American Slang: Essential Slang Words for ESL Students

Just because American English is so common worldwide does not mean that English speakers of different dialects can’t still confuse one another with slang and local terms.
For many people talking to the Americans in real life or on the Internet, or just  moving to the United States can be daunting. Not only are they exposed to a myriad of unfamiliar customs, they are also bombarded with a myriad of unfamiliar American slang words. Because these words are often not included in a formal English education, it can be grueling for international students to grow accustomed to their widespread, and arguably excessive, use. So I decided to give you  a run down on some of the most common slang. It will help you understand your friends better, it will help you fit in and of course it will help you avoid any more embarrassing situations.

American Slang Words and Phrases:

NoSlang WordsMeaningExample
1Cool (adj) Cool (adj) means ‘great’ or ‘fantastic’. It also shows that you’re okay with an idea.“Okay, cool! I’ll be there at 7:00”(okay with an idea)
“He passed the exam, Cool!”(means “great!”)
2To be beat (adj)To be beat (adj) If you hear a friend saying I’m beat, it means he or she is very tired or exhausted.       “Will you attend the football match with Tiger School?”
“Sorry, I can’t. I’m beat. I did not sleep last night”
3Awesome (adj)Awesome (adj) like “Cool”, it means “excellent”, “great” or “remarkable”. It can be used in a sentence or it could be used in a one word reply.“That was awesome!”
“Awesome, dude!”
4To hang out (verb)To hang out (verb) means to spend time doing nothing in particular.“After this is over, do you want to go hang out?”
“He hung out with his friends all day yesterday.”
5To Chill Out (verb)To Chill Out (verb) simply means to relax. Usually it can be used with or without the word ‘out’. It also means to calm down.“Since I’m between projects, I think I’ll just chill out.”
“I wish I could chill out about the neighbor’s barking dog, but it wakes me up every night.”
6Wheels (noun)Wheels (noun)  When somebody refers to their wheels they are talking about their car.    “Sorry Honey, I can’t pick up you now. I don’t have my wheels at the moment?”
“Do you like my new Wheels?
7Babe (noun)Babe (noun) means an attractive person, especially a young woman. If you refer to someone as a babe, it means that you think they’re hot and attractive.“She’s a real babe!”
8Busted (adjective/verb)Busted (adjective/verb) means being caught in the act of doing something they shouldn’t do.“I saw you take that cookie from the cookie jar! You’re busted!”
9To have a blast (verb)To have a blast (verb) means that something is great or having an amazing and fun time.     “How was the Fast & Furious 7?”
“It was awesome. Everyone had a blast.”
10To have a crush (on somebody) (verb) To have a crush (on somebody) (verb) means being attracted to somebody and would like them to be more than just a friend.“…The most common sign of having a crush is the feeling that you have a million butterflies flying around inside you when that special someone is around…”
11To dump somebody (verb)To dump somebody (verb) means to stop having a romantic relationship with someone.“Didn’t you hear? David  dumped Sophia last night”
“Wow, I’m surprised. They always looked so happy together!”
12Ex (noun)Ex (noun) usually refers to an old boyfriend or girlfriend of someone. It can be used with another noun, for example ‘boss’ ex-boss it means your boss from before. “She broke up with her ex
“I met my ex-boss yesterday at Pho Restaurant”
13Geek (noun) Geek (noun) refers a person who is intensely interested in a particular field or hobby.“I was a complete computer geek in high school, but I get out a lot more now.”
14To be hooked on something (verb)To be hooked on something (verb) means being addicted to something.“I’m really hooked on the Coffee at Plus Bar”
15To be in (adjective)To be in (adjective) means to be in fashion or trending at the moment. “Hey do you like my haircut? It’s the in thing now!”
16Epic Fail (noun)Epic Fail (noun) means a ‘total failure’ or a “big disaster”“ManU lost 6-1, can you believe it?”
“Yeah, epic fail!”
17Dunno (verb)Dunno simply means ‘I don’t know’.“Where’d he go?”
18To be ripped (adjective)To be ripped (adjective) means having great muscles and bodies – probably due to working out.“John, You are so ripped. How long you been training and what is your diet like?”
Here are 40 more words and phrases:
  1. Bail — Intransitive verb for leaving abruptly.
  2. Feeling blue; have the blues — A feeling of depression or sadness.
  3. A buck — Slang term for a the American dollar.
  4. By the skin of (my/your/his/her) teeth — just barely.
  5. Creep (n.) —  An unpleasantly weird/strange person.
  6. Couch Potato — A lazy person who spends the bulk of their time engaged in things that can be done while sitting on a couch.
  7. Cram — To study feverishly before an exam typically done after neglecting to study consistently.
  8. Crash — To abruptly fall  asleep, or to show up without invitation.
  9. Down to earth — And adjective for practicality and lack of pretense.
  10. Drive up the wall — To irritate.
  11. For Real — A proclamation of honesty.
  12. Going Dutch — When each person, usually in a dating scenario, pays for his/her own meal.
  13. The cold shoulder — A metaphor for deliberately ignoring someone.
  14. Give a ring — To call someone on the telephone.
  15. Hyped (adj.) — A very excited state.
  16. Hang out — To casually gather together or spend time with someone in a social manner.
  17. Jack up — An abrupt increase, typically in the price of something.
  18. Knock — To speak negatively, to disparage, to badmouth.
  19. Lighten up — To relax and take things too seriously. Typically stated as an appeal to someone who is acting uptight.
  20. Pass the buck — To deflect responsibility onto someone else.
  21. Piece of cake — A metaphor to describe something that is easy or effortless.
  22. Pig out — A metaphor for binge eating.
  23. Plead the fifth — References the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows a witness in court to refuse questions on the grounds that they risk self-incrimination.
  24. Screw up — To make a mistake, i.e. mess up.
  25. Sweet — An adjective that describes something that is good, or nice.
  26. Tight — An adjective that describes closeness between competitors, i.e. a tight competition.
  27. Trash — Can be used as an intransitive verb for destructione.g. “He trashed the car.”
  28. Uptight — Stuffy, persnickety, the opposite of relaxed.
  29. Wrap (something) up — To finish or complete something.
  30. Zonked — Completely exhausted.Our next post will cover British slang terms that Americans find confusing. Until then, here are some of our favorite American slang words:
  31. Pants — CLOTHING RETAILERS TAKE NOTE: The Brits say ‘trousers’ … The American default word for the article of clothing that covers the legs and pelvic region seems pretty general and innocuous to English speakers in the U.S. To the actual English, however, ‘pants’ is the primary word they use for ‘underwear.’ And while American cinema and television typically writes the word ‘knickers’ for underwear into the vocabulary of British characters—that’s probably just for comedic effect since ‘pants’ wouldn’t induce any response—the most common British word for underwear really is ‘pants.’ Americans tend not to notice how often they refer to their so-called pants until someone from the U.K. joins their ranks. Once that happens they begin to notice restrained snickering every time ‘pants’ are referenced in a polite conversation.
  32. For the birds — Imagine how this phrase must sound to someone who doesn’t understand that it refers to something that is substandard in some respect. Is it a bag of seeds or some kind of yard ornament reference? The Brits sometimes use the word ‘bird,’ to refer to women, in the same way Americans use ‘chicks.’ So, maybe it comes off like reference to girlishness. Who knows?
  33. Bought the farm — ”I didn’t know he wanted to move to the country,” is how a British person might respond to hearing this phrase. At this point ‘bought the farm,’ is a general reference to untimely death. However, the phrase originates from WWII-era military accidents involving unreliable aircraft crashing into rural European countryside properties resulting in damages for which the U.S. government was responsible to pay, thereby, ‘buying the farm,’ so to speak.
  34. Jonesing — To want, crave, or desire something intensely, and its noun form, ‘joneser,’ (a person who wants or craves something intensely), isn’t always apparent even to Americans. The Oxford Dictionary associates this word’s slang usage with Jones Alley in Manhattan, a haven for drug addicts in the 1960s. The unsavory drug culture connotations continue today. However the definition of ‘joneser,’ has been broadened among some circles to include describing a person whose character is found wanting, i.e. lacking, as opposed to someone who simply wants something desperately.
  35. Take a raincheck — This is an Americanism that dates back to the 1880s and references the practice of giving baseball game ticketholders a pass to a game that must be rescheduled due to weather. It’s commonly used as a metaphor for postponing or rescheduling a meeting between people to some later date that is more convenient.
  36. Spill the Beans — British English speakers might pick up on the use of the word ‘spill,’ as a metaphor for divulging. But ‘spill the beans,’ might be obscure enough for them to assume a more specific connotation, which they are not aware of. Needless to say, ‘spill the beans,’ is an American idiom for divulging secret information that dates back to the very early 1900s.
  37. Shoot the breeze — An idiomatic phrase for killing time with idle chit-chat, ‘shoot the breeze probably stems from old-west imagery, either cinematic or anecdotal in origin, in which men with nothing but time and ammunition on their hands shot their guns at no particular target.  
  38. John Hancock — Although obscure associative references are a favorite form of Cockney slang, it’s unlikely that an English person would have any idea who John Hancock was. The reference would escape them. The name John Hancock became synonymous with a person’s signature because his was one of the more flamboyant signatures on The Declaration of Independence.  
  39. Monday morning quarterback — Because quarterback is an on-field leadership position played in American football, which the British have no interest in, and because Monday morning references the fact that most NFL games take place on Sundays, this is a doubly obscure metaphor. While American’s understand that the phrase references the practice of criticizing something after-fact-with the advantage of hindsight, an English person would find this phrase totally meaningless.
  40. Ride Shotgun — Another phrase taken from Old-West folklore, riding shotgun is a statement of both position and status—a sort of second-in-command support position who works from a preferential vantage. The imagery invoked by the phrase comes from stagecoaches, specifically the person who rode in the seat next to the driver whose job was to fend off any would-be bandits with a shotgun.

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