American Slang: It’s A Piece Of Cake To Learn

Babbel shares a new course on the origins of American slang.
American slang represented by a group of three teenagers walking down a deserted street in New York City.

Learning slang can be one of the more challenging parts of learning a language, in part because native speakers don’t always know when something they’ve said doesn’t translate easily. Sure, someone familiar with American slang knows what “my two cents’ worth” means, but someone learning English might be confused why you’re talking about money all of a sudden. On the bright side, slang can be a lot of fun to learn. In connection with the launch of our American slang course, we wrote about six phrases from American slang, and why they mean what they mean.

6 Common Phrases In American Slang

broke — to have no money, or to be bankrupt

Many banks in post-Renaissance Europe gave their customers small porcelain tiles with the person’s name, credit limit and the bank written on them. Think credit cards, only heavier. The customer brought the tile with him when he wanted to borrow money, and if he was past the limit, the teller “broke” it.

flirt — a person who behaves as though sexually attracted to someone, playfully

This is a very old word, and we can’t go past Samuel Johnson’s 1560 dictionary definition: “A pert young hussey.” Happily, it can now be applied to both men and women.

a piece of cake — something that’s easily done

There are several cake- or pie-related sayings that mean something’s easy: “as easy as pie,” “a cake-walk,” “to take the cake,” etc. Why? Well, it turns out cakes were often given as prizes in rural competitions in the states where slavery was legal. At parties or gatherings, enslaved people or their free descendants would walk in pairs around a cake. The most graceful pair was awarded it as a prize.

my two cents’ worth — my opinion (often unsolicited or unwelcome)

The origin of this term is widely debated. Some people say it comes from betting in card games: in poker you have to make a small bet or “ante” if you want to participate. It could be the American adaptation of ‘two bits’ (a reference to the real, or the “Spanish dollar” that was divided into eight “bits”), or of the English “two pennies’ worth.” Or maybe it’s just a reference to the cost of postage? Sending a letter in England used to cost two pennies.

to be hard as nails — to be tough

This phrase is from the days when nails were large chunks of iron and difficult to bend. In the world of internet memes, this entry has been replaced by a picture of Chuck Norris.

the whole nine yards — the lot, the full extent

Did you know that perhaps no other phrase in the English language has caused so much speculation and debate? “The whole nine yards” came into popular use after WWII. Popular theories about its meaning include the amount of material it takes to make a three-piece suit, the capacity of a concrete truck (nine cubic yards), the length of a machine gun ammunition belt in WWII fighter planes and the number of “yards” holding up the sails on a sailing ship.

It appeared for the first time in 1907 in an article about baseball in an Indiana newspaper, and disappeared for almost half a century, only to pop up in a 1956 article on fishing in the Kentucky Happy Hunting Ground. But in an Agatha Christie-style twist, a 1921 headline in a South Carolina newspaper proclaimed “The Whole Six Yards of It.”

Sorry, language sleuths — most likely the number nine doesn’t refer to anything. It’s an example of phrase creep, how sayings grow bigger over time (Cloud Nine was originally Cloud Seven). But that won’t stop people speculating for years to come: what is “the whole six yards”?

This article was originally published on July 22, 2014. It has been updated.

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