American / English Idiom Expressions

Idioms and expressions display our rich ethnic and cultural diversity.

American English is a rich example of the "melting pot" ideal. In the English that is spoken in this country, through its idioms, it displays its rich ethnic and cultural diversity. The dictionary defines an idiom as

the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class: DIALECT b : the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language

2 : an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as no, it wasn't me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as Monday week for "the Monday a week after next Monday")

3 : a style or form of artistic expression that is characteristic of an individual, a period or movement, or a medium or instrument.

To put this all in simplier terms, an idiom is a way of using a language that belongs to a group of people who make it up and is something that has no meaning that makes sense from the words themselves. The one thing about American English is that it is filled with these kind of words and phrases. While their sources are as diverse as American culture itself, there are three major sources for this lingustic mess:

Pop Culture


The Usual Suspects

I'll cover Pop Culture and Sports first because they more are easily understood. The Usual Suspects I'll wait and explain at the end.

Pop Culture

That's Cool with me. She's a real Hotty. He's a Bad Dude. While all three of these sentences are example of a slang use of idioms, I would wager that a majority of Americans (particulary those under 40) would have no trouble understanding what is being said. The effect of popular culture on the language is beyond questioning. You can argue about the legitimacy of its use, but you can't deny its penetration in our culture. You can dig with a shovel, but for a majority of Americans of the post World War II generation, dig communicates an appreciation or understanding.

Music and the culture of African Americans have been the major contributors to this part of the language. My "Pad" is the place I live; a girl is a "chick", and being "hip" as in the know, all were derived orginally from the culture of African Americans, particulary their artist and musicians. Smooth, cool, in the groove, are musical and black in their origins. As jazz, rhythm and blues,bee-bop, and rock & roll moved from the ghettos and country side to the great cities, they brought along with them their language. Now it's good to be bad; everyone wants to be cool; and taking a chill is what you do on your day off.

The thing about this idiom thing is that while our language gets more and more saturated with accepted slang, there is a cross over of meanings that can lead to real confusion for the uninitiated. For example, a girl can be the coolest because she is really hot. Then there's the cross overs that occur as idioms are built on top of idioms. The place where this is most apparent is in the language of sports.


So much of America's love of sport can be seen in the way its terms are incorporated into our language. If a businessman has a major success in a presentation, he hit a home run. Going for the whole nine yards is common for the ambitious. And its been over 30 years since I got past first base with a honey (sweet young thing). I think you get the picture. I thought this part of this article would be a slam-dunk, but I'm sure by now some of you readers are about to cry foul.

Enough, I know some of you are saying, but just let me slide by a little longer and I promise you won't strike out when it comes to understanding this. You may even want to high five me before I'm through. I'm getting to the juicy parts where it really gets deep, and I know you can dig the fact that I won't leave you hanging.

The Usual Suspects

This country's language is so filled with idoms sometimes I get so fed up I could just kick the bucket. These idioms come from everywhere. I would press the point but I'll just give you the skinny right up front. Just let me lay this on you.

A while back I was living in Japan and trying to learn to speak Japanese. I thought it was the most difficult thing I could ever do. For example there were six ways to say the word wife, and depending on the social setting or the audience, some where totally unacceptable to use outside their particular frame. Sharing this concern with my Japanese instructor he laughed at me. After a while he assured me American English was by far more difficult. He looked at me and asked; "Will you tell me something please? Just how does your nose run and your feet smell?" I would have tried to go on and explain, but that might just be piling it on a little too deep.

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