18 American Sayings That Other Countries Don’t Understand

Sayings are a key part of every culture, but sometimes, they can be very confusing for those who don’t know what they mean. In this article, we explore some unique American phrases, including where they come from and how to use them.

Shoot the breeze

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Casual conversations are an art in America, where “shoot the breeze” is meant to capture the essence of idling about. The phrase means to have a casual conversation, possibly originating from American cowboys or soldiers passing time. In other cultures, the phrase might be taken literally or confuse people unfamiliar with the concept of shooting in a conversational context.

Piece of cake

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When Americans say something is a piece of cake, they’re not talking about dessert. It means something is very easy or simple to accomplish, possibly linked to the universal appeal of cake as a delicious, rewarding treat. The literal translation might confuse non-English speakers or lead to misinterpretation, and can you blame them?

Break a leg

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Wishing someone to break a leg might sound alarming, but in America, it’s all about wishing good luck. We are not sure where this one came from, but according to Reader’s Digest, it came from the theater community, where performers believed saying “good luck” would actually bring bad luck on stage, so they’d tell one another to “break a leg” instead.

Bite the bullet

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To bite the bullet is to brace yourself and confront a challenge head-on, no matter how scary it may seem. The phrase came from wartime medical practices and was used to encourage soldiers to face a painful or unpleasant situation with courage. You can use this in scenarios where someone might have to face their fears or make a tough decision.

Jump on the bandwagon

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This comes from politicians joining popular causes or movements for political advantage, but in recent years, it has meant following a trend. According to Grammarist, the phrase became popular in the 1800s when politicians used circus bandwagons to get the attention of voters.

Spill the beans

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“Spill the beans” is an interesting American saying that comes from old times when people voted using beans. It means to tell a secret or something true that was hidden. In other places, if you talk about spilling beans, people might think you’re talking about making a mess with food, which can seem funny.

Hit the hay

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To “hit the hay” is a cozy way Americans say they’re going to bed. Long ago, beds were made with hay, which is where this saying probably comes from. This saying is used when someone is very tired and needs to rest, especially after a day full of activities.

Out of the blue

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This phrase might not make sense in places where blue skies aren’t common, or the phrase’s imagery doesn’t match local weather patterns. This is because it is meant to capture the shock of something happening suddenly, just like lightning from a clear sky. For this reason, it’s used when unexpected events or news pop up, surprising everyone.

Barking up the wrong tree

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This comes from the hunting world, where dogs might mistake their target and bark at the wrong tree. Elsewhere, the picture of a dog barking at a tree for no reason might confuse people. It’s a metaphor for making a mistake or choosing the wrong approach to solve a problem.

Cry over spilled milk

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Worrying about the past is often likened to crying over spilled milk in American vernacular. This is because it is pointless to cry over something that has already happened and cannot be changed. This saying might have started in farm life, where spilling milk was a real concern but not worth great distress.

Let the cat out of the bag

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Revealing a secret is often described as letting the cat out of the bag. Other cultures might find the literal idea of releasing a cat from a closed bag odd or unkind. Be careful when using this one in front of people for whom English is not their first language.

Burn the midnight oil

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Burning the midnight oil signifies working hard into the night, a habit from when people relied on oil lamps. Those unfamiliar with the history of oil lamps might miss the connection, making the saying a bit confusing. For those who get it, it perfectly describes those long hours spent on tasks or studying, pushing through the night to meet deadlines or goals.

Bite off more than you can chew

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Taking on more responsibilities than one can manage is often described as biting off more than one can chew. The comparison to biting more food than one can chew adds a light touch of humor to the problem of overcommitment. It serves as a cautionary tale about knowing one’s limits, especially in work or personal projects.

The whole nine yards

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“Going the whole nine yards” talks about doing something fully and thoroughly, though its exact origins remain a mystery. For those who are not fluent in English or even those used to the metric system, the reference to “yards” might be puzzling.

Under the weather

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Feeling under the weather is a gentle way of saying that one is not feeling their best, often due to minor illnesses. To non-English speakers, the connection between weather and health might not be clear, leading to confusion. This saying is commonly used to explain absences from work or social gatherings, hinting at sickness without going into detail.

Chew the fat

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According to The Idioms, “chewing the fat” has roots in times when people during social gatherings would chew on tough, fatty meat as they engaged in conversation. It typically describes moments of relaxed, informal talks among friends or family, where stories and laughter are shared without hurry.

At the drop of a hat

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The phrase “at the drop of a hat” comes from a practice that might have involved dropping a hat to signal the start of something, such as a race, indicating readiness to act immediately. For example, you can say, “I can leave at the drop of a hat.”

Paint the town red

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To paint the town red is to enjoy oneself with no limits, often celebrating a special occasion or just letting off steam. No one seems sure why it uses the color red, but it originates from times of lively, sometimes unruly, celebration, where people go out to have a good time in a very visible and loud manner.

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