A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

14 American Sayings That Don’t Make Sense Outside the United States

Updated: Aug. 03, 2021

When are cows coming home? And you want my what?! You never realized how silly these sayings sound to people outside the United States.

1 / 14
Group of hog waiting feed. Pig indoor on a farm yard in Thailand. swine in the stall. Close up eyes and blur. Portrait animal.

 “You can put lipstick on a pig”

The full saying is, “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” If you live outside of the United States you’re probably wondering who on Earth would put lipstick on a pig? Well, no one is (we don’t think!). The saying means that no matter how much you try to make something seem nice, it is what it is. You can’t sugar coat everything—uh oh, these American sayings probably don’t make sense to anyone outside of the United States either! You should also make sure you never say the most annoying phrases in the English language.

2 / 14
Misty graveyard,crosses and graves backlit
Peter Cripps/Shutterstock

“Working the graveyard shift”

If you’re not from the United States, you might hear someone say this and think that they work in a cemetery. How morbid! Really, this saying just means that someone is working from midnight until about 8 a.m., when where they work might be as silent and dead (meaning empty) as a graveyard. If you are from the states, you might want to learn the meaning behind each state motto. 

3 / 14

“ …Will happen momentarily”

In the United States, when someone says something will happen momentarily, they mean that it will happen in just a few moments. But to a British person, it means something will only happen for a moment or a short period of time.

4 / 14
Cup of aromatic tea with cinnamon, milk and fresh bread on table

“Chai tea”

In Hindi and many other languages, “chai” literally means “tea.” So when people from the United States ask for a chai tea, they’re really asking for “tea tea.” Which sounds hilarious! The correct way to ask for chai would be to ask for milk tea with sugar. Here are more common phrases that you never knew were redundant.

5 / 14
Soup saltwort with lemon, meat, pickles, tomato sauce olives in a bowl on a sacking, bread on a wooden board background
Nadya Kubik/Shutterstock

“Order an entrée”

In the 18th century, the British used this French word that means entrance to describe the food that was served right before the main meal. However, in the United States, Americans have decided to call the first part of the meal an appetizer and the main course the entrée. The next time you bring your French friend out to dinner, make sure you let them know to order their entrance meal after their appetizer. Here are 70 more words and phrases that you’re probably using all wrong.

6 / 14
Woman's brown casual pants. Brown trousers on wooden background. Pants made of natural material. New item at low price.


You might be thinking how the word pants can be confusing. It’s just a piece of clothing, right? Well, technically yes. But in England pants mean underwear; it’s not synonymous with jeans or trousers. If you talk to someone about your new pants in England, they might tell you that you’re sharing way too much information.

7 / 14
Abstract background of autumn leaves. Autumn background.

“Fall is my favorite season”

Fall is a season that doesn’t really exist outside of the United States. To the rest of the world, the time of year when the weather gets a little chilly and leaves start changing colors is typically, and correctly, called autumn. If you want to sound even more proper, and maybe even a little outdated, you can call this season harvest.

8 / 14
green leather fanny pack on black background

“Fanny packs”

Between the 1980s and ’90s, fanny packs became a major fashion trend in the United States. In England though, the British definitely thought we were wacky and a little rude. In British English, fanny means vagina. You could only imagine what came to mind when they heard people all over the United States were wearing fanny packs. Yikes! Here are 17 more English words that have totally different meanings in other languages.

9 / 14
Bored European girl student wearing stylish pink sweatshirt touching face with hand, looking annoyed, tired of listening uninteresting stories. Body language
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

“I could care less”

People in the United States often say this when they describe something they do not care much about. However, what they’re actually saying is that they do care and they could just care a little less. If you want to say that you don’t care much about something, the proper phrase is, “I couldn’t care less.” 

10 / 14
hungry blue tit eating from garden bird feeder ( Cyanistes caeruleus )

“That’s for the birds”

Wait, but what is for the birds? This U.S. saying is meant to describe something that doesn’t matter or is trivial. But when heard by someone who isn’t from the United States, they could think you literally have something for birds. Have a laugh at more common sayings that are total nonsense.

11 / 14
A person with an umbrella in the rain.
Niyom Napalai/Shutterstock

“Let’s take a rain check”

Huh? But it’s sunny outside! This is one of those American sayings that originated in the 1880s when the audience of a baseball game had to come back another day because that game was canceled due to the rain. The meaning of the saying is similar today, but it’s not reserved for just baseball games. You can take a rain check for a show that was canceled or for an item you want to buy in-store but is out of stock.

12 / 14
Billion Photos/Shutterstock

“Can I get your John Hancock?”

If you grew up outside of the United States, John Hancock might not have been one of the first historical figures you learned about in school. But John Hancock was one of the founding fathers of the United States and had the biggest, most recognizable signature on the Declaration of Independence. So if someone says they need your John Hancock, all they are asking for is a signature. Find out the historical figures you’ve been picturing all wrong.

13 / 14
chocolate fudge cake,selective focus.

“Piece of cake”

Back in 19th century United States, there was an African American tradition for slaves or freedmen and women that involved walking around a cake. They would walk as a couple around the cake and the most graceful pair would win the cake. Doesn’t seem difficult, right? That’s when the saying “cakewalk” came into everyone’s vocabulary. Later, that phrase evolved into “piece of cake,” meaning something was easy. However, anyone outside of the United States might think you’re crazy if you’re always comparing something like an easy job assignment to a delectable dessert.

14 / 14
Young black and white calf at dairy farm. Newborn baby cow
Napaphat Kaewsanchai/Shutterstock

“’Til the cows come home”

This U.S. saying might not even make sense to people who don’t live in the South or on a farm. If you do something ‘til the cows come home, that means you’re going to take all day to do it. It originates on farmlands where cows graze the fields all day before coming home in the evening for feeding time. If something doesn’t get done ‘til the cows come home, you’re going to be waiting a while for it. Phew! What a whirlwind of American sayings to decipher. Next, check out slang words no one outside of your state will understand.