August 25, 2016
Every country has its linguistic quirks, and the U.S. is no exception. Learning a new language involves the fun, surprising, and sometimes challenging process of acclimatizing to the idioms of another region. Use this list to get acquainted with a few very American idioms you might hear.
Someone may say they’re pushing the envelope when they test a situation’s limits or boundaries. For instance, an employee might be pushing the envelope by wearing something overly casual to work, or a painter could push the envelope by debuting a new, unconventional style.
Anyone familiar with American hip-hop and pop culture has heard this phrase. Mic-dropping began as a theatrical way to end a song or statement on stage, and has since become used when someone ends a conversation with an especially witty or slick remark, now known as a “drop-the-mic moment.”
Bootstrapping is an older American idiom still used today in the world of entrepreneurship. Often part of the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” bootstrapping is when someone makes the best use of current resources to overcome the obstacles in their path.
The fifth amendment of the U.S. constitution grants people suspected of crimes to remain silent lest they say something that might demonstrate guilt. In casual conversations, someone might jokingly “plead the fifth” if asked a personal or otherwise incriminating question.
With its roots in baseball, taking a rain check means rescheduling a meeting or social plan for a later date — regardless of the weather. This can also be used in instances where you want to decline an invitation with a statement more polite than an all-out refusal.
Another old-fashioned idiom originating in the days of horse-drawn stagecoaches, riding shotgun refers to taking the front passenger seat of a vehicle. Someone among your group of friends might “call shotgun,” claiming the right to the best seat in the car.
The bucket list is a relatively new idiom, but one that’s caught on and become prevalent in the past few years. It refers to the list of things you’d ideally like to do during your lifetime, i.e. before “kicking the bucket.”
If you’re a student who errs on the side of procrastination, you know the feeling of being down to the wire all too well. With its origins in horse-racing, this phrase is now used when an outcome must occur with very little time to spare — like beginning the essay that’s due in class tomorrow.
This straight-forward idiom refers to some musicians’ ability to play a piece of music without looking at the written score. If someone asks you if you’d like to “play it by ear,” they want to know if you can let the plans unfold naturally rather than deciding everything in advance.
“Keep you posted” is a close linguistic friend to “play it by ear.” Use this phrase when you plan to tell your friend about any new developments that arise around the situation you’re discussing.
When two countries’ ships break up the hard ice in the waterways that separate them, it’s a sign of cooperation. While most people aren’t huge fans of “icebreakers” — quick sharing games designed for a group to get to know each other quickly — they’re common at educational and professional gatherings. So if you ever find yourself in an awkward conversation with someone, use a friendly question to break the ice!
Does it ever seem like an idea or trend suddenly gains so much traction that everyone you know is getting involved? They’re jumping on the bandwagon, whether it’s a new fashion, band, or idea that has the public’s attention.
If you’ve ever made a big life decision, chances are you’ve gotten cold feet. Usually used to describe the feeling of doubt brides and grooms experience on the morning of their weddings, this idiom is a stand in for any temporary second-guessing you make around a big life change.
These two military acronyms describe a person fleeing a situation without explanation. MIA means “missing in action,” while AWOL is “absent without leave.” Is your colleague away today, but they never called in? You might say they’re MIA.
When there’s an argument or controversy going on, do you ever notice someone building on the already-tense mood by inserting new points that stir up further unrest? They’re just adding fuel to the fire.
Beating around the bush is the opposite of directly addressing a topic. If you find yourself describing anything in a roundabout, avoidant way, you might be guilty of this common conversational habit.
The phrase “touch base” is popular in many professional settings — especially among knowledge workers with meeting-heavy schedules. Rather than setting aside a large chunk of time to tackle an issue, you might ask someone to quickly “touch base” with you.
After all of that touching base, you could find yourself needing to crash. Much less violent that it may sound, “crashing” usually refers to the period of suddenly needing lots of rest and relaxation following a long day of work or school.
Likewise, telling someone to “break a leg” doesn’t sound pleasant at all. A superstitious tradition among actors and other performers led to them believing that saying “good luck” might jinx their performance. Therefore telling a performer to “break a leg” does the opposite: It’s a way of well-wishing without tempting fate.
Thankfully amid all of the strange and confusing English idioms, a few common phrases are much simpler. “Circle up” is one example, a phrase used when directing a group of people to form a circle to receive instructions or “touch base” as a group.
Is something not going your way this week? Chances are that all will be well in the long run. “The long run” is synonymous with “in the end” or “eventually.”
Sometimes a project gets temporarily suspended, or a plan seems to take forever to become certain. This feeling of being put on hold occurs when something is up in the air. At least, as they say, “What goes up must come down.”
Athletes know they must pay close attention to the ball in order to score points. They quite literally need to be “on the ball.” Americans use this idiom for any situation requiring close attention. When your life is in order and your projects are all going smoothly, you can congratulate yourself for staying on the ball.