English may be the world’s 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 hell ‘merkans are talking about. Thanks to the influence of American television shows around the world, chances are you’ve heard many of these words and phrases before — but we bet you won’t know the real meaning of all of them.
21. What’s up? / Wassup? / ‘sup?
Meaning: “Hello, how are you?”
No matter what you learned in English lessons, do not greet a friend or acquaintance with, “How do you do?” What’s up? or the even more informal ‘sup? mean the same thing without making you sound like you should be doffing a 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 is 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 the phrase world famous.
In the old days, awesome was a word reserved for the truly powerful, fear-inducing and 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 awesome has expanded in the American lexicon 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?”
- “Awesome, thanks.”
Like can be used as multiple parts of speech (comparing similar things, in similes, a synonym for “enjoy”), but it’s slang usage — introduced into youth culture by “valley girls” in the 1980s — is hard to pin down.
- “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 which denotes topic changes, reformulations, discourse planning, stressing, hedging, or back-channeling.
In practical terms, “like” is the word that just falls into the gaps in speech when you might otherwise say “um” or “uhhh.” If you want to hear like in action, there is no better example than Shoshanna from the TV show Girls. She’s like the best!
Important note: Peppering too many likes into conversation can make one sound childish and frivolous — fine for parties but probably not job interviews (but most Americans under the age of 35 say the word more often than they probably realize).
18. 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 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.”
“Tell me about it,” is the sarcastic alternative, as in “don’t tell me about it because I already know too well!”
17. Oh my God!
This exclamation is not as pious as it sounds. In fact, conservative religious types would probably find it tasteless (not to mention that it breaks the fourth commandment!) and would likely substitute with “Oh, my goodness!” Denizens of the internet probably recognize the version of this phrase that’s become enshrined in meme-dom as “ermahgerd.”
16. Shut up!
This can obviously mean “be quiet,” but it also functions as an exclamation to express that what someone just told you is too shocking to believe.
- “Did you hear that Amy and Ben got back together?”
- “Shut up!“
- “No, really, I’m serious!”
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!”
- boyfriend: “Duuuuuuuude.“
Dude conveys such a wide range of meanings, especially as an interjection, that entire conversations can be conducted with only that word. The bonus definition for dude is, of course, Jeff Bridges’ character from The Big Lebowski: The Dude. If you still can’t understand how to use this word, watch that movie, like now, dude!
14. To buy something
Meaning: to believe something
OK, OK — so we’re raging capitalists, we know. What better proof than this phrase that equates belief with willingness to pay money?
- “Her story is just too crazy. I don’t buy it!”
13. Off the hook / Off the chain / Off the hinge
Meaning: very fun and exciting; out of control in a good way
- “Last night’s party was off the chain!”
- “I know, right? Those mojitos Brandy was mixing were off the hook.”
12. To give props to someone
Meaning: to give credit or recognition (short for “proper respect”)
- “I gotta give her props for that song. She’s an amazing singer.”
11. Bent out of shape
- “Don’t get bent out of shape just because I overcooked the rice!”
10. Bananas / Bonkers / Nuts
Meaning: crazy; out of control; beyond belief
- “The line at the post office was so long and slow, I was going bonkers.”
- “Yeah, that place is nuts at lunch time.
9. Bummer / Bummed
Meaning: a misfortune / to be disappointed or depressed
- “It’s a bummer that the concert was canceled.”
- “I know! I’m totally bummed about it.”
Warning: British English has a very different definition for these words.
8. To hang tight
Meaning: to wait patiently
- “Hang tight, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
7. Plastered / sloshed / smashed / wasted
Meaning: (very) drunk
- “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. The preferred one-liner for sulky teenagers:
- “If you don’t start taking this class seriously and completing the assignments, you’re going to fail!”
5. 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 phrase.
4. For sure
Meaning: definitely; certainly
- “Can you do me a favor and pick up dinner on the way home?”
- “For sure.”
3. I get it / I got it
Meaning: I understand
- “Our appointment is at 4pm.”
- “Got it. I’ll meet you there.”
2. See you later
Don’t take this one literally. Saying “see you later” is not a commitment to meet again, it’s just a casual way to say goodbye.
- “Well, this is it. Tomorrow I board a rocket to Mars, never to return.”
- “Cool. See you later.“
Want to learn more about American English? Then check out this episode of the Chatty con Leche podcast! Dude it’s totally interesting, like, for real.