There are 171,476 words in current use in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re learning English for the first time, it’s a foreboding number.
Some of the words are cutesy (kerfuffle, jubilee). Others are onomatopoeic, with a similar sound to the idea they’re describing (meow, clink, squeak). Some are bizarre sounding (for example, syzygy: the alignment of three celestial objects, such as the sun, the Earth, and either the moon or another planet.)
Outside of those 171,476 weird, wonderful words, you have idioms, which are phrases that can’t be fully understood based on the meanings of the individual words. American English idioms tend to be particularly strange: Put lipstick on a pig? They went postal? Spill the tea? It’s a lot for a new English speaker to take in!
We asked people from other countries and foreign-born Americans to share the American phrases they never got their heads around, and frankly, could do without.
Keep in mind, there were a ton more sayings they loved, which we’ll visit another day. See what they had to say for this list below.
“Break a leg.”
“Every time I hear this phrase I think of literally someone with a broken leg and that vision frightens me. The reason for this is that I heard this phrase when I was starting to learn English, and I was taking everything with its literal meaning. Later on, I understood that it means good luck, but I cannot manage to remove the vision from my mind.” ― Olga Grijalva Alvarez, a Mexican travel content creator
“Put lipstick on a pig.”
“I hate pigs and the visual of that grosses me out.” ― Jihan Fawaz, a Lebanese
language instructor who runs the YouTube account Learn Turkish with Jihan
“I’m working on it” (when talking about food).
“I’m always surprised when a server at a restaurant asks if I’m still working on my food. I’m not working on it! I’m savoring it!” ― Virginia Langhammer, a Brazilian who teaches Portuguese and owns the Speaking Brazilian Language School
“I can’t even.”
“I understood the context when I first heard it in a video. Everything is fine, actually, except the fact that it’s grammatically incorrect. When I still hear the phrase, I expect it to be completed somehow.” ― Firdaus Baig, an Indian tutor who teaches Hindi online Indian
“On a weekly basis.”
“Why use such a long phrase to say ‘weekly’? I even told one of my first English teachers that it didn’t make sense to me, but the teacher saw no problem with the expression.” ― Eli Sousa, a Brazilian who teaches Portuguese
“I’m not a fan of Americans saying ‘literally’ in every other sentence when they literally don’t know how to use the word. ‘I was literally over the moon about the news …’ It’s a word that has become very Americanized.” ― Macca Sherifi, a British travel blogger at An Adventurous World
“It’s not rocket science.”
“The problem is not the phrase itself, the problem is that generally, when someone says it, it is not done in a very nice or gentle way.” ― Grijalva Alvarez
“Start a family.”
“I have a visceral negative reaction to ‘to start a family’ which, contrary to the way I interpreted it the first time I heard it, means not moving in together or getting married but having children. My problem with this phrase is, of course, purely ideological: it implies that childless families are not actually families but merely candidates for being one. Because now is a very difficult time for reproductive freedom in the United States (or, to put things bluntly, now is the time when reproductive freedom is actively threatened), every time I hear it I also feel its sharpness, its potential to be weaponized, its meanness.” ― Irina Zaykovskaya, a lecturer in Russian and linguistics at the University of Minnesota who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia
“Sure” or “uh-huh” instead of “you’re welcome.”
“When we study English as a second language, we learn that the correct way to respond to the phrase ‘thank you’ is ‘you’re welcome.’ But in everyday life, Americans rarely say that, am I right? I only hear ‘you’re welcome’ in more formal situations. The most common way to respond to a ‘thank you’ is ‘sure’ or ‘uh-huh,’ in New York at least. When I first moved to New York, I was shocked when people said ‘uh-huh’ to me! I thought people were being rude or that I had done something wrong. But, of course, now I’m used to it.” ― Langhammer
“Bite the bullet.”
“I never really understood this and always took it literally. I always thought it meant shooting someone.”― Ipinmi Akinkugbe, a Nigerian British travel blogger who runs the site Férìnàjò
“The first day when I went to work in the U.S., I asked where my desk was located. My manager told me that it was on the third floor. I went all the way up to the third floor but couldn’t find my desk. Later on, I realized that Americans called the ground floor the first floor, and the first floor the second floor, and the second floor the third floor.” ― Sindy Chan, a blogger from Germany (by way of Hong Kong) who recently moved to the U.S.
“Used their services.”
“Using the word ‘use’ to refer to people’s services, like in the sentence ‘I’d definitely use him again.’ Nothing wrong with the word per se, but in Brazil, we never employ this word to talk about services an individual renders. If we do, it sounds disrespectful to that person’s efforts; it’s like they can be used up and discarded. You use a product, you use software, but regarding a person — you work with, you hire, you resort to their services.” ― Sousa
“He/she is a keeper.”
“This phrase gives me the same reaction colors give Wednesday Addams ― I break out in hives and skin starts peeling off my bones, or at least it feels that way. English is not my native language. I learned my basics in the classroom and I am used to consciously performing simple morphological analysis to understand new words and expressions I encounter. ‘Rearrange’? ‘Re’ is a prefix that often means doing something again, so rearrange might mean something like ‘arrange anew, in a different way’. That sort of thing.
This is why I had a lot of trouble processing ‘he/she is a keeper’ when I saw it for the first time. A keeper is someone who is doing the keeping, right? Like a worker is someone who works, and an employer is someone who employs people, and even a zookeeper is someone who keeps a zoo in order! But this interpretation didn’t make sense for the contexts in which I was seeing ‘he/she is a keeper,’ so for a long time I considered the phrase to mean that the person described in it is capable of keeping the relationship in order. I realized that people use it to refer to someone who is worth keeping around much, much later, and it bugs me every time I hear it.” ― Zaykovskaya
“The word I hate is when Americans say “what!?” instead of “pardon.” Americans are very blunt and seem to blurt out ‘what’ when they don’t hear or don’t understand you. Equally annoying is the word “huh!?” Perhaps that comes back to our ties to England English, but pardon is a much politer way to ask someone to repeat something. We grew up understanding that ‘what?!’ was quite rude.” ― Jules Hatfield, an Australian travel blogger
“This can easily be translated but it has such negative connotations attached to it. I prefer just being literal and saying ‘these are my older siblings’ clothes.’ It just sounds better.” ― Akinkugbe
“You cannot be serious.”
“I don’t like it when Americans say: ‘You cannot be serious!’ It just seems so insincere the way they say it.” ― Sherifi
“Tickle me pink.”
“Although its meaning is not literal, I had the visual of being tickled so this phrase doesn’t stick with me.” ― Fawaz