Breaking the (Language) Code

Monkeys gesture - Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

An ongoing “Under Development” travelers language guide of US colloquialisms, idioms, and slang. I originally started this when I travelled to India and started documenting all of the differences between our languages.

For many people traveling to the United States, one of the most daunting aspects of the experience is understanding the language. While English remains the primary language within the U.S., there are a number of colloquialisms, idioms, and slang words that can make communication difficult for foreigners. Here are some of the most commonly used colloquialisms, idioms, and slang terms in the United States and how to use them in a sentence.


Colloquialisms are expressions that are used casually and informally in everyday speech. Some examples of colloquialisms in the U.S. include “catch some Z’s” – meaning “to get some sleep”, and “hang a left” – meaning “to turn left”. Example sentence: I was so tired after my flight, I just wanted to catch some Z’s.

  1. “Takeout” – meaning “Food to go”
  2. “Couch potato” – meaning “A lazy person who spends a lot of time on the couch”
  3. “Hang out” – meaning “To spend time with friends”
  4. “Bumper to bumper” – meaning “Heavy traffic”
  5. “Rain check” – meaning postponing an offer/invitation
  6. “Take a rain check” – meaning “Decline an offer/invitation for now”
  7. “Dude” – meaning “A casual term used to address someone”
  8. “Hit the road” – meaning “To leave or depart”
  9. “Cutting edge” – meaning “Leading edge technology”
  10. “On the go” – meaning “Busy, always moving”
  11. Bail — Intransitive verb for leaving abruptly.
  12. Feeling blue; have the blues — A feeling of depression or sadness.
  13. A buck — Slang term for a the American dollar.
  14. By the skin of (my/your/his/her) teeth — just barely.
  15. Creep (n.) —  An unpleasantly weird/strange person.
  16. Couch Potato — A lazy person who spends the bulk of their time engaged in things that can be done while sitting on a couch.
  17. Cram — To study feverishly before an exam typically done after neglecting to study consistently.
  18. Crash — To abruptly fall  asleep, or to show up without invitation.
  19. Down to earth — And adjective for practicality and lack of pretense.
  20. Drive up the wall — To irritate.
  21. For Real — A proclamation of honesty.
  22. Going Dutch — When each person, usually in a dating scenario, pays for his/her own meal.
  23. The cold shoulder — A metaphor for deliberately ignoring someone.
  24. Give a ring — To call someone on the telephone.
  25. Hyped (adj.) — A very excited state.
  26. Hang out — To casually gather together or spend time with someone in a social manner. (AKA gassed up)
  27. Jack up — An abrupt increase, typically in the price of something.
  28. Knock — To speak negatively, to disparage, to badmouth.
  29. Lighten up — To relax and take things too seriously. Typically stated as an appeal to someone who is acting uptight.
  30. Pass the buck — To deflect responsibility onto someone else.
  31. Piece of cake — A metaphor to describe something that is easy or effortless.
  32. Pig out — A metaphor for binge eating.
  33. Plead the fifth — References the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows a witness in court to refuse questions on the grounds that they risk self-incrimination.
  34. Screw up — To make a mistake, i.e. mess up.
  35. Sweet — An adjective that describes something that is good, or nice.
  36. Tight — An adjective that describes closeness between competitors, i.e. a tight competition.
  37. Trash — Can be used as an intransitive verb for destruction. e.g. “He trashed the car.”
  38. Uptight — Stuffy, persnickety, the opposite of relaxed.
  39. Wrap (something) up — To finish or complete something.
  40. Zonked — Completely exhausted.Our next post will cover British slang terms that Americans find confusing. Until then, here are some of our favorite American slang words:
  41. Pants — CLOTHING RETAILERS TAKE NOTE: The Brits say ‘trousers’ … The American default word for the article of clothing that covers the legs and pelvic region seems pretty general and innocuous to English speakers in the U.S. To the actual English, however, ‘pants’ is the primary word they use for ‘underwear.’ And while American cinema and television typically writes the word ‘knickers’ for underwear into the vocabulary of British characters—that’s probably just for comedic effect since ‘pants’ wouldn’t induce any response—the most common British word for underwear really is ‘pants.’ Americans tend not to notice how often they refer to their so-called pants until someone from the U.K. joins their ranks. Once that happens they begin to notice restrained snickering every time ‘pants’ are referenced in a polite conversation.
  42. For the birds — Imagine how this phrase must sound to someone who doesn’t understand that it refers to something that is substandard in some respect. Is it a bag of seeds or some kind of yard ornament reference? The Brits sometimes use the word ‘bird,’ to refer to women, in the same way Americans use ‘chicks.’ So, maybe it comes off like reference to girlishness. Who knows?
  43. Bought the farm — ”I didn’t know he wanted to move to the country,” is how a British person might respond to hearing this phrase. At this point ‘bought the farm,’ is a general reference to untimely death. However, the phrase originates from WWII-era military accidents involving unreliable aircraft crashing into rural European countryside properties resulting in damages for which the U.S. government was responsible to pay, thereby, ‘buying the farm,’ so to speak.
  44. Jonesing — To want, crave, or desire something intensely, and its noun form, ‘joneser,’ (a person who wants or craves something intensely), isn’t always apparent even to Americans. The Oxford Dictionary associates this word’s slang usage with Jones Alley in Manhattan, a haven for drug addicts in the 1960s. The unsavory drug culture connotations continue today. However the definition of ‘joneser,’ has been broadened among some circles to include describing a person whose character is found wanting, i.e. lacking, as opposed to someone who simply wants something desperately.
  45. Take a raincheck — This is an Americanism that dates back to the 1880s and references the practice of giving baseball game ticketholders a pass to a game that must be rescheduled due to weather. It’s commonly used as a metaphor for postponing or rescheduling a meeting between people to some later date that is more convenient.
  46. Spill the Beans — British English speakers might pick up on the use of the word ‘spill,’ as a metaphor for divulging. But ‘spill the beans,’ might be obscure enough for them to assume a more specific connotation, which they are not aware of. Needless to say, ‘spill the beans,’ is an American idiom for divulging secret information that dates back to the very early 1900s.
  47. Shoot the breeze — An idiomatic phrase for killing time with idle chit-chat, ‘shoot the breeze probably stems from old-west imagery, either cinematic or anecdotal in origin, in which men with nothing but time and ammunition on their hands shot their guns at no particular target.  
  48. John Hancock — Although obscure associative references are a favorite form of Cockney slang, it’s unlikely that an English person would have any idea who John Hancock was. The reference would escape them. The name John Hancock became synonymous with a person’s signature because his was one of the more flamboyant signatures on The Declaration of Independence.  
  49. Monday morning quarterback — Because quarterback is an on-field leadership position played in American football, which the British have no interest in, and because Monday morning references the fact that most NFL games take place on Sundays, this is a doubly obscure metaphor. While American’s understand that the phrase references the practice of criticizing something after-fact-with the advantage of hindsight, an English person would find this phrase totally meaningless.
  50. Ride Shotgun — Another phrase taken from Old-West folklore, riding shotgun is a statement of both position and status—a sort of second-in-command support position who works from a preferential vantage. The imagery invoked by the phrase comes from stagecoaches, specifically the person who rode in the seat next to the driver whose job was to fend off any would-be bandits with a shotgun.


Idioms are expressions that are figurative and have a meaning that cannot be derived from the individual words. An example of an idiom in the U.S. is “break a leg” – meaning “good luck”. Example sentence: I was so nervous for my audition, but my friends told me to break a leg.

  1. AKA – also known as
  2. ASAP – as soon as possible
  3. The buck stop here
  4. Rubberneck – 
  5. Green thumb
  6. Catch 22
  7. Crickets – just silence
  8. Cut the cheese
  9. Curiosity killed the cat
  10. Beauty is only skin deep
  11. Shake a leg – get up, get going
  12. Ost an arm and a leg – to be very expensive
  13. Stirring the pot
  14. Going to town – 
  15. By hook or by crook – from a movie “the prisoner”
  16. Last but not least
  17. Mums the word
  18. Early bird catches the worm
  19. Egg on your face
  20. Raining cats and dogs
  21. Behind the Eight Ball
  22. Bit the dust
  23. Bite the bullet – to face a difficult situation
  24. Good but no cigar
  25. Stereotype
  26. Low man on the totem pole
  27. Be on your toes – nimble, be ready
  28. <something> is Snake oil
  29. It’s water under the bridge – can’t get it back
  30. PB&J – Peanut butter & jelly
  31. AKA – also known as
  32. ASAP – as soon as possible
  33. Shoot the shit – talking about nothing in particular 
  34. Between a rock and a hard place
  35. Things have gone south
  36. When pigs fly


Slang is a type of informal language that is used casually in everyday speech. An example of slang in the U.S. is “dope” – meaning “cool”. Example sentence: My new sneakers are so dope!

  1. Jam – to go
  2. Boogie – to go
  3. Jam Boogie – to go quickly, zoom
  4. Hella
  5. Like
  6. Totally
  7. Rad/Radical
  8. Sweet

Accents & Dialects

  1. Y’all
  2. That’ll
  3. What’ll
  4. PoPo
  5. C’mon

Overall, learning and understanding the language used in the U.S. can be a challenge for travelers. However, with a bit of practice and exposure, understanding colloquialisms, idioms, and slang terms can be a great way to connect with people and make the most of your experience in the United States.

Additional Sources of Information

American English regional vocabulary

List of dialects of English

General American English

Comparison of American and British English