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30 Phrases That Confuse Non-Americans

“I need to take a raincheck.”

Raincheck can be incredibly confusing for non-Americans, especially if it isn’t raining. In America, the phrase can mean that you can’t do something, but you’d like to do it later. In a store, it can also give you the right to purchase something at a sales price if the item is sold out. The phrase dates back to the 1880s when baseball games were postponed due to rain.

“Can you do me a solid?”

Doing a solid for someone can be pretty odd if you aren’t from the U.S. Funny enough, it came to mean “favor” around the early ‘60s. Prior to this, “solid” meant something or someone that’s good. In the ‘20s, if you said, “he’s solid,” it would have meant that the guy was good or exemplary. Some suggest that it could have originated from the fact people said, “Do me a solid favor?”

“Can you scoot over?”

Scoot over is something we Americans learn from a young age. It basically means to move or to make room for something. If you ask a non-American to “scoot” over they could look at you like you’re crazy. They don’t have a scooter! No one is really sure where it came from, but most of us use it often.

“How are you?”

In America, this more-or-less means “hello.” Most people don’t expect you to let them know how you’re doing further than a “good” or “okay.” It gets awkward when people try to actually talk about how they’re doing. 

 

“Can you break a bill?”

Breaking a bill means you’d like to make a $20 into smaller amounts -- $10, $5, $1, etc. Anyone not from the United States might get pretty confused about this. How do you break money? It may even get more confusing when they don’t know that money can be called bills.

“Let’s go Dutch.”

Going Dutch could have come from a few places. One is a gambling term “dutching,” which is a system where stakes are shared across a number of bets. The other dates back to a conflict between the English and Dutch in the 17th century. Still, Americans know the phrase means “lets split the bill.”

“I’m jonesing for some coffee.”

Jonesing doesn’t have great origins. In the ‘60s, a “jones” was a craving for heroin because the drug was once referred to as “Mr. Jones.” Granted, now we use it for a number of things in America, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re addicted to the thing that we want. 

“He passed the buck!”

Buck can mean a ton of things in the United States, so it makes sense others would be confused. Buck as in dollar? Buck as in deer? Nope! Buck as in responsibility! Passing the buck means you shirked your responsibilities, similar to someone “throwing” another person “under a bus.”

“Put your John Hancock here.”

John Hancock is an easy one for most Americans, but non-Americans don’t know who John Hancock was – or it’s at least less likely that they would. The phrase “John Hancock” means “signature.” It comes from John Hancock’s bold signature on the Declaration of Independence. Some historians also agree that he was the first to sign the monumental document.

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“Break a leg!”

Oh my! Don’t wish such harsh things on someone! No, no, no. Breaking a leg doesn’t mean you want someone to be injured. It actually means that you wish the person good luck. The origin is still pretty vague, but some believe that it comes from the fact that wishing someone “good luck” in a theater production is bad luck. Break a leg was a way around that, and maybe a little reverse psychology?

“That costs an arm and a leg.”

Anything that’s extremely expensive or much higher than the usual price is referred to as costing an “arm and a leg.” Think about someone that isn’t native to the English language – that’s a scary phrase! The phrase has been used for a long time, and it comes from the fact that something that costs that much is insane, and you might as well charge limbs for the item!

“I don’t cry over spilled milk.”

There’s no milk around! Crying over spilled milk is when someone gets upset over something that’s already happened and cannot be changed. It may also mean crying over something that isn’t worth being upset about. The earliest usage of this phrase was found in an old phrase book called Paramoigraphy in 1659.

“I’m riding shotgun!”

Riding shotgun can be especially terrifying, especially for non-Americans that already find America more violent than their own home. We know that it means riding in the front passenger’s seat, which is better than the backseat, of course. The phrase derives from a “shotgun messenger” from the Wild West days. The person in the passenger’s seat would hold a shotgun to protect the stagecoach from bandits.

“He gave me the cold shoulder.”

If you’re cold, then just cover up! No one is cold. What Americans mean when they say this is that they’re being ignored deliberately by another person. The first reference to this phrase is from 1816, and some etymologists believe it results from giving someone a “cold shoulder of mutton” rather than the warmed portion.

“It’s all Greek to me.”

It’s Greek to me might be especially confusing to Grecians. When Americans say it, we’re saying that we don’t know what it’s about. So, if a math problem looks Greek, it means we have no idea the answer or how to solve it. The origin is kind of fun because it’s pretty similar to a Latin phrase meaning, “It’s Greek, [therefore] it cannot be read.” It was often used in the Middle Ages by monks as knowledge of the Greek Alphabet dwindled. It was also used in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as Casca speaks to Cassius. 

“Stop throwing a hissy fit.”

Angry cats?! Yikes. Actually, when someone is throwing a hissy fit, it’s when they’re throwing a temper tantrum. It has nothing to do with cats hissing (or snakes), thankfully. As a side note, telling someone they’re throwing a hissy fit doesn’t always seem to go as planned…

“Doing your taxes is a piece of cake.”

Something that’s a piece of cake is something that’s incredibly easy. It originated when cakes were given out as prizes for winning competitions, sort of like a cake walk. With that being said, doing your taxes is not a piece of cake.

“They were shooting the breeze.”

They were making small talk for a while. This can happen anywhere and can also be known as “throw the bull.” The slang has been recorded as far back as 1919 and alluded to talking into the wind. Hopefully, someone is listening when you shoot the breeze.

“Can you give me a ballpark figure?”

Baseball was our national pastime once upon a time, but we’re one of the few countries that use this phrase. A person that says this wants a rough estimate. The phrase was first recorded in 1960 when it referred to the area within which a spacecraft was expected to return to Earth. It’s hard to figure out exacts there!

“That movie was for the birds.”

“For the birds” means that it didn’t matter or was “horse crap.” Some believe that the phrase came before the advent of cars when horses were the main way of getting around. Naturally, horses poop on the ground and the oats the horses ate were left undigested. Birds would eat them, and thus, the phrase became a polite way of saying “that’s horse crap.”

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“Well, the cats out of the bag, now.”

When the cat is out of the bag, a secret has been disclosed. No, we don’t actually have a cat in a bag! The first recorded use of the phrase goes back to 1760 in London Magazine, but it doesn’t give any indication of where it came from as it was used in the same way it’s used today. While that phrase is confusing to us “give the cat a hare” is the Spanish equivalent, which may be just as confusing to us Americans without context!

“I’m going cold turkey.”

You can quit anything cold turkey – cigarettes, caffeine, sugar, etc. It means to stop something suddenly and without preparation. There are a few ways this phrase could have come about. One possibility is that it came from “talking turkey” (to talk frankly) in the early 20th century. Another prospect stems from actual cold pieces of turkey, which requires very little preparation to make into a meal.

“I plead the fifth!”

The fifth of what? Anyone that isn’t familiar with American history could be confused by this. Pleading the fifth invokes the right to allow witnesses to decline to answer a question where they may incriminate themselves. Many people use it when they don’t want to say something that could get them in trouble outside of the court. The “fifth” refers to the fifth amendment to the United States Constitution.

“I’m in the nosebleeds.”

The tongue-in-cheese phrase “nosebleeds” means that you’re so high up that the elevation is causing nosebleeds. The origin could date back to the 1970s when it was said on Happy Days. Fonzie said he was getting a nosebleed while at a JF&F concert. It was the first documented example, but the phrase could have been used long before.

“It’s all downhill from here.”

It’s all downhill from here could have two different meanings, and some Americans may even need some help if they don’t have context clues. It could mean that things got a lot worse, or things were much easier. It depends on the person and the situation and can be used interchangeably. 

“I was thrown under the bus!”

Don’t throw anyone under a bus! That’s murder! Being thrown under the bus means to betray a friend or ally for selfish reasons. The earliest print example is from 1991, but it was used in a 1984 quote from Cyndi Lauper. Unfortunately, the origin of this phrase remains unknown. 

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

Tell me about it doesn’t mean for you to repeat what you just said – at least if it doesn’t have an upward inflection or question mark. It’s a form of agreeing. “I hate this weather.” “Yeah, tell me about it.” Don’t be confused! We’re just agreeing. 

“I killed two birds with one stone.”

In America, we don’t consider killing birds with stones a pastime. Killing two birds with one stone means that we accomplished two tasks at once. This phrase goes all the way back to the 1600s when it was a way for a philosopher to prove two arguments with one solution – or at least that’s what etymologists think.

“It’s the whole nine yards.”

The whole nine yards came to mean “everything” or “all the way.” The earliest example was from 1855 when a writer claimed a woman was told to enough fabric for three shirts, and then used “the whole nine yards into one shirt!”. That’s one big shirt. 

“Don’t hop on the bandwagon.”

Hopping on the bandwagon means you support a hobby, idea, person, or something else that has become popular or successful. When someone goes on a popular diet, it can be said that they’re hopping on a bandwagon. A bandwagon was literally a wagon that carried a band, and they were used to catch an audience’s attention for a show.