Everything You Need to Know About American Idioms

English learners are sometimes confused by phrases that do not seem to make any sense based on the meaning of every individual word. Although these constructions are unlisted in traditional textbooks, they seem to be everywhere else, especially in songs, movies, TV shows, and informal conversations.

Curious about their obscure meanings, students often look them up in vocabulary books only to find more confusion. If you have ever found such elusive expressions, you will know what we are talking about. What you probably did not know is that these expressions are called idioms. In this article, we are going to list some of the most slippery American idioms that you might find in colloquial speech.

What are Idioms?

Idioms are groups of words whose meaning is not clear from looking at the individual words. Because they develop over time in a specific culture, they might leave the most studious learners scratching their heads. They usually rely on analogy and metaphors, but it is very difficult to understand where they are coming from if you are not a native speaker.

Learning American idioms and expressions is essential for students who want to master the language and communicate more effectively in informal contexts. Although there are hundreds of them, below we have listed a few just to get you started. Let’s take a look at them:

All Over the Map

This expression refers to a way of thought and communication that is disorganized and scattered. For example, if a conversation is “all over the map” it fails to stick to the main topic and sidetracks to irrelevant subjects.

“Today’s meeting was a disaster. Jane, in particular, was all over the map, going off-topic every time somebody was trying to make an important point”.

Disco Nap

A disco nap is a light sleep that young people usually take before going to a nightclub. Predictably, it’s meant to restore their energy levels before a long evening.

Wanna go to the club tonight? Martin will be there. #JustSaying.
IDK, Jane. I’m so tired from work.
You can always take a disco nap.

Get the Hang of It

If you get the hang of something, you learn the proper way of doing, using, or dealing with something. Learning American idioms, for example, allows you to get the hang of the English language, as it helps you to communicate like a native speaker. But this expression can be used for everything, really:

I think I’m getting the hang of this hashtag thing you were telling me about the other day. Look at all the likes I got with this selfie.
That’s great, granny.

Give Props to

This is an informal American idiom that people use to mean “show respect for, or appreciation of a person”. In other words, it is an expression of approval, praise, or positive acknowledgment.

Guess what.
I got Vanessa to go to the ball with me.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I’m not.
Man, that’s awesome. Props to you for that.

Ruffle Feathers 

If someone ruffles your feathers, he or she irritates you. People use this phrase informally to talk about annoying people and their habits. It might also be used to mean that someone upsets or offends another person. For example:

Although I had some reservations, I agreed to the points discussed in the meeting because I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

Stab Someone in the Back / Backstabbing

This American idiom is a great example of how a literal, word-by-word approach to language learning might get you into trouble. As an idiom, to stab a person in the back has nothing to do with knives. It simply refers to a betrayal of trust on the part of someone that was close to us and that we trusted. People who do this are often called backstabbers:

I don’t know how to break this to you so I’ll say it fast. I saw Jill kissing Nick last night.
My Nick?
Yes, your Nick. I always said that Jill was a professional backstabber.

Take the Wind out of Someone’s Sails

If you do this, you cause someone to lose confidence or determination in doing something.  In addition, taking the wind out a person’s sails might mean that you make them feel disappointed or less hopeful.

Did you hear? Jane’s audition didn’t go really well.
She didn’t get the part?
Well, she got a part. She got the part of the tree.
Yeah. That really took the wind out of her sails.

Take a Hint

This American idiom is usually used in the negative form. People who cannot take a hint are unable to understand a subtle message that another person is intentionally trying to deliver.

My God, I’m so sleepy.

Really? I’m fresh as a daisy.

Well, it’s been a very long day…
It has?
And I have to get up very early tomorrow.
You do?
Dude, you can’t take a hint, can you?

What is the Best Way to Learn Idioms?

Rote memorization might work when you are trying to learn grammatical rules, but when it comes to vocabulary, especially informal vocabulary, it will not do the trick. Besides, there are far more entertaining ways in which you can learn this type of expressions. For example, by listening to music, watching movie scenes, and playing language games. If you still believe memory might help you, you can make your self post-its or flashcards and stick them on a wall or piece of furniture that you see every day.

Jaya, one of our native English tutors, teaching a group class.

If you are looking for an official English course, bear in mind that native tutors are the best when it comes to teaching informal expressions. Since they have grown in the culture where American idioms originate and develop, they can tell you everything about the nuances of their usage and connotations. Do you want to learn more about informal expressions? Make sure to check our post on Shakespearian idioms and our list of untranslatable phrases from around the world. To get more information about our teaching methodology, explore our online courses, or send us an inquiry.