17 American Phrases Non-Americans Don’t Understand

Sometimes natives use phrases that non-native speakers frequently have no idea what is being said. Even people who grew up knowing English find it strange to hear how Americans use the language.

Whether they are related to food or people, American phrases can be surprising to non-Americans. We have listed down phrases that American people use and that non-American people find strange.

Piece of cake

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The expression likely comes from a line in a poetry book, “The Primrose Path,” by American writer Ogden Nash. The line is: “Her picture’s in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.”

Piece of cake is the most known American phrase, which means something is easy to do. It represents ease and peasantry in the language.

For instance, don’t worry about the test; it will be a piece of cake.

Scoot Over

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Americans may casually say this while requesting someone to move slightly to make space for themselves. Those who are unfamiliar with the word won’t understand what the American is asking them to do.

For instance, Hey, can you scoot over a bit? I want to sit next to you.

Knock on wood

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Knock on wood is a saying used to pray that nothing goes wrong. It is often said while physically knocking on a wooden surface, such as a table or door. It’s similar to expressing, “I hope things continue to go well.”

For example, I haven’t been sick all year and knock on wood (while actually knocking on the wood).

Break a bill

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“Break a bill” means exchanging a large bill (like a $50 or $100) for smaller amounts. This is mainly to have small cash for small purchases or giving change.

Suppose you say, “I need change for this $10 bill, so I’m going to break it to get some $2 bills.”

Green thumb

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This phrase is used to describe someone who is good at gardening or growing plants. If someone has a green thumb, it means they have a skill for keeping plants healthy and growing.

For instance, my friend has a green thumb; her garden is always full of beautiful flowers and vegetables.

Spill the beans

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This American phrase refers to mistakenly or purposely revealing a secret or sharing information that was meant to be kept private.

For example, she spilled the beans about the surprise party.

Break a leg

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This phrase is used to wish someone good luck, especially before a performance or important event. It’s like saying “good luck” in a fun and encouraging way. According to Phrase Finder, the break a leg phrase first appeared in print with its present meaning in a US newspaper in 1948. 


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The phrase “keeper” can also refer to someone who is seen as special or important in a person’s life, such as a loyal friend or reliable partner.

For instance, she’s a keeper; she’s always there for me when I need her.

Tickle me pink

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Refers to feeling extremely glad or excited about something. It’s like saying you’re so happy that you feel tickled, which makes you smile.

For example, when I found out I got the job, it tickled me pink.

Working the graveyard shift

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If you are not from the United States, you may feel weird when someone says this and assumes that they work at a cemetery. Well, this expression simply indicates that someone works from midnight until morning, when their workplace may be as silent as a graveyard.

For example, she’s working the graveyard shift at the hospital tonight.

Bat out of Hell

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People use the phrase “a bat out of hell” when they refer to someone or something that moves really fast. The phrase grew so popular that American musician Meat Loaf named one of his most famous songs “Bat Out of Hell”

For example, he drove his car like a bat out of hell.

It’s not rocket science.

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The United States was the first English-speaking country with a rocket science program. This phrase gained popularity in the 1980s, around the end of the Cold War. It refers to when something isn’t too tough to understand.

For instance, making sandwiches isn’t rocket science.

Fall through the cracks

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Falling through the cracks means when people overlook or neglect something or someone. For example, if a student doesn’t get the help they need, they may have fallen through the cracks. It’s like when something slips through a hole unnoticed, like a toy falling between sofa cushions.

Until the cows come home

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People who do not live on farms may not understand this American phrase. If you do anything until the cows come home, it means you’ll take the time to do it. It originated on farmlands where cows used to graze the fields all day before returning home in the evening for eating. If something isn’t done until the cows come home, it means you’re going to wait for a longer time.

Throws you under the bus

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The phrase “throws you under the bus” refers to betraying or blaming someone to avoid difficulty or criticism. It’s like giving up someone else to protect yourself. For example, blaming your friend for your mistake is throwing them under the bus.

Shoot the breeze

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This expression comes from the late-19th century term “breeze,” which expressed “rumor.” By the 1910s, the term windy had come to signify “empty chatter.” Shoot the breeze means to chat or have a casual conversation, often about unimportant things. It’s like passing time in a relaxed way.

For example, friends might sit on a porch and shoot the breeze about their day, sharing stories.

You can put lipstick on a pig

5. eating bad food in restaurant roach
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The whole saying is, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” The phrase means that no matter how much you try to make something appear good, it is what it is.

For instance, bad food with good packaging is like putting lipstick on a pig.

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