21 American English Phrases That Are, Like, Totally Useful To Know

“What the heck are Americans talking about all the time? Are they even speaking English?” Of course they are, in their own special way! Here are 21 things that Americans say A LOT — and what they mean.
February 27, 2017
21 American English Phrases That Are, Like, Totally Useful To Know

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?

21. 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.)

20. Awesome!

Meaning: Great

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?”
  • “Sure.”
  • Awesome, thanks.”

19. Like

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.

  • “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.”

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).

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 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.”

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!

Meaning: “Wow!”

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!” Denizens of the internet probably recognize another version of this phrase that’s enshrined in meme-dom: “ermahgerd.”

16. Shut up!

Meaning: Stop talking; “You can’t be serious?”

This American phrase 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!”

15. Dude

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!”
  • Boyfriend: “Duuuuuuuude.

Dude conveys such a wide range of meanings, especially as an interjection, that entire conversations can be conducted with only that word. If you don’t believe us, put on The Big Lebowski and learn more from The Dude himself.

14. To buy something

Meaning: To believe something

It’s no secret that the US has a loving relationship with capitalism. What better proof than this American phrase that equates belief with the 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

Meaning: Upset

  • “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: This American phrase has a very different definition in British English.

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.”

6. Whatever

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!”
  • Whatever.”

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 American 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

Meaning: Goodbye

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.

  • “Well, this is it. Tomorrow I board a rocket to Mars, never to return.”
  • “Cool. See you later.
Speak a new language like you've always wanted to, dude. For real, it's awesome!
Author Headshot
John-Erik Jordan
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.
John-Erik was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb named after Tarzan (yes, really). He's lived in Berlin since 2009 and has been Babbel Magazine's managing editor since 2015. Most of his free time is taken up by unhealthy obsessions with science fiction, tabletop games and the Dodgers.

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