American phrases that leave foreigners totally stumped


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Navigating American English can be a minefield for non-native speakers, with expressions like “spill the beans” and “shoot the breeze” leaving even the most proficient linguists scratching their heads.

Here are some phrases Americans say that leave foreigners completely stumped.

Piece of cake

“Piece of cake”

Meaning: A task that is easy and straightforward to accomplish

Origin: This fairly popular phrase that usually leaves those with a sweet tooth disappointed for the lack of an actual cake can be traced to  a line in a 1935 poetry collection by American humorist Ogden Nash “The Primrose Path,”  which goes: “Her picture’s in the papers now, and life’s a piece of cake.”

What Non-Americans think of it:  “When I started school in second grade, the teacher asked a pretty easy (I assume) question.I heard everyone say it was ‘a piece of cake.’ And for the longest time, I always wondered where this cake was.”

fizkes / istockphoto

“Elbow grease”

Meaning: Hard physical work


Origin:  “Elbow grease” has roots dating back to the 17th century when metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell used the term figuratively to mean physical effort in  “Rehearsal Transpros’d, 1672:” “Two or three brawny Fellows in a Corner, with meer Ink and Elbow-grease, do more Harm than an Hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching.”The expression was later defined in a slang dictionary as sweat or effort.


What Non-Americans think of it:  “I spent more time than I would like to admit figuring what ‘elbow grease’ meant in many cleaning tutorials.” —u/EleanorAbernathyPhD


“The graveyard shift”

Meaning: A work shift that runs through the early morning hours

Origin: The expression that instantly spooks out non-Americans upon hearing it, in fact, has nothing to do with keeping an eye on the dead. Instead, it refers to the quiet and lonely atmosphere of the early morning hours.The earliest recorded use of the phrase was documented in the US newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, in 1897:

“This month Sergeant Ware takes the morning relief. Sergeant Matt Rhodes the middle and Sergeant John Burbidge the graveyard shift.”

What Non-Americans think of it:   “I used to work the overnight 10:00PM – 6:00AM shift at a local 24-hour restaurant. I was speaking with a gentleman at my church, and he asked me about my job. I told him that I worked the graveyard shift at that restaurant. His wife, who was from Thailand, overheard this, and she got the most horrified look on her face. It turned out she thought I worked in a graveyard. We had to explain that “graveyard shift” simply meant that I worked from late at night to early in the morning.”  Rik Osborne



“The cat’s out of the bag”

Meaning: Disclosing a secret

Origin:  There have been two popular theories about the origin of the expression One is related to the practice of substituting a cat for a piglet in the sale of livestock. If the truth was revealed, or the “cat was let out of the bag,” the buyer was protected from purchasing a “pig in a poke.” The other theory is associated with the cat o’ nine tails, a whip used by members of the Royal Navy to discipline sailors. Despite these popular theories, there is no direct evidence linking to either one.The phrase first made its appearance in print with its current meaning in a 1760 London book review. The reviewer expressed their disappointment over a spoiler alert, lamenting, “We could have wished the author had kept the cat’s secrets under wraps.”


“Over the Moon”

Meaning: Extremely happy or excited

Origin: The term derives from the nursery rhyme collection “Mother Goose’s Melody” in the rhyme “High Diddle Diddle” and involves a cat, a fiddle, a very excited cow, the moon, and a spoon:

“High diddle diddle,

The Cat and the Fiddle,
The Cow jump’d over the Moon,
The little dog laugh’d to see such Craft,
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.”


Handsome stranger

“Devil’s Advocate”

Meaning: A person who takes a contrary position for the sake of testing an argument.

Origin: This expression, which often means to advocate a contrary or unpopular view, can be traced to the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In those days, it was taken more literally, with lawyers hired to challenge or oppose a person’s Catholic sainthood. known colloquially as the ‘Advocatus Diaboli’. The current meaning of the expression, to describe someone as mischievous and contradictory, is a recent development. The first recorded use of the phrase in its current form appeared in the 1760 text “Impostors Detected:”

“By rising up and playing the true part of the Devil’s advocate.”

Vintage women gossiping

“Shoot the breeze”

Meaning:   An informal expression meaning to have a casual conversation or chat, often without a specific purpose or about unimportant topics.

Origin: The phrase “shoot the breeze” originated in the US in the early 1900s and refers to a light, informal chat about inconsequential things. The word “breeze” is used to denote a light talk, much like a light wind,

sick day

“Under the weather”

Meaning:  Feeling sick or not well.

Origin:  The phrase “under the weather” has its origins in maritime language. It is believed to have come from the feeling of being seasick or unwell while at sea. The phrase was used to describe the sensation of being unsteady and dizzy, similar to the way someone might feel when they are unwell. The phrase eventually evolved to mean generally feeling unwell or sick. Over time, the phrase became commonly used in everyday language to describe feeling ill, regardless of whether the person was at sea or not.

What non-Americans think of it:  My dad’s girlfriend works with people from around the world,” writes one user on Reddit. “Apparently ‘under the weather’ is not a common phrase outside the U.S.”

piyaset / iStock

“Spill the Beans”

Meaning: Revealing a secret

Origin: The phrase “spill the beans” is said to have originated from a voting system in ancient Greece where white beans were used to indicate a positive vote and black beans for a negative vote. If the collector accidentally spilled the beans, revealing the votes, the process would have to be restarted. In the early 20th century, the phrase appeared in the US with the meaning of disrupting a stable situation, whether political or otherwise.

family on couch

“Scoot over”

Meaning: Move a little bit

Origin: The phrase “scoot over” originated in the American Midlands region. It is derived from the verb “scoot,” which means to move quickly or to slide suddenly across a surface. In the phrasal verb “scoot over,” the meaning is “to push someone or something to the side to make room.”

What non-Americans think of it: “My first day of school in the U.S., this girl asked me to ‘scoot over,'” writes one non-American on Reddit. “And I just thought ‘What? I don’t even have a scooter with me.'”

Lazy man eating potato chips and watching TV

“Couch Potato”

Meaning: Lazy person addicted to watching TV

Origin:  The term “couch potato” was first coined in the late 1970s by Tom Iacino, a lazy yet sarcastic television addict who used the phrase to describe himself and others who spend excessive amounts of time on the couch, watching TV.  The “couch potato” was often described as someone who was glued to the “boob tube,” a slang term for television that was popular at the time, and spent hours upon hours watching TV, neglecting physical activity and other responsibilities.

team meeting

“Let’s table this.”

Meaning:  To postpone a discussion or decision about a particular topic.

Origin: The origin of the phrase is likely from parliamentary procedure, where items could be tabled to be discussed at a later time in the meeting. Over time, the expression has come to be used more broadly to refer to postponing a discussion or decision about any topic, regardless of whether it is in a formal setting or not. The phrase is now commonly used in both business and personal contexts to temporarily put aside a discussion or decision for further consideration.

What non-Americans think of it. “When you say to table something you mean to shelve it. When I say to table something I mean to put it on the table for discussion i.e., put it on the agenda.” ― Mary Shirley

Family in car
Solovyova / istockphoto

“Riding shotgun”

Meaning: Travel in a car’s front passenger seat.

Origin: “Riding shotgun” is an expression that originated in the American Old West, where a person rode on the passenger side of a horse-drawn coach with a shotgun to protect the vehicle and its passengers from bandits or wild animals. Over time, the phrase has evolved to refer to the person sitting in the front passenger seat of a vehicle, often as a guard or protector.