American English Expressions

In the English language, there are countless expressions and new ones are constantly being created. Some English phrases make sense and the meaning is immediately clear but others are more of a mystery. Below is a list of 10 common American English expressions, their meanings, and where they come from. If you are learning English, hopefully this collection will help to clear up some confusion; if you are a native speaker, you may be interested in learning the history behind these phrases.

No dice: A refusal to accept a proposition or to be impossible.

I asked the bank if I could take out a loan today. No dice.

We looked all over the house for my car keys. No dice.

This saying originates from the 20th century in the United States when gambling was illegal. It was common to gamble during dice games and hide the dice if the police came around. In order to bring charges against gamblers, police officers could supply the dice as evidence. If there were no dice, there was no evidence of the crime. No dice meant that there was no conviction. Now the phrase “no dice” is used to express the realization that something that was once thought to be possible is actually impossible.

 

Filthy rich: Extremely wealthy and probably having become wealthy by unfair means.

Brett’s family is filthy rich; they have a mansion with a pool, 5 cars, and a private jet.

In the 14th century, the word lucre was a word used as a synonym for money. William Tindale was the first to use the term “filthy lucre” to describe a dishonorable personal gain. “Filthy lucre” soon got shortened to “the filthy” and from there the term “filthy rich” emerged. Present day, the phrase “filthy rich” means that a person or a group of people is extremely rich. However, there is still a hint of distaste in the phrase.

 

An arm and a leg: A considerably large sum of money.

Plane tickets over the holiday weekend cost an arm and a leg.

There are various theories about the origin of this phrase. One theory is that it originated after WWII because an arm and a leg are parts of the body that no one would consider selling, no matter the price. Also, there were many veterans without limbs after the war so it was said that they paid a high price for their country. Another likely source of the saying is from a combination of two separate phrases from the 19th century. “He felt as if he could gladly give his right arm to be cut off if it would make him, at once, old enough to go and earn money instead of Lizzy,” comes from the Sharpe’s London Journal in 1849. And in 1875, a similar instance appeared in the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye. The article was about a man who owed five years payment for his subscription to a newspaper. He was trying to cancel his subscription without paying up. The article stated that the editor was going to collect the back pay “if it takes a leg.” So “I would give my right arm” and “if it takes a leg” eventually combined to mean that an arm and a leg are worth a lot. Today, this expression is used to describe a large amount of money, usually more than one can afford.

 

Take the cake: Used to express something triumphant or extreme.

Her talent for singing really takes the cake in this competition.

I lost my wallet the same day I lost my cell phone; doesn’t that just take the cake?

This phrase possibly originated in ancient Greece where taking the cake was a symbol of a victorious prize. It’s probable that the Greek saying made its way into the English language. The first known use of the English phrase is in the USA during the 19th century. Couples participated in cakewalks where they were judged. The prize for winning was usually a cake so couples literally “took the cake” when they won. Now it used to imply the extremity of a situation and can, but not always, imply a negative context.

 

Ring a bell: Awaken a memory.

“Have you heard of Salvador Allende?” “His name rings a bell.”

One possible origin of this expression is from Pavlov’s experiments on classical conditioning. He observed dogs to find a link between stimulus and reflex. When he rang a bell, it meant that it was feeding time and the dogs began to salivate even before the food arrived. Another possible source of this phrase is from the nature of bells. We use bells to remind us or alert us to do something (doorbell, kitchen timer). It’s possible that because of this relation, the saying “ring a bell” emerged in reference to memory. Today, “ring a bell” is used to express the phenomenon of feeling that something is familiar but that you may or may not remember exactly why it is familiar.

 

My bad: My fault, my mistake.

Sorry I lost your notes. That was my bad.

This is a more recent slang term that originated in the 1970s. Before the Internet, slang terms circulated in the streets and were seldom written down. This specific term wasn’t written down until 1986 in reference to basketball players saying “my bad” if they missed a pass or made a mistake. Later, the phase gained widespread popularity in the 1990s for its use in the movie Clueless.

 

Break a leg: Used to wish someone good luck, especially to actors/actresses before going on stage.

I heard you have an important job interview today; break a leg!

This phrase originated from the theater. Theater people are known for being superstitious so wishing an actor/actress good luck (or anything that means something similar) before opening night is thought to bring bad luck. The expression “break a leg” and “break your back” also can mean that someone is putting forth a great effort so when actors are telling co-actors to “break a leg”, there is a connection to putting effort into an energetic performance. Now the phrase is used more widely to wish good luck to someone before a presentation, an interview, or anything involving an exchange with another person.

 

Heads up: Watch out or be alert, often used to give advance warning.

Heads up, the boss is coming this way so you should probably put your phone away.

One possible origin of “heads up” is from the 19th century when it was used as an exclamation to marching soldiers that they keep their heads up and be alert in battle. Other sources claim the phrase comes from baseball; players yell to their teammates to keep their heads up and watch for the ball. Either way, the meaning of this expression comes from the idea of holding one’s head up high in order to be attentive and prepared for what is happening. Today “heads up” is used in everyday life, especially as a tip or a warning when a change of behavior is needed.

 

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen: Don’t pursue a task if you can’t handle the pressure. Leave it to someone else.

I know this internship is stressful but if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Harry S. Truman invented this phrase before becoming president of the United States. The first written use was in 1924 in The Soda Springs Sun Newspaper “Favorite rejoinder of Senator Harry S. Truman, when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’.” After that, Truman continued to use the phrase. It references a kitchen because it is a pleasant place to prepare food but after turning on the stove and the oven, the temperature rises and it can become unbearable. Some people aren’t bothered by these conditions and others find the temperature to be too much to handle. The expression is used in a competitive context because it declares it is best to leave the “kitchen” and make more space for the people that can handle the stress.

 

In the sticks: In the country, especially when used to describe the unsophisticated.

She lives way out in the sticks; it takes her 45 minutes to drive to town.

The meaning of a stick is a small tree branch or twig. “In the sticks” refers to the country where there are many trees and thus, many sticks. The first known usage of the phrase comes from the US newspaper the Florence Times Daily, November 1897: “… he gathered from 1 1/2 acres this year 21 barrels of corn. If any man ‘away in the sticks’ can beat this, in the language of ‘Philander Doesticks,’ we exclaim, ‘let him stand forward to de rear.’” Today the phrase implies that something is unrefined because it is far from the city.

Like any language, part of what makes English interesting is that it’s constantly evolving. The strange slang of yesterday becomes part of normal conversation today. Society forgets why it says these phrases, but remembers their significance.

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