7 American Expressions That Make No Sense To Everybody Else
Ever read the lists of idioms in other languages — like the Russian expression На воре и шапка горит, which sort-of translates as "he has a visibly guilty conscience," but literally means "the thief wears a burning hat" — and feel relieved that English is so much easier? Yeah, dream on. American English in particular has a range of expressions that may seem completely normal and natural to you, but to the rest of the world sound like a unique and frankly bizarre kind of gibberish. It's easy to believe that, thanks to worldwide media and entertainment, everybody understands American English — but just because a Michael Bay movie features the expression "going postal" doesn't automatically mean we're going to get it.
English is one of the most idiomatically diverse languages in the world. I know this personally: I'm an Aussie married to a Welshman, and we sometimes feel it's like trying to communicate with another species. We've been together five years, and we only discovered last week that when he says "on the nose" he means "precise or on the dot," whereas I mean "something suspicious, gauche, or rotten." Confusing arguments about why I wasn't at a certain place "on the nose" explained.
Now, American English is one of the most widespread of the idiomatic varieties, because Americans and their culture have traveled everywhere (American GIs taught my grandfather a lot of slang when they arrived in Australia in World War II, for example). But that doesn't mean you lot make any sense at all.
Here are seven American expressions that are virtually inexplicable to just about everyone else.
1. "Jump The Shark"
Where It Originates: The television show Happy Days, specifically the weird episode with the shark.
What We Hear: This, as you'll know, refers to the part in any venture in which the whole premise finally became too unerringly crazy to be salvaged — but just because it pins itself to a specific cultural event doesn't mean it's any more explicable. If anything, it's weirder. Also, the poor shark: it now has a very tainted history in television. Get Ellen Degeneres to bring some shark trainers on for Christmas specials, or something. You guys love her, right?
2. "Green Thumb"
Where It Originates: According to the Word Detective, it's either something about a royal award for the servant who shelled the most peas (no, really), a World War II radio show about gardening, or some other unknown factor in the 1940s.
What We Hear: Another instance in which America just has to be different. The term for gardening proficiency in other English-speaking parts of the world is to possess "green fingers." You lot looked at your hands, decided for some reason that the thumbs were the bits that did all the real gardening work, and located the talent there instead.
3. "Pass The Buck"
Where It Originated: There are some highly specific American sayings, and this is one of them: it apparently evolved out of the practice of playing poker in the Old West, where the "buck" was actually a knife passed to every new person who dealt (probably as a sign of what would happen if they cheated).
What We Hear: Gambling, pioneers, knives in old saloons: if there's a more utterly American expression I'd love to hear it, and it will not surprise you to know that it makes no sense whatsoever to anybody else. For one, I always think people are talking about deer.
Where It Originated: The very strange American practice of sending college kids through a preparatory course before letting them study something properly.
What We Hear: You do realize that you have an utterly unique college system, yes? For one, everybody else calls it "university." For another, nobody else makes their undergrads suffer through an entire course of studies before they're allowed to actually study law or medicine. They just let them become miserable right away. Pre-med is untranslatable because there is genuinely no degree equivalent in many countries; this is the sort of thing that makes us all long for footnotes in American teen fiction.
5. "Put Lipstick On A Pig"
Where It Originated: It appears to be an alteration of some old phrases about pigs, including "a hog in armour is still but a hog", recorded in 1732.
What We Hear: One of the main reasons the rest of the world finds American politics bizarre is that, often, we don't understand what on earth your politicians are saying. They're very fond, for instance, of this utterly bizarre expression, which seems to have a fairly straightforward meaning, but is truly, weirdly American, with its connotations of down-home farms and Avon salesmen. Though it does a considerable disservice to America's greatest glamor icon: Miss Piggy.
6. "Mystery Meat"
Where It Originated: Presumably the industrial production of food with indeterminate origins produced this one. Or a sadistic lunch lady. Or SPAM.
What We Hear: Any person who's ever seen a sitcom set in an American school will have had a brief pause when faced with this one. Who on earth legalizes this substance, why is it served to children, and what possibly possessed the Board of Health to let it become so common it's an idiom? Australia has its own weird kind of mystery meat, called "devon," which is just random parts of pork put into a sausage — but at least we know it all comes from the same animal.
7. "Don't Be Such A Wet Blanket"
Where It Originates: This seems to have popped up around 1830, in reference to the practice of smothering an overactive fire in a hearth with a wet blanket.
What We Hear: I could almost let this one slide because it's old-fashioned and adorable, but it's also frankly really unsettling. Who looked at a particularly boring, fun-sucking person at a party, equated them to being smothered in a sodden piece of fabric, and let the idiom be born? It's ingenuity like that which makes America the home of so many start-up founders, I'm sure of it. On the same note: party-pooper? What kind of horror had to be perpetuated for that to become common parlance? I'm never coming to any of your parties, America. They sound scatologically dangerous.
Images: BBC; Giphy; QuickMeme