English may be one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, but throw together English-speakers from Australia, the UK, Singapore, Jamaica, America and everywhere else, and you’ll quickly see how complex the language really is. Every culture and country puts its own spin on things. From using the same word in wildly different ways to words that are 100% unique to a specific nation, English is truly an evolving language. Whether you’re visiting the United States or just wondering what phrases you use might not be understood abroad, here’s a guide to some unique Americanisms.
Baseball is America’s national pastime, so it makes sense that words from this beloved game have entered the vernacular. The only tricky part is all the different ways ballpark can be used beyond describing a place to “play ball!” You can ballpark an estimate, hit something out of the ballpark, or meet someone’s guidelines by being in the same ballpark.
Athletic footwear goes by many names around the globe – Canadians often refer to runners, while Brits affectionately refer to them as trainers. America favors sneakers, tennis shoes, or running shoes – a particularly funny quirk given most shoes are used for a range of activities beyond a single sport like tennis or running.
The title of your favorite reality TV guilty pleasure is also a term unique to the U.S. – at least when it comes to prenuptial partying. In other English-speaking countries, parties to celebrate the bride and groom’s last hurrah are known as stag, stagette, hen, or buck parties, though most people would still know what a bachelor(ette) party entails if you extend an invite.
Perhaps the most infamous sports-related difference in the English language is what people call the game that involves kicking a black and white ball, ideally into a goal. Throughout the rest of the world, it’s called football. But in America, you’ll probably be referring to soccer. What Americans actually call football, in turn, is known as American football internationally.
This American expression refers to getting a good deal, but its origins are decidedly a little more sinister. President Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the phrase in the 1950s, with the aim of expanding America’s armed forces while decreasing military spending.
Sure people around the globe say first floor – but they’re referring to the floor of a building above the ground floor. In the U.S., if you said you were on the first floor, you’d probably be referring to the floor on which you enter a building. This difference can lead to many confused hotel guests when staying abroad.
The rest of the English-speaking world uses postal codes to, you know, send their mail (also known as post in places like the UK) via the postal system. But America’s five- or nine-digit zip codes stand apart. The USPS strategically chose ZIP to imply snail mail was, believe it or not, fast and efficient. In actuality, it also stood for a long-forgotten acronym: Zone Improvement Plan.
Whether you’re in high school or university, American students are typically referred to by one of these terms based on their year of study – a practice not followed outside of America. Ironically, these terms originated at the University of Cambridge in England, only to fall out of favor and be revived by Cambridge graduate John Harvard, when he, you guessed it, founded Harvard College overseas.
America’s colonial history pops up in colorful linguistic ways. If you ask for someone’s John Hancock, you’re asking for their signature. The source, of course, was John Hancock, an American revolutionary patriot who made a literal name for himself with his flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence.
Light, airy, and oh-so-quick to crumble – just like your plans with that flaky friend. The rest of the world primarily uses this word when describing baking textures, but Americans have extended the meaning to anyone who is indecisive or flighty.
If you’re looking to politely turn down an offer for drinks with colleagues, or a last-minute dinner invite, you might tell someone you’ll “take a rain check.” This charming Americanism also stems from baseball. If a game was rained out, ticket holders were given a ticket – or rain check – for a future game.
Many English-speaking nations look forward to taking a holiday from work. Americans, however, are all about booking a vacation, or even more colloquially, vacay. In America, holidays are typically reserved for talking about the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This unique phrase hails back to the 1970s, when the Fonz literally jumped over a shark during an episode of the comedy show Happy Days. Fans declared this scene as the official moment when Happy Days had run out of fresh, creative, and believable ideas. But the phrase stuck and it’s still used to describe anything that undergoes a rapid and steep decline in quality.
While this slang word for man or guy is now most closely associated with SoCal surfer types, its origins date back to the 19th century when posh East coasters trekked out West for a cattle ranch vacation. While it’s somewhat been picked up by other English speakers, dude still has a truly American vibe.
The best seat in the car is shotgun – AKA the front passenger’s seat. Inspired by America’s wild west days, if you ever see a group sprinting across the parking lot while yelling “shotgun!” chances are they’re just trying to lay claim to this coveted spot.