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Moving to the U.S.? Think you speak the language? Think again. Here are ten everyday phrases that may cause concern or confusion to the uninformed immigrant.
Don’t be alarmed if you overhear an American guy say that he’s going to go home and change into his wife-beater—it’s a common U.S. term for a vest (as Brits call it) or undershirt.
No, this is not a place where orphans can go to purchase a mommy and daddy. In the U.S., independently owned businesses are affectionately known as “mom-and-pop” stores. They can be anything from cafes to grocery stores, clothing boutiques to pharmacies, comic book emporiums to toyshops. In major cities with high rents, mom-and-pop stores have suffered at the hands of gentrification and many once-thriving businesses have given way to 7-Elevens, Starbucks’ and Duane Reades.
This highly contagious but fictional disease is the U.S. equivalent of the dreaded British lurgy. It thrives in the playground and can be transmitted via touching, sharing drinks, and smooching behind the school gymnasium.
If something is described as being “cookie cutter,” then said object is devoid of any originality and individualism because it has either been mass-produced or much imitated. The phrase is often used to describe housing developments in suburban areas where all the homes are built from the same blueprint. But it’s a versatile expression that can be used to describe almost anything where similarity can be found in abundance: guest rooms at large hotel chains, for example, could be described as being cookie cutter.
The cougar is a dangerous species of middle-aged woman that preys on younger men. Their favored hunting grounds are nightclubs, and Bon Jovi concerts where they can be found stalking the vicinity for virile males 20 years their junior.
Panhandling is the American term for begging. But here’s the tricky thing: “tramp” in the U.S. refers to a prostitute or slutty woman and “bum” is the common word for a homeless person. So telling an American colleague you gave money to a tramp during your lunch break may birth some undesired rumors.
John & Jane Doe
John & Jane Doe are placeholder names used in America when the true identity of an individual is either unknown or must be withheld for legal reasons. Like many perceived “Americanisms”, John Doe is, in fact, a British term. It originated during the reign of Edward III (1312 – 1377) amid legal disputes involving landowners and tenants known as the Acts of Ejectment. In the mock-up document, John Doe was chosen as the name for the landlord and Richard Roe for the tenant. Nobody knows why John and Richard were chosen as the given names but it seems most likely they were picked simply because they were common. “Doe” of course is the noun for a female deer, whilst “Roe” was (and still is) a common species of deer found in Europe, but again nobody knows why these particular surnames were settled on. Any ex-pat readers will know that John Doe is the U.S. equivalent to the British term “Joe Bloggs.”
It’s somewhat curious that an instrument used for feminine hygiene is an idiom for a sleazy, despicable guy. It would be like referring to an unpleasant, catty woman as a penis basin (if such an apparatus existed).
The first time I heard this expression I thought, “Who’s Miranda Wright and what’s she got to do with anything?” You will most likely know the Miranda Rights from American movies and TV shows. It’s the spiel cops give criminals when they arrest them. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Blah blah blah…”
Jump the shark
This Americanism refers to the moment in which a television show begins its decline towards the end. It is marked by a significantly preposterous scene written into the script in a desperate attempt to keep viewers interested. The term comes from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie (in trademark leather jacket) jumps over a shark on water skis. The term has evolved into a common idiom in the wider world of popular culture so that it is now often applied to bands, brands and celebrities. “Boy,” you might hear someone say, “I thought Kanye jumped the shark when he interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs, but have you seen his new video?”
Brits – Which U.S. phrases threw you when you first came to America?
Americans – Which British phrases do you find peculiar?
Tell us in the comments below:
View all posts by Jon Langford.