20 American Phrases That Sound Hilarious to Foreigners

Ever wonder why your foreign friend burst out laughing when you said you were “feeling blue”? American English is full of quirky phrases that make perfect sense to us but sound downright silly to folks from other countries. From “break a leg” to “piece of cake,” our everyday sayings can leave outsiders scratching their heads.

In this fun roundup, I explore 20 American expressions that often get foreigners in stitches.

Break a leg

Image Credit:  Frauke Riether from Pixabay

When Americans wish performers good luck, they tell them to “break a leg.” This sounds crazy to foreigners! It comes from old theater superstitions. The idea is that wishing bad luck will actually bring good luck. So telling someone to hurt themselves is really a way of hoping they do well.

It’s raining cats and dogs

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This phrase means it’s raining very hard. But it sounds like pets are falling from the sky to non-English speakers! The origin is unclear but might come from Norse mythology or old English architecture. Whatever the source, it’s a funny way to describe heavy rain.

Piece of cake

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When something is really easy, Americans say it’s a “piece of cake.” This makes no sense if you take it literally! It comes from the idea that eating cake is enjoyable and effortless. So when a task is simple, we compare it to this sweet treat.

Hit the hay

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This doesn’t mean attacking dried grass! It’s a way of saying you’re going to bed. The phrase comes from old times when mattresses were stuffed with hay. So “hitting the hay” meant lying down on your bed. Now we use it even though our beds are much comfier.

Spill the beans

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When you want someone to share a secret, you might tell them to “spill the beans.” This has nothing to do with actual beans! It means to reveal information. The phrase might come from an old voting method using beans. Today, it’s just a funny way to ask someone to share gossip.

Bite the bullet

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

This phrase means to do something difficult or unpleasant. It comes from the days before anesthesia when soldiers would bite on a bullet to endure pain during surgery. Now we use it for any tough situation, which can sound odd to foreigners.

Knock on wood

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Americans say this and tap on wood to avoid bad luck. It’s thought to come from old beliefs about tree spirits. The idea was that touching wood would bring good fortune. Now it’s just a habit, but it can seem strange to people from other cultures.

Cat got your tongue?

Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

This isn’t about felines stealing body parts! It’s a playful way to ask why someone is being quiet. The origin is unclear, but it might relate to the cat-o’-nine-tails whip or ancient kings feeding liars to cats. Either way, it’s a bizarre phrase to foreign ears.

Shoot the breeze

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This doesn’t involve any firearms or wind! It means to chat casually about nothing important. The phrase might come from the idea of killing time or making the breeze move with your words. To non-English speakers, it sounds like a very odd way to describe talking.

Sick as a dog

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When someone feels very ill, they might say they’re “sick as a dog.” This can be confusing, as dogs aren’t always sick! The phrase probably comes from the fact that dogs often eat things they shouldn’t, making them ill. It’s just a dramatic way to say you don’t feel well.

Kick the bucket

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This is a funny way to say someone has died. It likely comes from old hanging methods involving a bucket. Today, it’s used as a less serious way to talk about death. But to foreigners, it might sound like you’re describing a strange game!

Butter someone up

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When you flatter someone to get what you want, you’re “buttering them up.” This phrase comes from an ancient Indian custom of throwing butter at statues of gods. Now it just means excessive praise, which can sound very odd to non-English speakers.

Beat around the bush

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This means to avoid talking about something directly. It comes from hunting, where people would hit bushes to scare birds out. Now, we use it for people who won’t get to the point. To foreigners, it might sound like you’re describing a weird fight with a plant!

Elephant in the room

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This phrase describes an obvious problem that everyone is ignoring. It comes from the idea that an elephant would be impossible to miss in a room. But to people learning English, it sounds like there’s actually a large animal nearby!

Barking up the wrong tree

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When someone is mistaken about something, we say they’re “barking up the wrong tree.” This comes from hunting dogs that would bark at the wrong tree, thinking their prey was there. Now we use it for any mistake, which can sound very strange to foreigners.

Costs an arm and a leg

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This means something is very expensive. It probably comes from painters charging more for portraits that included arms and legs. Now we use it for anything pricey. But to non-English speakers, it sounds like you’re paying with body parts!

Let the cat out of the bag

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This means to reveal a secret accidentally. It might come from a trick where dishonest merchants would swap a cat for a pig in a bag. Now we use it for any revealed secret. To foreigners, it can sound like you’re talking about literal cat containment!

Cold turkey

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When someone suddenly stops a habit, we say they quit “cold turkey.” This might come from the pale, bumpy skin people get when withdrawing from drugs. It has nothing to do with the bird! This can be very confusing to people learning English.

Pulling your leg

Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This means to joke with someone or trick them playfully. It might come from thieves tripping people to rob them. Now we use it for any harmless teasing. But to foreigners, it can sound like you’re describing a weird physical action!

Bite off more than you can chew

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When someone takes on too much, we say they “bit off more than they can chew.” This comes from the literal act of putting too much food in your mouth. Now we use it for any overwhelming situation. To non-English speakers, it can sound like a strange eating challenge!

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Mary Apurong

Mary Apurong is an experienced editor and ghostwriter who enjoys writing and reading. She loves researching topics related to life and creating content on quotes, gardening, food, travel, crafts, and DIY. Mary spends her free time doing digital art and watching documentaries.

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