American Idioms and Slang Words

slang mapIf you are unsure about a word, why not ask? Most Americans will understand if you don’t immediately use and understand slang and idioms. The best way to comprehend new words is to ask.  You will be making friends as you learn colorful words and phrases. Please, do not be embarrassed! Most Americans are impressed that you know more than one language. The thought of coming to your native country and taking classes would be overwhelming to most. Most Americans will enjoy helping you learn the language and will find your questions interesting or entertaining.

Below is a brief overview of some common American slang you could encounter while studying in America. These words are not bad words or swear words, they are common American slang words that are acceptable in conversation.


All-nighter: studying all night.
I almost fell asleep during the test after an all-nighter. 

Across the board: Something that applies to all (cases), to everyone, etc.
We were happy to see an across-the-board improvement in our test scores.


Barf: vomit.
He barfed all over the floor. 

(To) beg to differ: A polite way of saying “to disagree”, most often heard in the phrase:
I beg to differ!


Couch Potato: lazy person.
He is a couch potato.

(To) call it a day: To end work and go home.
Let’s call it a day. It’s getting late.


Damage: cost.
Let’s look at the bill and find out the damage.

Don’t hold your breath: Don’t wait for it to happen because it probably won’t.
You think David will break up with Tina? Don’t hold your breath!


Easy! (command): Not so fast! Calm down!
Easy! Don’t eat so fast

Eating away or at someone/something: bothering me.
That issue is really eating at me.


Freebie: free.
The pen and pencil set is a freebie.

Fair and square: Honestly, without cheating, etc.
What can I say? He beat me fair and square.


Grub: food.
Where can I get some grub?

Give a run for your money: to be as good at something as someone who is known to be extremely good.
He was a very good actor and could have given any professional a run for his money.


Hang tough: be determined.
You need to hang tough on that decision.

Half-baked: foolish.
He came up with a half-baked plan to win back his girlfriend.


I.D.: identification card.
If you want to get into the game, you have to show your I.D.

In bad taste: Rude. Vulgar. Obscene.
John’s jokes are always in bad taste.


Jock: good athlete.
He’s quite a jock.

Jack-of-all-trades: A person who knows how to do a lot of different things.
He’s a Jack-of-all trades, master of none.


Knock: criticize.
Don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it.

(To) keep an eye on (someone/something): to watch/pay attention to someone/something).
I have to go to the store. Can you please keep an eye on the baby for 10 minutes?


Lame: boring, dull, or uninspired.
The event was really lame.

(To) let someone off the hook: To release someone from responsibility.
Natalie said she didn’t want to wash the dishes, but her mom didn’t let her off the hook.


Make waves: cause problems.
Don’t make waves if you don’t have to.

(To) mention something in passing: To mention something casually.
She mentioned something in passing about going to check out the new Wes Anderson movie tonight.


Nuke: cook something in the microwave; it can also mean destroy or refer to a nuclear weapon.
I nuked the popcorn.

Neck and neck: Very close (almost even), as in a race.
The two candidates were running neck and neck a month before the election.


OK: decent.
Dave is an OK person.

Off the top of one’s head: Spontaneously; without thinking too much.
How many cafes are there in this town?
Off the top of my head, I can think of about 6.


Pig out: eat too much.
Joan is famous for pigging out on chocolate ice cream.

(To) play something by ear: To improvise. To see how things go and make a decision later.
What do you want to do tonight?
I don’t know, let’s just play it by ear.


Quick buck: some easy money.
I need to make a quick buck.

Quick and dirty: Fast and simple; not very sophisticated.
We just need a quick and dirty solution to this.


Road hog: takes up too much of the road.
That guy in that lane is a real road hog.

(To) ring a bell: To remind, vaguely recognize something.
Have you every listened to Alex Chilton?
I’m not sure; the name rings a bell, though. ( = I think I’ve heard the name before)”;

“I’m sorry, that doesn’t ring a bell. = I’m sorry I don’t recognize/know that.”


Scam: swindle.
Don’t lose your money in some kind of scam.

Second nature (to someone): Easy and natural.
Scoring goals is second nature to him.


Totaled: completely destroyed.
His car was totaled in that wreck.

(To) take someone under one’s wing: To protect (and teach) someone.
Arthur took the new employee under his wing and taught him everything he knew.


Up: In a good mood.
She’s been constantly up since she met is her new boyfriend.

Up to par: Meeting normal standards.
The food was nice, but it wasn’t up to par with the excellent food they normally have.


Vibes: Feelings.
She’s giving off really good vibes.

(To) vanish into thin air: To disappear without leaving a trace.
Whatever happened to that actor? He seemed to have vanished into thin air.


Wishy-washy: Lacking decisiveness.
His answers in the debate were very wishy washy.

With no strings attached: Unconditionally. To help withuot wanting something in return.
He said that he just wanted to help me with no strings attached


X marks the spot: This is the exact spot.


Yucky: Bad or gross.
This hot dog is yucky.

You don’t say: Used to show surprise at something that is being said.
You don’t say! He was really struck by lightning?


Zip: Nothing.
He knows zip about what he’s saying.

(To) zero in on something: To aim or focus directly on something.
I would like to zero in on another important issue.

What are some slang words or American idioms that you have heard? Are there any words or phrases that you or your student misunderstood at first? Let us know!


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