American Sayings and Slang Glossary

Stepping into the world of Uncle Sam and apple pie? The U.S. is more than just Hollywood and the Statue of Liberty; it’s filled with sayings, idioms, and slang phrases that might just throw you for a loop. Here, we’ve compiled the most quintessential American expressions, complete with their meanings, origins, and illustrative examples. Whether you’re a stateside resident or an eager tourist, this guide will help you talk the talk. Speak like a true American patriot in no time! Without further ado, here’s our list of American sayings, idioms, and slang phrases:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

  • Meaning: It’s better to have a sure thing than two uncertainties.
  • Origin: This proverb goes back to medieval falconry where a bird in the hand (the one you’ve caught) was deemed more valuable than two in the bush (those you might still chase).
  • Usage: “He offered me a job, and I took it. A bird in the hand, you know?”

A dime a dozen

  • Meaning: Something very common, not of great value.
  • Origin: Dates back to a time when many items cost a dime.
  • Usage: “These souvenir keychains are a dime a dozen.”

A piece of cake

  • Meaning: Something that’s easy to do.
  • Origin: Likely from the idea that eating cake is a pleasant and simple experience.
  • Usage: “The test was a piece of cake.”

A penny for your thoughts

  • Meaning: Asking someone what they are thinking.
  • Origin: Dates back to 1522 when Sir Thomas More wrote it in a book.
  • Usage: “You seem distant. A penny for your thoughts?”

A shot in the dark

  • Meaning: An attempt that has little chance for success.
  • Origin: The phrase likely comes from the randomness of firing a gun in the dark and hoping to hit something.
  • Usage: “I don’t know the answer, so this is just a shot in the dark.”

At the drop of a hat

  • Meaning: Immediately; without hesitation.
  • Origin: It’s believed that dropping a hat was once a way to start a race or challenge.
  • Usage: “If she called, he’d be there at the drop of a hat.”

Bite the bullet

  • Meaning: To face a difficult situation with courage.
  • Origin: Comes from the practice where soldiers would bite on a bullet during painful procedures to cope with the pain.
  • Usage: “It’s a tough decision, but you’ll have to bite the bullet.”

Burning the midnight oil

  • Meaning: Working late into the night.
  • Origin: Refers to the time before electricity where people used oil lamps to work late hours.
  • Usage: “She’s been burning the midnight oil studying for her exams.”

Batten down the hatches

  • Meaning: Prepare for a difficult or turbulent time.
  • Origin: A nautical term. When a storm was expected, the hatches (an opening in the deck of a ship) were covered and secured.
  • Usage: “They’re predicting a big storm tonight, so batten down the hatches.”

Beating around the bush

  • Meaning: Avoiding the main topic or issue, not speaking directly.
  • Origin: Comes from hunting where hunters would literally beat around bushes to flush out game birds.
  • Usage: “Stop beating around the bush and tell me what you want.”

Bee’s knees

  • Meaning: An excellent person or thing.
  • Origin: American slang from the 1920s, the era of bee’s knees and cat’s pajamas.
  • Usage: “This new gaming console is the bee’s knees!”

Bend over backwards

  • Meaning: To try very hard to help or please someone.
  • Origin: The phrase refers to the physical act of bending backward which is not easy.
  • Usage: “She bent over backwards to help her students succeed.”

Bite the dust

  • Meaning: To die or fail.
  • Origin: Possibly from the Bible, or the idea of someone falling face first into the dirt in death.
  • Usage: “My old laptop finally bit the dust.”

Break the ice

  • Meaning: To start a conversation in a social setting to relieve tension.
  • Origin: Refers to breaking the ice on waterways to allow boats to pass.
  • Usage: “He told a joke to break the ice at the beginning of the meeting.”

By the skin of your teeth

  • Meaning: Narrowly, barely.
  • Origin: Comes from the Book of Job in the Bible.
  • Usage: “I made it to the train by the skin of my teeth.”

Cry over spilled milk

  • Meaning: Wasting time worrying over things that have already happened and can’t be changed.
  • Origin: This proverbial phrase can be traced back to the 1650s, essentially referring to it being pointless to cry over something as simple and easily replaceable as milk.
  • Usage: “I know you’re upset you didn’t win, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.”

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

  • Meaning: Don’t make plans based on future events that might not happen.
  • Origin: This idiom can be traced back to Aesop’s fables from the 6th century, emphasizing the idea of not acting on assumptions.
  • Usage: “He’s planning what he’ll buy with his bonus, but I told him not to count his chickens before they hatch.”

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

  • Meaning: Don’t risk everything on the success of one venture.
  • Origin: A proverb dating back to the 1600s which suggests diversification of resources to manage risk.
  • Usage: “I know you love that stock, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Every cloud has a silver lining

  • Meaning: There’s a positive or hopeful side to every situation, no matter how adverse.
  • Origin: The phrase is likely derived from John Milton’s “Comus” (1634) with the line “Was I deceived? or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”
  • Usage: “I was devastated when I lost my job, but then I found an even better one. Every cloud has a silver lining.”

For crying out loud

  • Meaning: An exclamation of frustration or surprise.
  • Origin: An American phrase from the early 20th century, possibly a cleaned-up version of a more vulgar exclamation.
  • Usage: “For crying out loud, can you just listen for a second?”

Go the extra mile

  • Meaning: Make more effort than is expected of you.
  • Origin: Derived from a passage in the New Testament (Matthew 5:41) where Jesus says “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”
  • Usage: “She always goes the extra mile for her clients.”

Hit the hay/sack

  • Meaning: Go to bed.
  • Origin: “Hay” refers to a time when mattresses were often stuffed with straw. “Sack” similarly refers to a simple, sack-like bed.
  • Usage: “I’m exhausted. I think I’ll hit the hay.”

In the nick of time

  • Meaning: Just in the last moment before it’s too late.
  • Origin: “Nick” once meant the critical moment, a notch or small cut, so the phrase refers to arriving at that crucial moment.
  • Usage: “The firefighters arrived in the nick of time.”

Jump on the bandwagon

  • Meaning: To adopt a popular trend or activity.
  • Origin: Dates back to the 1840s from American politics, when a bandwagon was used in parades of which politicians would throw themselves onto in order to gain attention.
  • Usage: “When the team started winning, everyone jumped on the bandwagon.”

Keep your nose to the grindstone

  • Meaning: To work hard and continuously.
  • Origin: This saying comes from the old practice of knife grinders, who needed to keep their noses down toward the grindstone to do their work.
  • Usage: “If you keep your nose to the grindstone now, you’ll thank yourself during exam week.”

Let the cat out of the bag

  • Meaning: Reveal a secret.
  • Origin: Refers to old markets where pigs were sold in bags. A seller might replace it with a cat, and if it escaped, the deception was revealed.
  • Usage: “I didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party!”

Make a mountain out of a molehill

  • Meaning: Exaggerate a small problem into something big.
  • Origin: This saying can be traced back to the 16th century. “Molehill” became synonymous with trifles due to its size.
  • Usage: “I only mentioned it once, and she made a mountain out of a molehill.”

No pain, no gain

  • Meaning: You can’t achieve anything without some hardship or effort.
  • Origin: A modern proverb that emphasizes the value of struggle and hard work.
  • Usage: “You’ll have to practice every day to get better. No pain, no gain.”

Off the hook

  • Meaning: Excused from a responsibility or obligation.
  • Origin: Originates from fishing, where a fish that gets “off the hook” is free and escapes.
  • Usage: “Thanks for covering for me; you got me off the hook with the boss.”

Pass the buck

  • Meaning: Shift responsibility to someone else.
  • Origin: The ‘buck’ is thought to come from the use of a buckhorn knife in poker games, which was passed to the person next in line to deal.
  • Usage: “Don’t try to pass the buck. It’s your responsibility.”

Quit cold turkey

  • Meaning: Stop an addiction or habit abruptly.
  • Origin: It’s believed to refer to the cold, clammy feel of the skin during withdrawal, like a turkey that has been refrigerated.
  • Usage: “He quit smoking cold turkey.”

Rain check

  • Meaning: An expression indicating the desire to postpone an offer or invitation for a later time.
  • Origin: Stemming from baseball, when a game was postponed due to rain, attendees were given a “rain check” to attend a rescheduled game.
  • Usage: “Can I take a rain check on dinner? I’m swamped with work tonight.”

Read between the lines

  • Meaning: To understand the hidden or unspoken meaning in something.
  • Origin: Comes from early cryptography, where hidden messages were literally written between the lines of overt texts.
  • Usage: “The email seems positive, but if you read between the lines, you can sense her frustration.”

Shoot the breeze

  • Meaning: To chat casually without any serious topic.
  • Origin: Origin unclear, but it’s believed to relate to the idle passing of time, similar to watching the breeze.
  • Usage: “We sat on the porch and shot the breeze for hours.”

Spill the beans

  • Meaning: To reveal a secret.
  • Origin: Ancient Greece where people voted using beans. Spilling the beans would inadvertently show the results.
  • Usage: “He spilled the beans about the surprise party.”

Take it with a grain of salt

  • Meaning: To be skeptical about something or not take it too seriously.
  • Origin: The idea comes from the fact that food is more easily swallowed if taken with a small amount of salt.
  • Usage: “I’d take what he says with a grain of salt.”

The ball is in your court

  • Meaning: It’s up to you to make the next move or decision.
  • Origin: Originates from tennis or other racquet sports where players hit the ball back and forth.
  • Usage: “I’ve done all I can do; now, the ball is in your court.”

Under the weather

  • Meaning: Feeling ill or not oneself.
  • Origin: Historically, sailors who felt seasick would go below deck, thus going “under the weather.”
  • Usage: “I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so I’ll stay home today.”

Up in arms

  • Meaning: To be very angry.
  • Origin: Refers to the act of taking up arms or preparing for battle.
  • Usage: “The community was up in arms about the new development.”

Vice versa

  • Meaning: The other way around; in reverse order.
  • Origin: Borrowed from Latin, meaning “in a turned position.”
  • Usage: “You can wear the dress with the jacket or vice versa.”

When pigs fly

  • Meaning: Something that will never happen.
  • Origin: The idea of pigs flying is so absurd it suggests impossibility.
  • Usage: “He’ll clean his room when pigs fly.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover

  • Meaning: You can’t judge something’s value or worth based solely on its appearance.
  • Origin: The phrase dates back to at least the mid-19th century and conveys that the external appearance doesn’t always reflect what’s inside.
  • Usage: “He might not look the part, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

You bet your boots

  • Meaning: Certainly; you can be sure.
  • Origin: Expresses strong affirmation, possibly originating from the idea of putting one’s valuable boots as a wager.
  • Usage: “Is the game on tonight? You bet your boots it is.”

Zip it

  • Meaning: Stop talking.
  • Origin: Likening the act of silencing someone to the swift motion of zipping up.
  • Usage: “Just zip it and listen!”

Zero in on

  • Meaning: To focus closely on something.
  • Origin: Military origin, referencing the adjusting of gun sights for accuracy.
  • Usage: “The team zeroed in on the issue to find a solution.”

Zonked out

  • Meaning: Extremely tired or exhausted.
  • Origin: Thought to have evolved from WWII military slang “zonk” which meant “to hit” or “knock out.”
  • Usage: “After the long hike, I was completely zonked out.”

That’s it for our list of American sayings, idioms and slang! Thanks for continuing to expand your vocabulary with us.  Did we miss something? Let us know down below in the comments ⤵.

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