18 American Sayings That Confuse the Rest of the World

As the world’s most spoken language, English is pretty universal. Any English speaker will find it relatively easy to get by if they visit the USA, yet some American sayings are simply baffling. Today, we are taking a look at 18 American sayings that confuse the rest of the world.

Shoot the breeze

Photo Credit: Andrii Iemelianenko/Shutterstock.

According to Dictionary.com, ‘shooting the breeze’ is a slang term first used in 1919. It simply means a casual conversation about nothing important. Just as taking aim at the breeze would be pointless, this phrase refers to chatter that has no direction or purpose. It’s a common phrase that leaves foreigners stumped.

Ride shotgun

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

A saying popularized by Western movies, ‘ride shotgun,’ is better known worldwide than many other American sayings due to its use in film and television. However, a lot of people still have no idea what ‘riding shotgun’ means. All it means is to sit in the front passenger seat of a car!

Go Dutch

Photo Credit: Ground Picture/Shutterstock.

You will most commonly hear this saying in the dating world as it refers to how you split the bill. As the saying may suggest, it actually has no connection to the Netherlands at all and is a US-born saying, simply meaning to split the bill equally between all parties.

Sitting in the nosebleed section

Photo Credit: Kozlik/Shutterstock.

This strange saying refers to events and means that you are sitting in the highest section of a theater or arena. The phrase comes from the fact that high altitudes can lead to nosebleeds. In the UK, you may hear the alternative phrase of ‘up in the Gods,’ meaning the same thing.

Plead the Fifth

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Without knowledge of the US Constitutional Amendments, ‘plead the Fifth’ is a saying that will stump you. It refers to the Fifth Amendment in the US Constitution, which states the right to a jury and the protection of self-incrimination. Anyone who says that they ‘plead the Fifth’ means they wish to stay silent on a matter.

Put lipstick on a pig

Photo Credit: fizkes/shutterstock.

Commonly used by US politicians, this unusual expression regularly confuses foreigners who keep up with international politics. The phrase is a humorous jab at any attempt to improve something that is ugly or unfixable and means the same thing as another American phrase, ‘to polish a turd.’

Ate it

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Anyone outside of the US may think this American saying is related to dining or food, but that couldn’t be more wrong. If someone ‘ate it’, this could mean two completely contrasting things. It can either mean someone had a nasty fall or, alternatively, that they performed really well at something.

Ballpark figure

Photo Credit: MintraTH/Shutterstock.

As a nation heavily into sports, many American sayings relate back to sports. A ‘ballpark figure’ is a popular example of this, a frequently used US phrase that actually has no relation to baseball. In fact, it is a term used to suggest an estimated figure, usually in the context of finances.

Behind the eight-ball

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Being ‘behind the eight ball’ means that you’re in a difficult position, again relating to sports. UPA explains that one of the rules in a game of billiards is that an eight ball cannot be hit if you’re behind it. This is disadvantageous, which is why this phrase is used to express undesirable circumstances.


Photo Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.

When someone is trying to make a point, they may finish a sentence by saying ‘period’. In the US, a period is the ‘dot’ punctuation mark that concludes a sentence, known as a ‘full stop’ in the U.K. Saying ‘period’ is essentially trying to emphasize a point and put an end to the conversation.

Working the graveyard shift

Photo Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.

‘Working the graveyard shift’ has nothing to do with working in a cemetery–it refers to working night shifts. It is an amusing reference to working patterns that start in the late evening and last through the night, finally ending in the early morning.

Put up your dukes

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

You may hear ‘put up your dukes’ in both serious and humorous situations. It simply means putting your fists up and preparing for a fight, which could be said to be both a joke and a threat. Although it derives from Cockney rhyming slang, even Brits don’t use this saying.

For the birds

Photo Credit: Motortion Films/Shutterstock.

‘For the birds’ refers to anything not to be taken seriously, an alternative way to say something like ‘just leave it’ or ‘let it go.’ Grammarist claims that the slang was first used by the US Army in World War II and derives from the action of leaving out horse droppings ‘for the birds’ to eat.

The bases

Photo Credit: Rock and Wasp/Shutterstock.

The US is heavily into baseball, and you’ll likely have heard first to fourth base mentioned in U.S. entertainment, but the rest of the world has no idea what they mean. Each baseball ‘base’ refers to different stages of physical intimacy in a relationship, such as holding hands or kissing.

Monday-morning quarterback

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com.

American Football isn’t widely followed outside of the US, so other nationalities may have no idea what a quarterback is or what this saying means! It describes a person who expresses criticism after an event, just as a football quarterback may do on a Monday after a weekend sporting event.

Could care less

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

‘I could care less’ often sparks confusion, as it’s supposed to mean the same as ‘couldn’t care less’, a phrase used around the world. Both sayings express disinterest in something, but the confusion around the U.S. version is understandable, as ‘could care less’ implies that you do actually care!

Table it

Photo Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock.

‘Table it’ is an American phrase that is particularly confusing to Brits. In the US, to table something means putting it aside and returning to it later. Meanwhile, in British English, tabling is an official term used in the UK Parliament, which means to note that something is essential to discuss.

It’s a wash

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Finally, if something is a wash, two options will lead to the same outcome, and any parties involved in the decision will not be affected either way. An alternative way of using this phrase is to simply say, “It’s a tie” or “a draw,” with both being commonly used outside the U.S.

More From Planning To Organize

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

18 Common Behaviors That Will Make People Lose Respect for You

18 Pets You’re Forbidden to Keep in the U.S.

17 Things You Should Never Eat for Breakfast