Like any other language, American has its idioms. Some are very similar to British English, and it’s not difficult for Brits to figure them out. “Peaks and valleys,” for example, is obviously the American version of “peaks and troughs.” However, there are still some phrases whose actual words hold no clue to the meaning, creating a conversational minefield for Brits here. Here are a selection of them.
1. For the birds
When someone says, “that’s for the birds,” it could mean anything. Does something resemble birdseed perhaps? Was the meal too small? Is it something that women would like (although Americans tend not to use “birds” in that way)? Who knows? What it actually means is that something is trivial or worthless, but really, you’d have to know that one.
2. Put up your dukes
Your what? Perhaps a suggestion one’s relatives are coming to visit? Even though we are familiar with “duking it out,” it’s not immediately apparent that your dukes are your hands or fists. Being told to “put up your dukes” is an instruction to “get ready for a fight.” Interestingly, it is rumored to be of British as well as American origin; “Duke of Yorks” is rhyming slang for forks, which itself was a slang word for hands or fingers.
3. Bought the farm
So, did someone actually close on a real estate deal? Perhaps they bought a farm instead of a house and financially over-burdened themselves? Or does it mean they’re going into the organic food business? Of course not, that would be far too easy. “Bought the farm” is a euphemism for dying. There are a few supposed etymologies knocking around, mainly to do with WW2 soldiers crashing planes, but lexicographer Dave Wilton pooh-poohs them and claims the phrase has been around for much longer.
When I hear this word I automatically think “keeping up with the Joneses,” although that’s of no help here. If someone confesses that they’re “really jonesing” for something (usually a guilty pleasure), they mean they are craving. Again, there are several versions of the origin but its general association is with drugs. “Jones” was a term used for a heroin or narcotics addiction, but now the word can be applied to anything. Brits in the U.S. can be said to be jonesing for a decent cuppa or good chocolate.
5. Shoot the breeze
So, you see a friend and end up shooting the breeze for an hour? Did you a) get out your air rifles, or b) take advantage of the weather and fly kites? Obviously, none of the above as “shooting the breeze” means to engage in idle, empty chatter. One explanation is that in the old days, particularly in the Wild West, people with time on their hands would literally shoot into the air at nothing.
6. John Hancock
When you hear the request “Let me have your John Hancock” the mind boggles, and you hope they’re not talking about a body part! In fact, you’re being asked for your signature. The phrase is a reference to one John Hancock, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence; his signature was one of the more flamboyant on the document.
7. Monday morning quarterback(ing)
Perhaps you’d guess from the “quarterback” clue that this is an American football analogy, but some Brits would be completely stumped. To be a “Monday morning quarterback” is to criticize or pass judgment from a position of hindsight. The quarterback is a football team’s key leader and decision maker out on the field. Since many people watch football games over the weekend, there’s usually lots of heated discussion about the quarterback’s performance on Monday mornings around the water cooler and on TV.
Over the next two years, you’ll hear this term when politicians start taking shots at each other in a bid for the Presidency. No, it’s not quite the same as “ratbag” or the other bag beginning with “D”; the phrase was originally used to refer to northerners who went south after the Civil War to make money, often using nefarious means. They carried their belongings in over-sized carpetbags. Now it refers mainly to politicians who seek election somewhere they have never previously resided, and is also used to describe people or corporations who profit from other people’s misfortune.
9. Taking a rain check
Although many Brits have heard this expression, it’s one we never quite know if we’ve understood, so we just nod agreeably. Originally a rain check was a baseball term whereby, if the game was rained out, spectators received a rain check or ticket to allow them entrance to a future game. These days it has little to do with weather and is used more widely, to mean that the event will be re-scheduled for a mutually agreeable date. When turning down a dinner invitation, for example, you can subtly communicate your desire to be re-invited by asking for a rain check.
Ah yes, I know this one. Wasn’t there an ad campaign a few years ago that tagged pork as “the other white meat”? Not that one? As the Presidential election approaches, this is another word we’ll be hearing more frequently on the news; it refers to the practice of politicians obtaining money for pet projects that benefit specific areas, industries or people, usually in return for their support. “Pork barrel politics” is another phrase you’ll hear to describe this “you scratch my back” politics.