers in the 1980s and ’90s, the term ‘going postal’ was coined. It means to get extremely angry to the point of rage and violence in a workplace setting. An example would be a situation where, at the office, Mark lost control and became violent after his manager informed him that Jane was getting the promotion that he was promised.

A John Hancock

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This was connected to American statesman ‘John Hancock’, who served as the president of Congress at the time when the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. He was mainly known among Americans for his extravagant signature, which he used on the declaration, and this is where the term came from: to ask someone for their signature.

Catty-corner or Cattywampus

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A term originating in the Colonial United States and still popular, Cattywampus, in the South, refers to something that’s out of alignment. It could be an arrangement of items in a store, a building being placed in a weird location, or someone’s outfit looking funny or odd. There are also variations of this term, such as a corner, kitty-corner, or catawampus, that you might have come across.


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The term ‘jonesing’ implies a desire or longing for something. It is misunderstood as being related to the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which is actually an American slang expression, but it has nothing to do with it. An example would be, like, when you are craving a cup of coffee. ‘Jonesing’ sounds like it could be related to the surname “Jones.” But the original truth behind it is quite grim; the term was initially used to describe addiction to heroin.

Jumped the shark

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Wikipedia describes the phrase ‘jumped the shark’ or ‘jumping the shark’ as a term used to criticize a work or entity when it has reached a point where it has lost its focus and started introducing new ideas that are out of sync with its original purpose. It was coined in 1985 by Jon Hein, a radio personality as a response to an episode from the season of the sitcom Happy Days, where Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) jumps over a live shark while water skiing.

Jumping on the bandwagon

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Another way of understanding this phrase is by saying ‘follow in the footsteps of’ or a ‘copycat’. It means to join a movement or trend often used in contexts. This phrase dates back to Phineas T. Barnum’s circus parades. It was the name of the wagon that carried a circus band.

Going Dutch

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The expression “Let’s go Dutch” is often used all over the world but originated in the U.S. Interestingly, its origin has no connection to the Netherlands. It means to split a bill between more than one person. For instance, if you go out to eat at a restaurant and it comes time to pay the bill, you can ‘go Dutch’ to pay half. It originated in an 1873 editorial in the Baltimore newspaper.

Monday morning quarterback

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A “Monday morning quarterback” in everyday life is someone who criticizes or judges any event after it’s already happened. This term originates from football, since most games take place on Sundays. It started off as frequently being discussed in domains, such as business and sports, to refer to the act of analyzing and providing commentary on events after they have occurred.

More bang for your buck

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When someone gets value for their money they often say they got “more bang for their buck.” Another way to understand it is when the prospects are appealing. This expression requires understanding that in America “buck” is slang for “dollar.”

Over the moon

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If someone says they are “over the moon,” it means they are extremely overjoyed, happy, or excited. Some sources say that this phrase may have some connection to the nursery rhyme “Hey, Diddle, Diddle” because the cow jumped over the moon. It can be used when describing the feeling of experiencing something exciting. For instance, if someone were to send you flowers, chocolate, and a card, you would feel incredibly delighted.

Playing devil’s advocate

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Playing devil’s advocate originally had a context during the sanctification process in the Catholic Church. Now it means to argue against a prevailing opinion. It refers to the act of engaging in an argument or expressing viewpoints that contradict your own beliefs. To play the devil’s advocate, the person must present positions that oppose their own beliefs.

A pain in the neck

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When you hear someone say someone is a ‘pain in the neck’ it’s not always a good thing, as it means that person is causing them annoyance or irritation, perhaps because of their bad behavior or constant complaining. It is a phrase that is commonly understood in the U.S. and originated back in the 1900s as an euphemism. 

No pain, no gain

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Anyone who has been to the gym or is passionate about any sports activity would have most likely mentioned this phrase at least once in their lifetime. It is a phrase that emphasizes that effort is necessary to achieve positive results. Its specific wording makes it unique to the U.S. In other words, ignore the pain and carry on.

Couch potato

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A term used to describe someone who spends time sitting on a couch and watching television all day long i.e., a layabout. It was first mentioned in the 1970s and used by comic book artists who depicted lazy characters whom they began to call couch potatoes.

Dog days of summer

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National Geographic has an interesting article on their website about dog days of summer and mentions this phrase referring to the origin of the phrase and scorching summer days, which are the hottest days of the year. It stems from an old age belief regarding a radiant celestial body in the sky, Sirius, known as the Dog Star, rather than from a dog’s inclination to lounge in the warmth. To people, the term “dog days” brings to mind those hot summer days when even dogs would find solace on pavements.

A piece of cake

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When it’s easy to accomplish a task or to do something, it is usually referred to as a ‘piece of cake’. Its origins can be traced back to an American tradition centered around a dance competition known as a cakewalk or a ‘prize walk’. It has nothing to do with the actual cake and may be confusing if interpreted directly.

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