American phrases are an important part of its history and culture. Regardless, these expressions can be difficult to understand if you are from another country, especially because these sayings typically come with context, colloquialisms, and historical references. These things often get lost in translation when moving about the globe. Let’s dive into 18 American sayings that leave the rest of the world a little puzzled.

Going Postal

During a time in American history, around the 1980’s and 90’s when U.S. workers faced a high-stress work environment, the term postal was developed.

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It means to be beyond angry, to the extent of feeling rage or even violence within one’s work space.

Flaking Out

The basic meaning behind the phrase “flaking out” is to not show up or to cancel plans at the very last minute. Because the term itself doesn’t imply being unreliable, it can be difficult for people from overseas to understand the phrase.

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In America however, we often use the term “flaking” when someone cancels plans due to unforeseen happenings, conflicting obligations, car problems, or just deciding they no longer want to attend.

John Hancock

John Hancock was an American statesman that served as the president of Congress at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed.

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He became known to Americans for his elaborate signature, which he used when he signed the declaration. This is where the phrase “can I get your John Hancock” came from when asking someone for their signature.

That’s For The Birds

This phrase has military origins that are commonly tied to U.S. Army slang. It indicated something useless, ineffective, or without value.

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It’s a variant of the phrase that involves the habits that birds have of picking up horse feces.

I’m Jonesing

The term ‘jonesing’ refers to the feeling of yearning for something. It’s often mistaken for being related to the term “keeping up with the Joneses,” which is another American slang term, but one has nothing to do with the other.

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For example if someone in America really wanted a coffee, they may say something like “I’m really jonesing for a cup of coffee.” Sadly this term actually originated to describe addiction to heroin.

That’s Catty-corner or Cattywampus

This term was coined in the Colonial United States and still holds its popularity to this day. In the South Cattywampus refers to something that is out of alignment.

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For example, someone might say “that building is cattywampus,” meaning it’s placed in a strange location, they might even say it about what someone is wearing, or the way things are arranged in a store. The variations of this term are phrases like catty-corner, having similar meanings.

Let’s Go Dutch

The expression “Let’s go Dutch” originated in the United States but is widely used around the world. It has zero connection to the Netherlands, in fact the phrase means to split a bill of something (typically a dining bill) with more than one person.

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It originated in an 1873 editorial in the Baltimore newspaper. If you wanted to use the term in the proper context and you were out to dinner with a group of friends you could say “go Dutch” to pay half.

Jumped the shark

According to wikipedia, the phrase ‘jumped the shark’ or ‘jumping the shark’ is a term used to describe criticizing an entity or their work when you believe it has gotten to a place where it has lost its focus and is introducing ideas that don’t align with its original purpose.

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It originated in 1985 by radio personality Jon Hein. It was his response to an episode from the season of the sitcom Happy Days, where Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) jumps over a live shark while water skiing.

A Monday Morning Quarterback

The term “Monday morning quarterback” refers to someone who judges or criticizes an event after it has already taken place.

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Naturally this term comes from football, because games are typically on Sundays. It was originally used to discuss business related to sports, referring to the act of analyzing and adding commentary to events after they have already occurred.

Jump The Bandwagon

To understand this phrase, think of more digestible terms like ‘copycat’. It means to join in on a trend or movement of some kind.

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This phrase has origins that go as far back as the Phineas T. Barnum’s circus parades, it was the name of the wagon that carried the circus band.

Devil’s Advocate

During the sanctification process of the Catholic church the phrase playing the devil’s advocate was coined. Nowadays the term means to argue against popular opinions.

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Its reference means to engage in an argument that goes against your own beliefs.

More bang for your buck

When you buy something and get your value for the money spent, that is ‘getting more bang for your buck’.

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To understand this term you have to understand that in the United States “buck” is a slang word for “dollar.”

Pain In The Neck

If someone ever says you are a ‘pain in the neck’ it isn’t a good thing, they are expressing to you that you are being annoying or you are irritating them. Possibly because you are exhibiting bad behavior or won’t stop complaining about something.

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It is a phrase that is commonly used in the U.S., originating from a 1900’s euphesim.

I’m Over The Moon

To say you are over the moon means you are elated, overjoyed, extremely excited. Some sources say that this phrase might have ties to the old nursery rhyme “Hey, Diddle, Diddle” because the cow jumped over the moon.

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It can be used in different contexts, but typically to describe a feeling of being very excited about something. For instance, if you found out your friend is getting married you might “I’m over the moon about the news of your engagement,” to express your excitement about the occurence.

Couch potato

This term is used to describe someone who is lazy and spends their days sitting on the couch watching TV all day.

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It was coined in the 1970’s by comic book artists who depicted lazy characters to whom they started to call couch potatoes.

No pain, no gain

If you are a gym or sports enthusiast then you have most likely heard someone use the phrase ‘no pain no gain.’ It is a term that is used to describe the effort it takes to achieve the results you are trying to get.


The wording makes it very unique to the U.S. and isn’t commonly heard in other countries.

That’s A Piece Of Cake

When completely a task comes easily, people will use the phrase ‘that was a piece of cake’.

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It has origins that are traced back to an American tradition that was centered around a dance competition that was known as the cakewalk. The phrase has nothing to do with actual cake which can lead to its confusion amongst other cultures.

Dog Days Of Summer

National Geographic has an article that highlights the origin of this phrase, suggesting that it comes from the phrase scorching summer days, which refers to the hottest days of the entire year.

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The phrase lies in an ancient belief associated with a radiant celestial body in the sky, Sirius, known as the Dog Star, and has less to do with a dogs propensity to lay around in the warmth of the sun. To most people the term “dog days” makes them think about those scorching hot summers when even a dog would find comfort in laying on the pavement.