U.S. Phrases That Baffle the Rest of the World

Tuesday, March 214 min read

It’s no secret that Americans borrow phrases from other countries. To quit something “cold turkey” (abruptly) came from Canada, and the Brits taught us that you can’t “have your cake and eat it, too” (have it both ways). But Americans have created plenty of their own sayings, so jump on the bandwagon and learn more about these popular idioms and expressions.

Break a Leg

Meaning: Good luck

To non-English speakers, this might sound insulting to hear before a big performance, but “break a leg” actually means “good luck” in the theater lexicon. It originated in 20th-century American playhouses, born from the superstition that saying “good luck” might have the opposite effect. The expression could have been adapted from the German phrase “Hals-und Beinbruch” (meaning “neck and leg break”), which likely came from a Hebrew blessing that sounded similar, “hatzlakha u-brakha” (“success and blessing”).

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

Meaning: To make superficial changes in an attempt at making something more favorable

Swine cosmetics aren’t the latest trend — this saying is actually a valuable lesson in life. It suggests that you can dress something up, but that doesn’t change what it is. From Charles H. Spurgeon’s 1887 collection of proverbs, the saying, “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog,” might have inspired the American saying, which wasn’t recorded for another century. The first written account of the lipstick phrase dates to a 1985 article from The Washington Post, discussing plans of a park renovation that locals felt should be much grander, with a radio host commenting, “That would be like putting lipstick on a pig.”

Shoot the Breeze

Meaning: To gossip or talk idly

We all “shoot the breeze” from time to time, but this idiom has nothing to do with projectiles and everything to do with small talk. This phrase emerged in the mid-20th century when “breeze” was slang for “a rumor.” One of the earliest recorded examples of the phrase dates to 1937 in the Indiana Weekly Messenger, which included the quote, “I’m no cop. I just wanted to shoot the breeze with you.” This expression might have evolved from the earlier saying “shoot the bull,” taken from the phrase “bull session,” which described an informal gathering for discussion.

Jump on the Bandwagon

Meaning: Support what is already popular

American showman P.T. Barnum popularized the term “bandwagon” in the mid-19th century, but today it deals with much more than the circus. A bandwagon was originally a large vehicle that carried the musical act during a circus or a parade and was used to draw a crowd of spectators. Today, it is a metaphorical wagon that fans “jump” on en masse to support their favorite sports team, politician, or celebrity. A bandwagon can also denote a party, cause, or movement. Whatever the entity is, it attracts more and more attention because of its mass appeal.

Plead the Fifth

Meaning: Remain quiet

Non-Americans might be confused with this phrase, which refers to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It protects citizens from self-incrimination, known as the “right to remain silent.” Americans also use this as slang when they don’t want to answer a question (but obviously did something wrong), as in, “Who ate the last piece of pizza? I plead the fifth!” The Fifth Amendment has been around since 1791, but “pleading the fifth” as an expression didn’t emerge until the 1950s.

In the Nosebleeds

Meaning: The highest (and cheapest) seats

With these nosebleeds, you’ll need to trade in the tissues for binoculars. In America, these seats are the cheapest and highest in a stadium or venue — they’re the farthest from the stage or field. The expression comes from the high altitude of the seats, alluding to the idea that an attendee could suffer from a nosebleed up there. It first appeared in the 1950s to describe seats in American football stadiums, and gained traction in the 1980s. The British also have a fun nickname for these seats — “the gods.”

Riding Shotgun

Meaning: Sitting in the passenger seat

American kids might exclaim, “I call shotgun,” before a road trip — something that could be very puzzling to a foreign bystander. The idea of a shotgun seat dates to the Wild West, when an armed man rode beside the driver on a stagecoach (a public transportation coach pulled by horses) to protect passengers from would-be attackers. Hollywood Westerns popularized the phrase “riding shotgun,” and by the 1950s, it was a common slang term used by American kids.

Green Thumb

Meaning: Great at gardening

No need to rush your green thumbed friend to the doctor — the expression simply means that they are excellent at growing plants. The term was first recorded in the Ironwood Daily Globe as “horticultural slang” in 1937. The British version of this is “green fingers,” which dates to the 1906 novel The Misses Make-Believe by Mary Stuart Boyd. There are several entertaining theories about where these phrases came from. The most amusing involves King Edward I’s love of peas. Whichever of his workers had the greenest thumb did the most work (shelling the most peas) and would be honored. A more likely scenario is the color green’s association with plants, or the algae that grows on potted plants that gets all over gardeners’ hands.

Sounding Like a Broken Record

Meaning: Repetitive

If someone or something is repeating over and over again (usually to the point of being annoying), it sounds like a broken record. When a vinyl record is scratched or dented, its needle might get stuck, causing that section of music to play on repeat. From this annoying occurrence, a popular idiom was born. Though the phonograph (early record player) was invented in 1877, this expression wasn’t coined until the 1930s.

Featured image credit: LeoPatrizi/ iStock

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