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American Slang and Idioms for Foreigners

Updated on May 31, 2012

Millions of kids learn English in foreign lands everyday, in many countries, English is mandated in elementary or secondary schools, like: Germany, Iran, India, the Nordic countries, China and others. The problem all their students face is what kind of English do they learn?

American or British? There IS a difference. In nearly all cases, for some odd reason, they will tell you "British" English. The differences are subtle and not so subtle. While America was an off-shoot of England (like India, America was a colony of England) our rebellious nature mandated to cut most British manners or ways of doing things.

So, today, many foreigners come to America thinking they are prepared in their English skills and find out, while they can communicate, understanding American English can be confusing because so much of the language used is slang or idiom. Unless, you know it, you will be clueless as to what is meant. Usually, foreigners find out in the first year that the English learned the British way, only works to a point in America, after that, one must learn the American English.

Slang is NOT the dirty words often associated with it. Although, they to, can mean "great" or "disaster" depending on how it used and the circumstance. Slang is used all the time in offices and at home. Many parents of children from other countries that have kids in school will not understand much their Americanized kids are saying. The other huge problem for foreigners is when to use the newly learned slang and how to use it. Many English learners are able to read the slang and have no clue about its meaning. Many will learn how the slang or idioms are used from TV, DVD's. This actually is a nice way to learn at home. Of course, American teens, speak their own language that even American parents have to ask for clarification, especially the texting acronyms: GTG, BFF and a ton of others. The other problem with slang is that evolves over time and words fall out of favor, but not totally. So, when it is encountered, there is ?

Some of the popular slang that is rampant are the following:

  • Whatever - usually used with an irritating tone that tells the listener you don't care or get lost
  • Shut up! - depending how it used is key. If said with a grin or smile or amazment, it means "i don't believe it" or "really?" If said seriously, it means just that, keep quiet.
  • No way - usually, the person cannot believe what was said or what is happening, it also could mean, "don't do it"
  • Chilling - this could mean you are in fact, getting items cold in the fridge or cooler, or, it could mean just hanging out with friends not doing much.
  • Psyched - almost always means, " this is great, I am ready, excited".
  • Big deal - this does not mean a business has a great buy or large one. It means, why is this important? Usually, the speaker will say, "what's the big deal about it?" It can also just mean, "so what".
  • Literally - it is used sometimes to emphasize the "seriousness" of something, "Literally, don't go there" or to reflect anger, as in, " we literally waited two frickin' hours in line".
  • Frickin' - The polite way to say f-cking. "this is just frickin' stupid, dude. You are sooo literal"
  • Hook up - This is used only in romantic relationships of some sort, but it can mean, "meet" or actually trying to fasten something together. "Can we hook-up at the party?" "I want to hook-up with you badly", "Look, we must hook-up the wires correctly".
  • F-cking - this word has evolved from one that people would say publicly because it was a crude term for sex. Today, teens say it without thinking twice. It can either mean something is "way nice" or "a big mess", as in: "This is so F-cked", or, "it was so f-cking great, you cannot believe it".
  • Radical, Cool - an older slang term, still used, means awesome or different. "That ride was radical\cool".
  • Bitching - another old term, still around, again, it means what radical means, but, it can also be used to mean "harassing" or "complaining", as in, "Please, quit your bitching about it".
  • Wassup, Sup, What's up? - this is the replacement for the older, "what's happening". Just asking, "what is going on with you?". The trick for foreigners is NOT to reply with: OK, fine, or good. The only way to reply is: nada, not much, nothing or reply what it is you are actually are doing.
  • Slacker\Loser - a person who does as little as possible in whatever they do.
  • Sic (pronounced as in sick) - yet another term to express something is excellent, the best. "Did you see how sic it was?" "It was soooo sic".
  • Check it\this out - usually, expressed with some intensity about something to get another's attention, as in, "You must check this out!" It could also mean the place where you pay for something in a store, "yes, the check-out is down the isle"
  • Freak, Freak out - used to express a concern about a possible reaction to something, "please, do not freak\freak out when you hear it". It could also mean something very odd or bizarre, "the guy is a real freak".
  • You rock - basically, translates into, "you are the best" or "the event was fantastic" as in, "the concert really rocked" or "you really rock, thanks".
  • Bad - again, the term actually means the opposite- it is very good, as in , "she is sooo bad" "The movie was bad". Of course, it could also actually mean what is said, bad. depends on it is said.
  • Right On - another old term still used. This is akin to the British term, "spot on", meaning its perfect, a good fit. " That is right on".
  • Pumped up - another way to say, "I am ready", I am eager" " I am excited", as in, " I am so pumped (or pumped up) for the game!"
  • Get off or get off it - get off has dual meanings, it could mean that one is excited about something but it is said sarcastically as in, "you really get off on this, don't you?" or " I really got off on the book (i.e., they really liked it). Then there is sexual bit regarding ecstasy, as in, "Did you get off"? Now, Get off it, usually is said jokingly, in a disbelieving manner, as in: " Oh please, get off it, you really did not like it, did you?"
  • Duh - usually used in a sarcastic manner to mean "are you stupid?" or " how obvious must it be?" as in, "duh, are you being serious?" or as a response to a stupid question, as in, "the sky is blue, right?" duh!
  • Crap - a nicer way to say "shit". Usually said in a negative manner, as in, "what a piece of crap" meaning, it is no good. Many use, No Shit, usually said in a surprised manner or disbelief, as in, " no shit, this is not going to work".
  • My bad - This is almost always used as an apology for a mistake manner, such as, "my bad, that was stupid thing to say" Simply saying ,"my bad" means "I'm sorry" or "my mistake".

The above are simply a tiny amount that are used daily in work sites and employees across America.


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    • heathermichelle12 profile image

      heathermichelle12 5 years ago

      This will definitely help some of my co-workers. You wouldn't believe the questions I get. For example "If a stupid woman is a stupid B***h then what is a stupid man?" LOL

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I used to teach ESL in the Middle East. Idioms drove my students crazy! Until they realized they usually had the same sayings in their own language. Interesting and UP!

    • Suzie HQ profile image

      Suzanne Ridgeway 5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Great hub Perrya, There are quite a lot of differences in termanology i find betwee American and English and reading the slang im amazed at how many I know and have used as an Irish woman, never mind our own slang!! Wrote a hub on our slang you might find interesting. Well done, voted up and interesting!

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      Well... Even before you get into slang like "What's up?" there are other problems.

      If you say anything other than "How are you?" most students will be confused.

      "How are you doing?"

      "How is it going?"

      "How have you been?"

      These questions often produce answers that have nothing to do with the actual question. They usually focus on the last word of the question and try to answer based on what they think it means from that. If I ask, "how are you doing?" students often say "I am standing here talking to you." If I ask "How is it going?" I often get told something like "I go to here on a motorbike."

      I'm might print this list and use it in my next English Corner.

    • kschang profile image

      kschang 5 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA

      You left out "freeze". :) That's one hopefully no student will ever run into, but you never know...

      Always thought "sic" and "rad" are from the skateboarders, who got them from surfers...

    • perrya profile image

      perrya 5 years ago

      It is amazing when English as a second language learners hear these terms, usually, they have no idea what is being said. They usually hate it because English words can often have multiple meanings.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      This is an interesting and useful list. Voted up and shared.