15 Phrases The U.S. Says That Leave Foreigners Completely Stumped

The term ‘dude’ is widely known thanks to American media, but there are many other American expressions that can puzzle travelers. Discover common American phrases that baffle foreigners.

1. Bang for One’s Buck

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Going shopping at the mall? Check out the sales section to get the best “bang for your buck.”

This common American idiom means to receive the most value for your money. A “buck” is a colloquialism for a dollar. 

2. Jump the Shark

red haired woman bored

When something is described as “jumping the shark”, that means it has peaked in popularity and is now declining in quality.

For example, some would argue that the American version of The Office jumped the shark after lead actor Steve Carrell quit the TV show.

3. The Cat’s Out of the Bag

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Letting the cat out of the bag refers to revealing a secret.

If someone ruined a surprise birthday party by accident, then they can say, “The cat’s now out of the bag!”

4. Jump on the Bandwagon

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To jump on the bandwagon is to support someone or something that is already popular.

An American might say a person is “jumping on the bandwagon” if they begin supporting a historically successful sports team, like the New England Patriots or the New York Yankees.

5. Your John Hancock

signing contract

If an American asks you to put down “your John Hancock” on the dotted line, they are asking for your signature.

The idiom is a reference to U.S. history: John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence.

6. Shoot the Breeze

teens chatting outside school

To “shoot the breeze” with a person is to have a casual conversation or superficial chat with them. The more vulgar would be to “shoot the s—”.

7. Monday-Morning Quarterback

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Understanding this phrase requires some American sports knowledge.

In American football, the quarterback is the player responsible for leading the offense and calling plays.

A “Monday-morning quarterback” is a person who second-guesses or criticizes decisions long after the event is over.

8. Scoot Over

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Someone asking you to “scoot over” is requesting that you make room for them, whether standing up or sitting down. 

9. Fanny Pack

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What Americans call “fanny packs”, English speakers from other countries might know as waist bags or “bumbags.”

Originally worn like belts, these pouch-shaped bags are currently trending as a fashionable and practical alternative to the crossbody bag.

10. Go Dutch

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Planning your first date in the U.S.? Learn what “going Dutch” means beforehand and avoid any awkwardness when the check comes.

The phrase has nothing to do with the Netherlands—to “go Dutch” means to split the cost of the bill equally.

11. Plead the Fifth

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An American who pleads the Fifth is invoking their right to refuse to answer any incriminating questions, a reference to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

If someone asks, “Do you like spending time with John or Tim more?” then an appropriate response could be, “I plead the Fifth.” 

12. Knock on Wood

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Use this phrase to ward off any bad luck or protect any current good luck.

For example, “We’re having the wedding outside tomorrow, as long as the weather stays this good—knock on wood.” For emphasis, actually, knock on wood when you say this.

13. Ballpark Figure

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Despite the name, a “ballpark figure” has nothing to do with baseball or the venues where the sport is usually played.

When a person gives you a “ballpark figure”, they’re providing a rough numerical estimate.

14. Ride Shotgun

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To “ride shotgun” means to travel in the front passenger seat of a car or other vehicle.

The expression comes from books and movies depicting the American Wild West, when stagecoach drivers traveled with an armed escort beside them, for protection from bandits. 

15. Table a Discussion

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In other English-speaking countries, “tabling” a discussion or topic can mean bringing it up for conversation.

For Americans, the meaning is quite the opposite. When your boss says, “Let’s table this for now” at a meeting, they mean to leave the subject for a future date.

For a similar expression, the idiom “put a pin in this” is used in the same way.

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This article was produced and syndicated by TPR Teaching. Source.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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