When I point out to my English friends that they’re mispronouncing the word “banana” (which, after two drinks, I do frequently), they have a tendency to point out that our shared language is called “English,” not “American.” I usually tell them that while they may have invented the language, we perfected it, and then we usually start shouting and drinking too much and it all gets a bit blurry.
I stand by our folksy, cartoonish form of English, though. Yes, we can sometimes butcher the language beyond recognition, but we’ve made it our own to the point that it can be practically impenetrable to non-native speakers. As I’ve traveled to Spanish-speaking countries and learned another language, I’ve realized how heavily Americans depend on metaphors and idioms that don’t translate, and occasionally, I come across an idiom that may actually be straight-up inexplicable for a non-American to understand.
1. “He’s going postal!”
Ah, America. The only place where massacres are so common in a certain profession that you can make a folksy aphorism out of it. This idiom refers to a string of gun rampages by postal workers from the years 1986 to 1993, and refers less to gun rampages across the board, and more toward gun rampages in one’s place of work. For instance, if your boss is a dick one more time, you’re going to “go postal.” It is believed the term was popularized by the movie Clueless.
2. “It jumped the shark.”
This term is probably the most inexplicable on its face, but because its origins are so recent, most Americans know where it came from: The show Happy Days was a fixture of American television from 1974 to 1984, and it was generally well loved until Season 5 when, in one particularly bad episode, the show’s hero, Fonzie, goes water skiing and jumps over a caged shark. Most people watching the show thought, “Well, this show sucks now,” and the term “jumping the shark” is now used for the moment when any television show (or any other cultural phenomenon) stops being relevant and starts being ridiculous.
3. “I smell a rat.”
While it’s possible — even probable — that the United States was not the first country to use this phrase, we’ve since taken it over and made it our own. The “rat” in American slang generally refers to a police informant or a snitch. Rats are almost universally despised as disloyal backstabbers, even though in a lot of cases they’re doing the right thing. For more on rats, see The Godfather, The Departed, Goodfellas, and every great American gangster movie ever.
4. “It knocked my socks off!”
It’s hard to tell exactly where this phrase came from — one particularly ridiculous theory is that early pornos featured men wearing socks on their heads to hide their identities, while the more high-quality pornos had men who were willing to take the socks off. What isn’t a mystery is why it’s so popular in America: it’s a perfectly cartoonish description of something being so incredible that it “floored you,” or “blew you away,” or “knocked your socks off.” And if there’s one thing Americans love, it’s cartoonish hyperbole.
5. “I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.”
This phrase refers to getting a particularly good tip or suggestion from someone who is in a good position to give it. It comes from American horse racing: if you were to get a tip as to which horse would be the best one to bet on, for example, you would expect the best possible information to come from the innermost circle — or the horse’s mouth itself.
6. “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”
This proverb is typically used in the dating world, and is said as an assurance to someone who has just lost or been rejected by someone. It’s been around in the US since 1573, but is becoming less and less accurate with overfishing. Maybe we should switch it to, “There are plenty more carbon dioxide particulates in the sky,” or, “There are plenty of other bros in this stupid fucking bar.”
7. “Say uncle!”
This is a particularly weird one. It’s usually what a bully will say to a kid he’s hurting. If the kid complies, the bully will stop hurting him. No one’s really sure where it came from: one theory is that it comes from the Irish word meaning “mercy,” while another says it’s an ancient Roman term that kids used to make a bullied kid call for an adult. There’s another theory that it comes from a joke about a man trying to get his parrot to say the word “uncle” and then beating up the parrot when the parrot refuses to say it. Regardless, it’s a dumb saying that we Americans equate with bullying.