22 American Phrases That Are Weird For Non-Americans

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are over 500,000 words in the English vocabulary. You will find some bizarre phrases that might completely confuse you. Americans often use idioms that can leave foreigners completely stumped.

You’re Grounded

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This might sound like a strange expression to someone not familiar with American culture. It’s a phrase often used by parents to discipline their children. This means they are not allowed to leave the house or participate in certain activities.

Scoot Over

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“Scoot over” is commonly used to ask someone to move over slightly politely. However, for those who are unfamiliar with this term, it can be confusing.

Hand-Me-Down

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This phrase refers to used clothes or items passed from one person to another. It is usually from an older sibling to a younger one. While it can be translated literally, the phrase also carries negative connotations.

Piece of Cake

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When Americans say “piece of cake,” they mean something that is very easy to do. For example, they might say, “This homework is a piece of cake,” meaning it can be easily done or solved. But, this phrase might not make sense to non-Americans who are not familiar with its origin.

It’s Not Rocket Science

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This saying is used to convey that some things are easy to understand. The phrase originated from the U.S.’s history of rocket science during the Cold War era. While it’s a common expression in America, its reference can be perplexing to outsiders.

Mystery Meat

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Mystery meat is a term Americans use to describe unknown or unidentified meat, often served in cafeteria food. This phrase can be confusing if you are not accustomed to the concept of mystery meat.

Under the Weather

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This phrase is used by Americans to describe feeling sick or unwell. However, non-English speakers might find it puzzling as they try to understand how someone can be “under” the weather. The term originates from maritime practices, where sailors feeling unwell were sent below deck to escape the inclement weather. They were referred to as being “under the weather bow” on the side of the ship facing the bad weather.

Dive Bar

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“Dive bar” refers to a low-key, unpretentious bar. The term might confuse non-Americans who are unfamiliar with its specific meaning.

Let’s Table This

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This phrase means to postpone or set aside a topic for later discussion. However, its meaning might be misunderstood by non-English speakers, as it seems to imply the opposite of what it means.

Long in the Tooth

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“Long in the tooth” is a phrase to describe something that’s aged or gone on for too long. This phrase originally referred to horses whose teeth grow as they get older. For non-English speakers, it might seem like a literal reference to someone with unusually long teeth, sparking confusion about its meaning.

Break a Leg

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This phrase is used by Americans to wish someone good luck. Its literal translation can sound like a curse to non-English speakers. Despite its positive intention, the idiom’s meaning might not be immediately clear to those unfamiliar with it.

Put Lipstick on a Pig

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“Put lipstick on a pig” is a peculiar phrase used to describe attempting to improve something that is inherently unattractive or deficient. The expression gained prominence in the late 20th century. However, its roots can be traced back to early analogies regarding pigs and cosmetics. The imagery of this phrase might be difficult for non-Americans to grasp, leading to confusion about its usage.

Knock on Wood

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“Knock on wood” is the opposite of “break a leg.” This expression is said (and done) when someone hopes something happens or continues to happen. The phrase “touch wood” is used outside America instead of this.

Monday-Morning Quarterback

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A “Monday-morning quarterback” is a person who second-guesses things. Since American football is barely followed or understood outside the country, individuals encountering this American expression may be puzzled. They may immediately ask questions like, “What’s a quarterback?” Additionally, they might also wonder. “What does Monday have to do with anything?”

Sounds Like a Broken Record

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This phrase refers to someone likely repeating themselves. Just like when a broken record plays the same line over and over again. This phrase, dating back to 1936, captures the annoyance of hearing the same thing repeatedly.

Break a Bill

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This American expression is used to get change for a larger bill. This phrase might confuse non-Americans who aren’t familiar with the phrase. Its usage outside the U.S. may not be widely understood, creating confusion when requesting change.

Fanny Pack

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“Fanny pack” is the name for a waist-worn pouch. It can be amusingly confusing for British visitors due to the British meaning of “fanny” which translates to a slang term for the female genitalia. The difference in terminology may lead to humorous misunderstandings or awkward moments for non-Americans unfamiliar with the slang.

Jump the Shark

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This phrase is used to describe when a TV show or other work overstays its welcome. It originated from an episode of Happy Days. But now, it is used more broadly to signify when something loses cultural reliance or quality.

Green Thumb

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“Green thumb” is commonly used to describe someone skilled at caring for plants and greenery. Originating in the UK in the early 1900s, some believe this phrase comes from the green stains that farmers and gardeners acquire on their fingertips from handling plants regularly.

He/She’s a Keeper

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This phrase is used to compliment someone with admirable qualities. It indicates that they are worth keeping close, whether as a friend or a partner. However, non-native English speakers might find it odd to refer to “keeping” a person in this context. This is because it can be interpreted differently in other cultures.

Ate it

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“Ate it” is a slang used to praise someone who has performed exceptionally well at something. The phrase originated from Black and LGBTQ+ communities in the 2000s. It is akin to saying someone “slayed.”

Period

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When Americans add “period” to the end of their sentences, it’s usually to emphasize their point or add a touch of drama. While it might feel impacting to Americans, it can come across as strange to those not unfamiliar with the expression.

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