When it comes to language, Americans have it pretty easy. Over 50 countries around the world speak English, making it relatively simple to travel around the world. But even though English is one of the most spoken languages, the ways that Americans use the language is… kind of weird. And no, it’s not just because of our range of accents or the way we spell words like color without a U. It’s because we have some truly baffling slang terms and phrases that other countries just do not understand.
The vast majority of American-exclusive phrases come, of course, from our culture. Phrases like “ballpark it,” “behind the eight ball,” “nosebleed seats” and “Monday morning quarterback” would not be possible if it weren’t for our country’s love of sports. Other phrases come from our standard measurement system, court system, and military.
While every state has its own bizarre slang phrase or two, the 25 phrases listed here are heard all across the United States… but nowhere else in the world. And if you can’t quite fathom what we say that others don’t, get ready to have your mind blown with these 25 things Americans say that other countries don't understand.
Americans are really in to using a ballpark as a measure of something. If you hit something out of the ballpark, you’ve nailed it, if you need to give someone a ballpark figure, it’s a rough numerical guess. If something is in the same ballpark, then it fits within whatever boundaries you have set. It makes sense we love ballparks so much; baseball is as American as apple pie.
If you’ve ever played a game of pool, you know how hard it can be when your shot is behind the eight ball. You’re in quite the difficult situation, but if you’re not American, you have no idea what this phrase means.
No, you haven’t started selling berries and tomatoes at the farmers market. If you’ve bought the farm, you’ve had an untimely death. This phrase reportedly came into common usage during World War II when undertrained pilots would crash planes into rural fields. The American government would then reportedly have to pay the farmers for the damage, thus, buying the farm.
If something is clutch, you may assume it’s close to you or tight-knit if you’re a foreigner. But nope! This modern slang term means something is convenient, awesome, and just what you need at the time. Honestly, this word is totally clutch.
We all have that friend… you make plans with them, they’re set in stone, and then at the last minute they ditch you. That is what Americans will call a “flake,” because well, they’re flaky. A flaky flake can also flake out on a night out at the bar, in case you need another way to use this slang term.
This phrase is technically a shorter version of a longer military phrase “that [crap] is for the birds,” and it refers to birds who would peck at horse droppings looking for some seeds. It means that whatever you’re talking about is useless, nonsense, a big ol’ nothingburger.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, American postal workers were so overworked and angry that massive outbursts and even workplace murders weren’t uncommon. Thus, the phrase “going postal” became a thing, meaning that someone was filled with rage and about totally lose it.
If someone tells a non-American to “put their John Hancock on the line,” they’ll be confused at best. Hancock was a real person and an American statesman who was best known for his large and lavish signature on the Declaration of Independence. Since that 1776 document, a “John Hancock” has been synonymous with signature.
If an American says they’re jonesing for a Coca-Cola, foreigners may think of the more internationally common phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” and assume that they just want the same beverage their neighbors are enjoying. Instead, “jonesing” is slang for craving. Though now this phrase is more associated with weird food cravings, it originated in the late 1950s, when “Mr. Jones” was a code name for heroin among New York City beatniks.
Few TV shows go so off the rails and decline in quality so quickly that they inspire a new slang phrase, but that’s what happened in 1977 when Fonzie literally jumped over a shark on an episode of Happy Days. Since then, this phrase has been used to mean any sharp and sudden decline in excellence.
Phineas T. Barnum, founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, came up with the phrase bandwagon to mean exactly what it sounds like: The wagon that carries the musical members of a circus in a parade. So who jumps on the bandwagon? Someone who wants to join in on the fun and comradery, notably politicians who would join parades to try and woo voters.
On a date and can’t decide who pays the bill? Perhaps you’ll go Dutch, which means each person pays for their own tab. The phrase doesn’t really have anything to do with the Netherlands. Instead, it seems to have originated in an 1873 editorial in The Baltimore American, when the writer suggested that bar owners should instate a “Dutch treat” policy, where everyone pays for their own tab.
Of course, no other country loves football quite like the United States, so this phrase is all-American, especially because you need to know what a quarterback does and that most NFL games take place on Sunday nights. A Monday morning quarterback is essentially someone who makes criticisms based on hindsight and knowledge, not someone who chooses to host a tailgate at 8 a.m. on a workday.
In order to understand this American phrase, first you need to know that “buck” is slang for “dollar.” After that, it is only slightly baffling to know this means you’re getting a good deal.
Going to concerts can be expensive, but you always have the option to sit up high in the rafters. So far up, perhaps, you’ll get a nosebleed. In England, these cheap sets are referred to as “the gods.”
If something is a piece of cake, a non-American may think it’s rich or indulgent or just super chocolatey. But in reality, this phrase means something is super easy.
Even though everyone loves Law and Order, people outside of America may not understand what it means to “plead the Fifth.” Of course, this references the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which states a person cannot be forced to self-incriminate themselves when accused of a crime. Of course, if you don’t live in the U.S., you wouldn’t be aware of this part of the Bill of Rights and this common phrase (which is often used to say you won’t say something that proves you’re guilty) is a mystery.
If you just say this word out loud, you may think it means something that is broken down or disgusting. But that isn’t quite the truth. It just means something is small, boring, out-of-the-way, and overall insignificant. It’s often used to describe small towns, though we find small towns to be quite charming.
The wild, old West isn’t really a thing outside of the U.S., so it makes sense the slang terms from this piece of Americana didn’t reach an international audience. If someone calls out “shotgun!” it means they’re sitting up front, next to the driver. It’s the best spot for a road trip, if you ask us!
Spilling the beans doesn’t sound good. It sounds like a mess, actually, especially when talking about baked beans. But spilling the beans isn’t always messy. It just means you’re telling secrets.
In the U.K., if something is tabled, it means that it is in open and active discussion. In America, this phrase has the exact opposite meaning. It seems that it means you’ll set something down on a metaphorical table and get back to it at a later date.
So many American slang terms come from sports, and we don’t even realize it. Taking a raincheck, which means rescheduling or postponing an appointment, originated in giving baseball fans another ticket for a game when one was rained out.
It’s not known where the whole nine yards comes from. Some think its origins are in military usage, others believe it has something to do with fabric. No matter the etymology of the phrase, Americans know this to mean the whole lot or the entire way. But if you’re a foreigner, even the unit of a yard is confusing. And while many of these slang terms are a little baffling to those not from America, they have nothing on these weird regional slang terms from across the country.
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