When you relocate to a foreign country, language is an enormous obstacle to overcome. If you can communicate well, settling in can be a breeze. If you can’t, you will likely find it more difficult to make friends, network, and feel at home.
There is more to communicating with Americans than being grammatically fluent in English. There are nuances to American English that only natives can comprehend. Enough time and regular conversations with Americans will familiarize you with such phrases, but that’s the toilsome way.
What’s the easier way? A list of American phrases and slang terms that are not common enough to be picked up through sitcoms, yet are practiced enough in day-to-day American life to be useful for you.
- “Let’s rub elbows soon”
Not to be taken literally. The other person just wants to meet you again. Hanging out is the closest translation of this euphemism.
- “Off the record”
When someone says “off the record,” they don’t want their words or actions to be publicly attributed to them. Shady, right? It’s usually applied when someone does or says something they’re not supposed to, but can also be used jokingly in casual conversation.
- “This place is for the birds”
This is a reference to birds pecking at horse droppings. Anything that is “for the birds” is not worthy of being taken seriously. Equivalent words are “worthless” or “stupid.”
- “Give me a heads up”
To “give a heads up” is to notify somebody in advance, so they can be better prepared. No one likes being caught off-guard.
- “This is a kiss and fly train”
Not to be confused with “kiss and tell.” This euphemism is devoid of romance. It is used in the context of airports, wherein a train or bus connects your city to the nearest airport. This saves the parking fee at airports. This phrase also refers to parking areas at the airport reserved for quick stops.
- “I am going to use the john”
A “john” alludes to the loo. No offense to anyone named John. That’s just how Americans express themselves when they need to use the bathroom.
- “I am jonesing for a beer”
This is another one you might not have heard before. “Jonesing” is a synonym for craving. When your American pal wants something desperately, you might hear them use this slang.
- “Let’s just play it by ear”
“Play it by ear” is a fancy way of saying improvisation. When Americans do something without a fixed plan of action, they use this expression. Rooted in the world of music, this phrase traditionally means playing a piece of music from memory using the ears as a guide, instead of the music sheet.
- “That guy is a loose cannon”
A loose cannon can go off any moment without a warning. Now assign those attributes to a person. Chances are, you are thinking of a volatile, unpredictable person.
- “Don’t pass the buck to me”
Don’t confuse “buck” with money here. No one likes to be on the receiving end of this kind of “buck.” “Pass the buck” suggests a transfer of responsibility for something unpleasant to someone else. Maybe your wife asks you to do the dishes and you pass the buck to your son. Yeah, he won’t be pleased.
- “Give me a ballpark figure”
When Americans don’t have an exact measure of something, they use this euphemism. To give a “ballpark figure” is to provide an arbitrary numerical estimate. The actual number could be anywhere in the symbolic “ballpark” around this figure.
- “That took the wind out of my sails”
If there is no wind to drive the sails, the boat won’t cruise ahead smoothly. This is the same with people. When something catastrophic happens, you feel demotivated and disappointed. That’s when the incident is said to “take the wind out of your sails.”
- “There is no such thing as a free lunch”
This idiom reveals the harsh truth about capitalist society.
Someone always pays. “There is no such thing as a free lunch” indicates the price of making decisions and consuming resources. There is always some implicit cost, even if the individual doesn’t pay for it directly. If your company is paying for your flight tickets, it is only to oblige you to work harder for them. So, remember this saying the next time someone offers you something for free.
- “Don’t quote me on that”
When your American friend utters facts they’re not entirely sure of, you will catch them using this phrase. It’s an American way of avoiding accountability, you might say.
- “Tell me about it!”
When an American exclaims “tell me about it,” you are not supposed to tell them about whatever “it” is. They are just trying to say they relate with you. Since they already know about “it,” before you and better than you, reiterating would only make you seem dumb.
- “Let’s not go all over the map”
Another way of imploring someone to stick to the main topic and not go off into tangents. When you “go all over the map” you are making digressions. That’s unproductive to Americans.
- “Props to you”
To give “props” is to direct respect and appreciation where it is due. It tones down the gravity of the situation. Now you know to stay humble and express gratitude next time someone gives props to you.
- “She ruffles my feathers”
This is a gentle manner of stating how irritating or annoying someone or something is. It has a negative connotation. You don’t want to be ruffling anyone’s metaphorical feathers in America.
- “Put your John Hancock on this”
No need to get baffled now. This is an American way of asking for your signature. This phrase is based on the American statesman John Hancock, who is famous for his remarkably bold signature on the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence document.
- “Please keep me in the loop”
To “keep in the loop” or “keep posted” means to stay in touch or keep updated. In other words, they are being asked to be included when further information is available.
- “Disco nap”
A “disco nap” is a close sibling of a “catnap”. The only difference being, you take a disco nap specifically before a long evening engagement that will keep you out late. However, you can take a catnap any time of the day.
- “He/she is balling”
Americans thirsting for wealth is nothing new. You hear it most often in rap songs. This is just slang to express awe for someone’s money. When they say someone is “balling” or “ballin,” it refers to their luxurious lifestyle.
- “Get your sea legs”
People often feel seasick their first time on a boat or ship. Some get accustomed to it with time, though. When they can walk on the ship with ease, they are said to have attained their “sea legs.” The same applies when someone successfully masters a challenging task or acclimatizes themselves to a new environment.
- “Better bring your A-game”
When an American asks you to bring your A-game, they are asking you to put your best foot forward. If you are bringing your A-game, you are supposed to perform to the best of your abilities.
- “Let’s call it a day”
This is the American way of saying it’s the end of a working day, or task. Informally, it means to stop doing something you have been doing for a long time. It is often used instead of goodbye. So, you can easily replace your goodbyes with this expression.
We have only provided a gateway into the diverse world of American English phrases. There are a lot more you still have to explore.
The most practical and valuable piece of advice is to focus on the context and tone. When you don’t understand an expression or slang, pay attention to the sentence it is used in, and the tone of the speaker.
If a friend calls you a “wuss” for skipping the rollercoaster ride, they’re probably not complimenting you. You would be correct to assume that they’re questioning your courage.
You are smart enough to deduce these meanings. Just trust yourself. Use what you have learned so far, and chit-chat your way to understanding what everyone is saying. Soon, it will be a piece of cake.
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