A guide to common U.S. slang and idioms

Are you fan of saying, “At the 11th hour” or “Where the rubber meets the road”? Do you know what they really mean?


It’s raining cats and dogs! Time to turn over a new leaf. Oh, you’re just pulling my leg!

American English is full of slang and idioms that are almost incomprehensible—even to us—and yet slang is a vital part of language, one that’s practically unavoidable whether you’re chatting at the office or reading on the Internet. In American English as in other languages, slang is insider understanding, a sign that you’re truly in the know. Slang is constantly evolving and continually expanding.

With our non-U.S. readers in mind, we’ve compiled a list of some common terms and phrases you might be likely to bump into, along with explanations of what they mean.

Whatever country you call home, please help us expand this list by leaving your additions in the comments.

  • Any minute now: About to happen, could happen any moment, going to occur soon.
  • At the 11th hour: At the last minute.
  • Begin on a shoestring: Start out with limited financial resources.
  • Bottom line: The main or essential point, the final result.
  • By the seat of your pants: Intuitively, without assistance or guidance.
  • Cash cow: Something that elicits great income without requiring great investment.
  • Catch-22: A frustrating situation in which the very thing a person needs to alter his or her situation is the thing that they don’t have. For example: a person can’t get a loan because they own no collateral, but can’t obtain collateral because they can’t get a loan to buy some.
  • Cutting edge: The most up-to-date, the most recent, the latest.
  • Don’t want to be caught dead with: Something a person absolutely does not want.
  • Downtime: Period of time when equipment is out of order or unavailable, or simple a period of reduced activity.
  • Draw a line in the sand: Establish a limit beyond which certain things will be unacceptable.
  • Flip side: The other perspective, the alternative opinion or view.
  • For all I know: Based on my understanding, according to what I know now.
  • From scratch: From the beginning, especially without outside resources or advantages.
  • Get someone up to speed: Give someone information to do a job, inform someone of what they’ve missed.
  • Have your cake and eat it, too: Finding a way to get all the benefits without having to sacrifice something.
  • In the black: Profitable
  • It will never fly: It will never work.
  • Jump through hoops: Exert major effort, having to complete many tasks before being allowed to do something.
  • Knockoff: A copy, a fake
  • Like taking candy from a baby: Really easy to do.
  • Mom-and-pop: Small, run by a few people who might be members of a family such as a mom and a dad, often used to refer to small businesses or enterprises.
  • Need I say more? Expecting that someone can guess the result of what has been said.
  • On a roll: Doing well, repeatedly succeeding, moving forward.
  • On the other hand: Introduces an alternate viewpoint or perspective.
  • On the same wavelength: Sharing a mutual understanding or perspective.
  • Paint yourself into a corner: Get yourself into a difficult situation that is hard to get out of.
  • Pipe dream: An unattainable or fantastic hope, plan, dream, scheme or story.
  • Reinvent the wheel: Duplicate something that already exists, create a method or product that’s already been created.
  • Right off the bat: Immediately
  • Sandbag: Attack unexpectedly from behind.
  • The name of the game is: The main purpose is
  • The whole nine yards: The entire scope of something, all, everything.
  • To grandfather in: To make an exception to a rule because of preexisting status or qualifications.
  • To stand in the way: To stop, to keep from happening, to slow down the progress of.
  • Under the wire: At the last possible moment.
  • What you bring to the party: What you contribute.
  • Where the rubber meets the road: The crucial moment, the time when truth is revealed, the most important point of revelation.
  • Yes man: Someone who agrees with whatever the boss says or wants.

What other U.S. slang do you come across often? What did I miss?

Shanna Mallon is a writer at Straight North. A version of this post first appeared on the Straight North blog.

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