Idioms and Slang in the United States



So you’re studying in the United States and kickin’ it with a new, English-speaking posse. Even though you feel like they know you inside out, you realize that much of the time, their words are in one ear and out the other; nothing they say really makes sense. They often times approach you and say things like, “What’s up?” and then move on without waiting for an answer. Sometimes they even walk away saying things like, “Get at me later”, or simply, “later”. They also say weird things like, “hey, what’s eating you?” and “don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” All of it, because it’s full of slang and idioms, can seem a little “whack”, or weird or strange.

The English language, like most languages, is full of idioms and slang. Both vary by geographical, social, and economic influences and norms. Some idioms and slang are part of pop-culture; others are derived from historical and social contexts. All can be confusing and disorienting. The best thing to do when arriving in the United States and hearing new parts of the English or Spanish languages (Spanish is quite prevalent in some areas), is to relax, take notes, and ask questions.

I once had a friend who regularly said, “I’m poofed” instead of “I’m pooped” when he was tired or exhausted. He never knew he was using the incorrect word until I told him. He likely felt confused whenever he heard someone say, “I’m pooped” since the word “pooped” has an obviously different meaning. He probably felt too embarrassed or confused to ask people what they meant when they said they were “pooped”.

If you’re not sure what something means, try to move past your uncertainty or embarrassment and ask. Most people who learn English outside of the United States are not prepared for many English language idioms and slang. That’s ok—most English-language speakers will be impressed that you even know a second language and will be more than happy to explain confusing words, terms, and phrases. They might giggle or laugh when you ask what “bling” is or what they mean when they say they’re a “day late and a dollar short”, but they will likely be more than happy to clue you into the rap-derived term “bling”, which has become slang for glitter, shininess, or sparkle, and the idiom “day late and a dollar short” which means that they are ill-prepared or without hope for something.

It’s also wise, when learning new idioms and slang, to double check their spelling and meaning. Again, my friend simply and understandably mistook the word “pooped” for “poofed”. Another friend always heard the word “go” as “goat” and would say things such as, “let’s goat” or “when are we goating to the party?” In both cases, it would have been useful for my friends to ask about meaning or check spelling. It also would have been nice for native English-speakers to correct them. It’s also important to check meaning and spelling in case someone has fooled you into believing something means one thing when it actually means another. I once cursed at my then-boyfriend’s family because someone had tricked me into thinking one phrase meant something completely different. I also felt sad when that same boyfriend called me “little fatty” which is cruel in English but endearing in Spanish. It wasn’t until I asked another native Spanish speaker about the phrase that I understood its meaning. Speaking of fat, someone might, at some point, call you “phat” (sounds like fat) which is completely different from “fat” and means cool, interesting, incredible, or awesome.

The bottom line is this: write down words, terms, and phrases that are unfamiliar or confusing. Ask someone about them. They might be words, terms, and phrases that you simply haven’t learned, or they might be idioms or slang. Once you’ve learned them, double-check their spellings and meanings with another source. Then, when appropriate, try them out! Using them can be fun and engaging, and can help you gain deeper command of the English language.

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Annie Rose Stathes is a Colorado-based writer, teacher and political scientist. Her background is in international affairs and she holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science.