English may be a global lingua franca, but the way it’s spoken is very different from place to place. Here are some useful American English words and phrases that will help you understand just what the heck ‘merkans are talking about. Thanks to the influence of American television shows around the world, chances are you’ve heard many of these examples before — but do know the real meaning of all of them?
1. What’s up? / Wassup? / ‘sup?
Meaning: Hello, how are you?
No matter what you learned in English class, do not greet a friend or acquaintance with, “How do you do?” “What’s up?” and the even more informal “‘sup?” mean the same thing without making it sound like you should be tipping your top hat. In more formal situations, it’s better to say, “Nice to meet you” or “Nice to see you.”
The beauty of “What’s up?” is that it’s not really a question in need of an answer. Just like the French “ça va?” you can respond to “What’s up?” with — you guessed it — “What’s up?”
(We know you’re thinking it, so here’s the beer commercial that made this American phrase world famous.)
In the old days, “awesome” was a word reserved for the truly powerful, fear-inducing or sublime: the view from a mountaintop, the sea during a storm, the voice of God emanating from a burning bush. You know, massive, awe-inspiring things that “put the fear of God in ya.” But in the American lexicon, awesome has expanded to include the less awe-inspiring, like a hit single, a hamburger, some new sneakers — if you’re even just mildly excited about something, it can be awesome.
“I saw the new Star Wars in IMAX over the weekend.”
“Awesome. Did you like it?”
“Oh yeah, it was awesome. Hey, can I get a sip of your iced tea?”
Meaning: A popular filler word
Like can be used as multiple parts of speech: comparing similar things, in similes, as a synonym for “enjoy.” But its slang usage — introduced into youth culture by “valley girls” in the 1980s — is hard to pin down. It’s sometimes associated with California, but it’s used pretty much everywhere.
“Oh my god, it was, like, the worst date I’ve ever been on. Richard was, like, such a jerk!”
In this example, like could be mistaken for a preposition meaning “similar to,” but it’s actually not! When dropped into sentences in this manner, like is a discourse particle or discourse marker that denotes topic changes, reformulations, discourse planning, stressing, hedging or back-channeling. In practical terms, like is the word that falls into gaps in speech when you might otherwise say “um” or “uhhh.”
Another popular use of the word is the “quotative like.” More and more, people will introduce quotes in their stories with phrases like “He was like,” and “And then I was like.”
Important note: Peppering too many likes into conversation can make one sound childish or frivolous — fine for parties, but probably not job interviews (though most Americans under the age of 35 say the word more often than they probably realize).
4. I hear you / I hear ya
Meaning: I empathize with your point of view.
With only three words, you can make it plain that you are really listening to someone and can relate to what they are saying.
“I’m kinda sad to be back from vacation. I wish I was still on that sandy tropical beach.”
“I hear ya. After I got back from Acapulco, the view from my apartment depressed me for weeks.”
In a slightly different tone, “I hear you” can have a different meaning. People use “I hear you” in apologies so much that it’s practically become a meme.
If you want to express the exact opposite, “tell me about it,” is the sarcastic alternative. If you’re whining and someone says “tell me about it,” they mean: “don’t tell me about it because I already know too well!”
5. Oh my God!
You wouldn’t think it, but “Oh my God” is one of the most versatile phrases in American English. You can use it to express shock, fear, surprise, joy, anger and really any other emotion (it’s all about the emphasis).
We should note that this exclamation is not as pious as it sounds. In fact, very religious people would probably find it tasteless (not to mention that it breaks the fourth commandment!), using instead alternatives like “Oh my goodness!”
6. No worries
Meaning: It’s not a big deal
“No worries” has become and extremely common way to let someone know that you’re not mad at them.
“Sorry I can’t make it to your party.”
“No worries! Maybe next time.”
Meaning: Bro; man
In the late 19th century, “dude” was an epithet for fastidiously dressed East-coast “city boys” who came out west to vacation on cattle ranches. The only current use that hearkens back to the original meaning is the verb “to dude up,” which means to get dressed up in stylish clothes. But dude is now most widely used as a synonym for “man” or “guy.”
Perhaps the most American use of the word dude might be as an interjection for emphasis. When used this way, it no longer only means “some guy” and can start to mean anything.
Girlfriend: “Who’s that dude over there?”
Boyfriend: “Dude, I can’t see where you’re pointing!”
Girlfriend: “Look, the one by the bar who’s all duded up like he’s a movie star or something. Doesn’t he look familiar?”
Boyfriend: “Dude, that’s Keanu Reeves!”
Girlfriend: “Dude, you’re right!”
Dude conveys such a wide range of meanings, especially as an interjection, that entire conversations can be conducted with only that word. And while there was a time that “dude” was considered gendered — giving birth to much-maligned diminutive “dudette” — women have claimed it as the genderless word it should be (just watch Broad City).
8. To buy something
Meaning: To believe something
It’s no secret that the United States has a loving relationship with capitalism. What better proof than this American phrase that equates belief with the willingness to pay money? You can buy something or not buy something, depending on whether you believe it or not.
“Her story is just too crazy. I don’t buy it!“
9. It’s lit
Meaning: It’s very fun and exciting; out of control in a good way
Finding the right phrase to describe when something was cool is very difficult, because it’s constantly being changed by the youths. One day a party is “fab,” the next it’s “rad” and the next it’s “on fleek.” The very fact that “it’s lit” is on this list means it’s probably out of fashion by now. You can also “get lit,” which usually means intoxicated.
“Last night’s party was lit!”
“I know, right? Those mojitos Brandy was mixing were lit.”
10. To give props to someone
Meaning: To give credit or recognition (short for “proper recognition”)
It’s not too common that you can trace a phrase’s popularity back to a single person, but you’ve gotta give Aretha Franklin props for, well, giving people their props. While she used a slightly longer version — “propers” instead of “props” — she’s one of the first people to spread this phrase far and wide.
“I gotta give her props for that song. She’s an amazing singer.”
11. Bent out of shape
When you say someone is “bent out of shape” about something, it usually means that you consider it a little frivolous. You wouldn’t say someone is “bent out of shape” about their house being robbed, for example.
“Don’t get bent out of shape just because I overcooked the rice!”
12. To bail / To ditch
Meaning: To leave an event or to decide not to do something
If you’re the one doing the “bailing” or “ditching,” then you’re probably making the right choice to prioritize your time. But if someone “bails on” or “ditches” you, you’ll be very angry.
“Do you wanna bail?”
“Yeah, let’s ditch.”
13. Bummer / Bummed
Meaning: A misfortune; to be disappointed or depressed
“Bummer” has a certain hippie connotation to it, but this word is still often used, especially as an exclamation.
“It’s a bummer that the concert was canceled.”
“I know! I’m totally bummed about it.”
Warning: This American phrase has a very different definition in British English.
14. To hang tight
Meaning: To wait patiently
This shouldn’t be confused with “hang ten,” which is a part of surfer slang.
“Hang tight, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
15. Plastered / Sloshed / Smashed / Wasted
Meaning: (Very) drunk
There’s no end to the terms to describe being extremely drunk in the English language. Here’s just four of a very rich vocabulary.
“I got so plastered last night. I’m embarrassed to show my face now.”
“Don’t worry, everyone was too wasted to notice when you ripped off your shirt and danced on the table.”
Meaning: I don’t care.
With this one word, said in a slightly sarcastic tone, you can disparage anything. It’s the preferred one-liner for sulky teenagers.
“If you don’t start taking this class seriously, you’re going to fail!”
Even more strange, you can use it as an adjective in certain situations. This still means “I don’t care about it,” basically, but can also be used to hide deeper emotions or confusion.
“How do you feel about your breakup?”
“I mean, it’s whatever.“
17. For real
Meaning: True; honest
“I started training with a synchronized swimming team.”
“Are you for real?”
“Yes, for real, it’s been my dream since childhood.”
OutKast’s song “Ms. Jackson” includes a perfect example of this American phrase.
18. For sure
Meaning: Definitely; certainly
On its own, “sure” is one of the least convincing ways to say “yes.” If someone asks you if you want to do something and you say “sure,” they might think that you don’t actually want to do it. When you say “for sure” however, it’s a much stronger commitment.
“Can you do me a favor and pick up dinner on the way home?”
19. I get it / I got it
Meaning: “I understand.”
When you want to assure someone you understand what they’re saying, “got it” is one of the quickest ways to do so.
“Our appointment is at 4 p.m.”
“Got it. I’ll meet you there.”
20. See you later
Don’t take this one too literally. Saying “see you later” is not a commitment to meet again, it’s just a casual way to say goodbye. It’s also often shortened to “see ya!” even if you won’t actually see them ever again.
“Well, this is it. Tomorrow I board a rocket to Mars, never to return.”
“Cool. See you later.“
21. To ride shotgun
Meaning: To ride in the seat next to the driver
The origin story of this phrase is that back in the Wild West of the United States, stage coach drivers would bring a guard with them who could defend the precious cargo from vagrants. But the phrase “riding shotgun” didn’t actually appear until the early 20th century, which means it isn’t really historically accurate.
Today, kids will often call “shotgun!” when they want to sit in the front seat. It is, of course, the most coveted seat in the car.
“I want to sit in the front seat!”
“Too late, I called shotgun.”